Who Should Be the Keepers of Columbine's Remaining Secrets?

The long-running battle over sealed documents stemming from the 1999 Columbine massacre spilled into a federal appeals court yesterday. But the dispute has become more fractious and complex than most reporting on the issue would have you believe -- pitting victims' families against each other, the killers' parents and the government-anointed expert who's seeking exclusive access to the information.

At issue are lengthy depositions of the parents of gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, taken in a civil suit under hush-hush, double-secret confidentiality restrictions years after the shootings. A federal magistrate ordered the depos destroyed after the suit was settled; facing a firestorm of protest, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock (pictured) stayed that decision and ruled they should be sealed for twenty years, then possibly made public by the National Archives and Records Administration. (See links to previous coverage here.)

A report in this morning's Rocky Mountain News by Ann Imse states that victims' families joined forces with the Colorado Attorney General's office and eleven other states in seeking to get the depos turned over to Del Elliott, the University of Colorado sociology professor seeking to research the causes and warning signs of school shootings. But that's not quite right.

Most Columbine families have never read the depos and don't have a clue what's in them. A few would like to see Elliott get a gander at them, but nobody else. The Harrises and Klebolds would like to see them deep-sixed forever. But there's also a not implausible argument, made by parents involved in paying for and extracting the depositions in the first place, that they have a stronger claim on the documents than Elliott or the courts.

"This is property that belongs to the plaintiffs in the case," declares Brian Rohrbough, whose son Danny was killed at Columbine. "We own this. We paid the emotional price to get it, and no DA has the right to steal private property."

Rohrbough doesn't want to see the documents turned over to Elliott; he confronted deputy attorney general Beth McCann after the hearing on that point. (Apparently, nobody from the AG's office consulted with the families to learn their position before the hearing.) And he was astonished to read in the Rocky today that he supposedly endorsed Elliott, and immediately fired off an e-mail to Imse demanding a correction. (The online version of the story was altered before noon.) To Rohrbough, who's led the battle to release thousands of pages of police documents about Columbine, Elliott's research just looks like one more bureaucratic attempt to appropriate the tragedy.

"From the day of the shooting, the government has worked to cover this up," Rohrbough says. "Now we have a government actor who doesn't know the evidence, who's refused to let any of the victims' families sit on his board, who has his own fixed agenda, and we're supposed to turn this over to him."

Rohrbough wants to see the depositions turned over to his attorney, Barry Arrington, until there is some modification in the confidential order that would permit their release. Unless there's a change in the order, it might be 2027 before any outsiders learn what the killers' parents had to say about their home lives. .

The depositions may not have quite the shock value of the notorious basement tapes, still tucked away in the Jefferson County sheriff's evidence vault, despite strong arguments for their release. But from court filings, one can surmise that they contain detailed information about the Columbine boys' previous contacts with law enforcement, disciplinary actions taken by school officials, their relationships with friends and other family members, and what type of mental health treatment, if any, they might have received.

Nine years later, the number of people puzzling over those questions is dwindling. But an absence of timely, credible information about Columbine continues to feed rabid conspiracy theories, particularly online, such as this website that claims Harris and Klebold were aided by other, as-yet-uncaptured gunmen in their shooting spree.

The truth is out there, conspiracy fans. It just seems to come out in dribs and drabs over decades. –Alan Prendergast

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun