There Ought to Be a Law

On a Monday in early January, Arapahoe County Sheriff's Deputy Jim Taylor was finally brought to account for the strange and disturbing story he'd been telling about the Columbine massacre for nearly three years. Summoned that morning to a meeting with internal affairs, Taylor admitted that the story was, in essence, a pack of lies.

"I think, emotionally, I just got too attached to the whole thing," Taylor told Brant Reed, an inspector from the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office of Professional Standards. "I guess I got overloaded."

Taylor was attempting to explain why, only hours after the shootings, he'd told the grieving mother of slain student Daniel Rohrbough that he had seen her son killed on the west side of the school. The story clashed with the official version of Rohrbough's death -- that he was killed in the early stages of the attack by gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, before any police arrived on scene -- and it launched his parents on a nightmarish odyssey that would eventually lead them to sue the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, alleging that Dan was killed by a cop.

When the family went public with Taylor's account last December, shortly after their federal lawsuit was dismissed, Taylor denied that he'd ever said any such thing. Dan's parents, Sue Petrone and Brian Rohrbough, promptly released excerpts of a taped conversation in which Taylor, a longtime family friend, had repeated the story in detail nearly a year after the shootings. On the tape, Taylor and his wife, Pam, discuss how he'd come home from Columbine on April 20, 1999, and told her that he'd seen a boy get shot.

"It was Dan," Taylor says on the tape, "and I didn't know that until I seen [his] photo the next morning in the newspaper."

Taylor, who didn't know he was being taped, was caught. Now he told Reed that he had been "trying to console the family" and "help with the grieving" by placing himself in the middle of the gunfire on the west side. Actually, he admitted, he'd spent the day holding a perimeter position a block away from the school.

"I never stopped to take a look at the whole big picture of what this was doing," he said. "At the time, I didn't realize I was being untruthful....Unfortunately, it sounds like this has totally misled the family, and that was not my intention at all."

Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan fired Taylor two days later. The department's interviews with other officers on the scene and a review of transcripts of dispatch transmissions indicated that Taylor hadn't been assigned to the west side of Columbine and had arrived after Dan was killed. "This is not an uncommon issue, people embellishing their role," Sullivan told the Rohrboughs and the Petrones when he met with them to discuss the affair.

But the family is far from satisfied with the sheriff's explanation. Sue Petrone recalls how, when she showed Taylor a photo in the April 21, 1999, Rocky Mountain News of her son lying on the sidewalk outside the school, "his face went ashen." And many details of Taylor's "eyewitness" account coincide with physical evidence the family has since uncovered, evidence that's seriously at odds with the official story.

"If the guy was lying, it's strange that he got so many things right," says Brian Rohrbough. "Where was he getting his information?"

A few weeks ago, Rohrbough pressed Sullivan to release Arapahoe County's dispatch tapes from the day of the attack, as well as any additional paperwork that would help nail down Taylor's whereabouts that morning. (The available record is far from conclusive; investigators insist the deputy didn't report to the command post at Columbine until 12:22 p.m., an hour after the attack began, but his call sign shows up in the dispatch transcripts shortly before noon, which is about the same time another officer recalls arriving on the scene with him.) Sullivan told Rohrbough and his attorney that they were welcome to request additional documents and that his office hadn't destroyed anything.

But Sullivan now says that there is no other paperwork and that the dispatch tapes were destroyed -- "recycled," as he puts it -- a year after the shootings. Even though other Arapahoe County evidence was turned over intact to Jefferson County, the lead investigative agency, the tapes -- starting at 11:35 a.m., fifteen minutes after the attack started -- were transcribed, then reused to save money. "Nobody wanted them," Sullivan says. "Not even Jeffco."

"This is the worst school shooting in the country, and they destroy the primary record of what their officers did that day?" Rohrbough asks. "They don't save a copy for anybody? I find that really hard to believe."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast