Stunning new Columbine charges

On the eve of the massacre's anniversary, a flurry of lawsuits by victims' families allege that law enforcement killed a student -- and failed to save many more.

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Stunning new Columbine charges

On the eve of the href="/news/special/littleton">Columbine massacre anniversary, stunning new
allegations about the killings emerged from long-expected lawsuits
filed by victims’ families late Wednesday. They include charges that
a law enforcement officer, not Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, killed
student Daniel Rohrbough, and that officers knew early on that
Klebold and Harris were dead, and thus could have saved teacher Dave
Sanders, who bled to death four hours after he was shot.

Attorneys for Rohrbough’s family said they based the suit on
eyewitness reports by a teacher and law officer, the position of the body and autopsy results
showing the trajectory of the fatal bullet. The suit by Sanders’
family alleges that a sharpshooter had Klebold in his sights in the
library, but his supervisors wouldn’t allow him to act. It
also contends the sharpshooter saw Klebold and Harris commit
suicide, and thus officers were aware the pair was dead three hours before
Sanders died, but failed to rescue him.

The Rohrboughs’ lawsuit, joined by five other victims’ families, also alleges that most of the deaths in the massacre
could have been avoided. It says students could have easily fled
the library early on, but a 911 operator had teacher Patti Nielson
instruct them to stay put, and alleges they would have survived if they had not been told help was on the way.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Davis said there is no evidence to
substantiate the families’ claims. But the new details have led many
to question the reason for the sheriff’s department’s delay in
releasing its official report on the Columbine investigation.

A powerful voice has joined
the growing chorus of exasperation over
delays
in the long-awaited investigation
report. Principal Frank
DeAngelis shared his frustration in an
interview with Salon News, just
days before the flurry of lawsuits began.

“We keep getting ready, I keep telling
the community, ‘OK, we’re about two
weeks away, we’re two weeks away,’ and
keep preparing them,” DeAngelis said.
“There’s only so many times you can get
so wound up saying, ‘Oh, I’m ready
now, I’m ready,’ and then all of a
sudden, ‘No!’ ‘I’m ready.’ ‘No.’ I think
there’s a level of frustration.”



Jefferson County District Judge Brooke
Jackson granted access to the draft
report to families of two victims
Monday, and extended the ruling to
include
all victims’ families Tuesday. The
families of Rohrbough and Kelly
Fleming had sued
the county for the information last
week, in order to assess wrongful-death
or negligence cases against the
sheriff’s department before the statute
of
limitations runs out Thursday. By the end of the day
Wednesday, 15 families had filed
lawsuits against the department, and
as many as 20 are expected by the end of
the
anniversary deadline.

In his interview before the lawsuit
filings, DeAngelis said his frustration over the
repeated delays was shared
by faculty, students and members of the
community.

“I feel very badly for the families of
the murdered,” DeAngelis said.
“Because they have been waiting over the
past year for that to come out. All
of a sudden, the parents were ready to
look at the police report before
Christmas, and then [the sheriff's
department] was saying in January, and
then it was going to be March, and then
April, now it’s May, it may be the
summer. And you kind of build yourself
up — they know it’s not going to be
pleasant, but you kind of prepare
yourself for it, and then it’s kind of a
letdown.

“It’s the same thing with me. That
police report will always be
associated with the 13 that were
murdered. And that’s what’s awful, but
at the same time, it’s going to allow us
to see exactly what happened. From
that standpoint, I’m looking forward to
the police report.”

DeAngelis has a personal stake in the
report’s release. In the days and weeks
after the killings, Columbine High
itself was forced to share some of the
blame, as some speculated that Klebold and Harris had been
bullied and tormented by school jocks.
Others wondered how DeAngelis could have
been unaware of the so-called Trench
Coat Mafia, which in those early days
was said to have been the clique that
hatched the killers.

The principal was briefed on key
findings of the investigation throughout
the days and months following the
massacre, and has spent the past year
waiting for many of the notorious rumors
to be dispelled. “I said from day one, I
truly believe, that when the truth comes
out, I’ll be exonerated from all
the accusations, and Columbine High
School will be exonerated,” he said.
“People have said, ‘Aren’t you fearful
of this police report?’ And I said,
‘No, I want the truth, I want to know
what the investigation states.’”

So many myths gained public currency last spring that most of the public
misunderstood key aspects of the case, which dominated national news for
months. Yet through it all, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department
remained officially tight-lipped, taking no significant steps to correct the
rumors and responding only to limited questions. Some reporters were able to
crack the wall of silence, however, to reveal that the killers were not
members of the Trench Coat Mafia, and had not singled out jocks, African-Americans or Christians in their killing spree.

Still, the school may not get the
exoneration it hopes for. Division
Chief John
Kiekbusch, the ranking officer overseeing the case,
said in September that the
report would offer
facts without conclusions and has
consistently repeated this mantra,
leading many to conclude that the report
will avoid many of the tragedy’s
most burning questions, such as the
killers’ motives and whether the
persistent charges of an abusive jock
culture within the school are true.

DeAngelis is clearly hoping for much
more. “I think what we’re going to find
out — without me knowing what’s in that
police report, other than what I’ve
read in the newspaper — I think you’re
going to find out that there were a
lot of myths out there,” he said. “And I
think those myths are going to be
dispelled just by what they found out in
the police report. They’re going to
find out that these two murderers did
not target a person. They just hated
everyone, and they were out to kill as
many people as possible.

“And I think you’re going to find out
that this whole Trench Coat Mafia, this
so-called organized gang, was a loose
term used for a group of kids who had
graduated a year before. The athletic
thing — [critics of the school] want to
talk about two or three incidents that
occurred, and they keep referring to
those, and because of those two or
three, there’s a jock problem. So I
think what the
police report will show is that, boy,
there were a lot of rumors out there,
and people just wanted to believe
[them].”

DeAngelis believes many of the rumors
were accepted because of a natural
instinct to try to find reassuring
answers. “Because then if [people] can
believe that, they’ll say we know why
[Harris and Klebold] murdered at
Columbine High School,” he said. “And,
boy, if we can pinpoint that, then it’s
not going to happen again. If they can
say, well, get rid of all athletics, or
the
jocks need to go, or we need to get rid
of this and that, then therefore
there’s not going to be a murder at our
school.”

The department met secretly with several
stakeholders in the investigation
last summer, to privately squelch many
of the rumors.
Kiekbusch and FBI Supervisory Special
Agent Dwayne Fuselier briefed the
entire Columbine faculty and staff on
the investigation Aug. 12, in a secret
presentation just four days before
students symbolically href="/news/feature/1999/08/16/columbine">“took back the
school.”

Those who attended said the most
poignant
moment came when officials projected a
slide from href="/news/feature/1999/09/23/journal/index.html">Harris’ texts that
read: “Don’t blame the school. Don’t
fucking put cops all over the place.
Just because we went on a killing spree
doesn’t mean everybody else will.
The admin. is doing a fine job as it is.
I don’t know who will be left after
we kill, but dammit, don’t change any
policy just because of us. It would be
stupid. If there’s any way in this
fucked up universe we can come back as
ghosts, we’ll haunt the life of any one
who blames anyone besides me and V
[for vodka, Klebold's nickname].”

At the time, both investigators and
school officials said that
many of the faculty and staff members
were eagerly awaiting the report’s
release,
expecting at least partial vindication
for the school. Eight months later,
they’re still waiting.

Since last summer, investigators have
promised to release all
their major findings at one time, in the
form of a comprehensive final
report, initially slated for fall. But
it hasn’t happened quite that way. Last
September, high-ranking
individuals within the investigation href="/news/feature/1999/09/23/columbine/index.html">leaked key findings to
Salon
News. That was followed by
departmentally authorized disclosures to
Time magazine and
the Rocky Mountain News in December and
the Denver Post in March.

In the wake of those stories, it remained
a mystery whether the report would
contain any major surprises. One area
where many questions remain is the
behavior of local SWAT teams on the day
of the massacre. The SWAT teams came
under blistering attack from some
families and media commentators
for taking several hours to reach the
library. Sanders bled to
death waiting for help to
arrive, despite a message in the
window warning of his predicament.

Several of the
families cited SWAT response in their intent-to-sue
notices last October. With
few details available, the public
discussion of that issue petered out
inconclusively, with all indications
that it will be hotly resumed once the
facts are known. The department has
consistently said its report would
exonerate the SWAT teams.

Sheriff’s spokesman Davis had
said, “Everything in that report has
been
pretty much reported.” However, doubts
persisted, because the department has
repeatedly avoided releasing significant
information until it was leaked or
its hand was forced. It did not even
disclose the existence of Harris
and Klebold’s infamous home videos, for
instance, until a few days before lead
investigator
Kate Battan was forced to read a short
excerpt at the sentencing hearing for
gun seller Mark Manes.

The week leading up to Thursday’s
choreographed anniversary memorials was
billed as a solemn occasion, and one of
the last predictable media events in the
ongoing Columbine saga. But the
lawsuit-filing deadline and the
unexpected judicial
decision to let the families
see the draft report have shifted the focus back onto
the crime and the legal fallout.

Walter Gerash, the lawyer who on
Wednesday filed charges on behalf of the
family of Sean Graves, who was severely
injured, predicted the lawsuits would
drag on for five
to 10 years. He described a “very
painful” future of finger-pointing,
recriminations and nasty depositions.

Thursday’s filing deadline applies only
to suits against the sheriff’s
department, with another year to level
charges against all other parties.
Gerash predicted numerous suits would be
added naming gun manufacturers, the
school district and possibly the
killers’ families.

Both county and federal suits were filed Wednesday. The county suits cap
awards at $150,000 per family, but federal claims are unlimited. Gerash
predicted the various defense teams would eventually spend about $500,000
preparing their cases.

Gerash had championed a plan to avoid
all lawsuits by setting up a $50
million relief government fund, but was
turned down by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens,
state Attorney General Ken Salazar and,
finally, the White House on April 7.

A key element of the families’ immediate
strategy is to force early
discovery in the sheriff’s cases, Gerash
said. That will allow them to flush
out information relevant to potential
filings against the other parties. He
also predicted Jackson would eventually
consolidate several of the
county lawsuits, but the maneuvers would
be much more complex than a
standard class-action case.

The first lawsuit against the sheriff came Tuesday, filed on behalf of the
parents of Isaiah Shoels, also the first and only family to sue the killers’
parents and gun manufacturers. Most of the initial suits charged the
department with negligence before the massacre, but some also take on
several deputies for their performance once the shooting began. The Shoels’
suit says officers exchanged gunfire with Harris and Klebold, but then set
up a perimeter to keep them from escaping, rather than chasing them into the
school and trying to prevent the murders.

“The actions of the sheriff’s department
were the direct and proximate cause
of the death of Isaiah Shoels,” the suit
reads.

Tuesday, Dale Todd, father of wounded
student Evan Todd, described the
perimeter as allowing the killers “full
reign to murder.”

Jackson’s surprise ruling allows the
families access to the draft
report — previously said to run 200-300
pages — as well as hundreds of hours
of unedited 911 tapes, helicopter
videotapes of the attack, police radio
transmissions and a Fire Department
training tape. He temporarily denied
access to 200 volumes of raw
investigative reports and school
surveillance videos, because he wouldn’t
have time to review them before the
filing deadline.

The sheriff’s department fought the
access and, according to Gerash,
threatened the families with
countercharges of frivolous lawsuits if
they
filed.

With access to the information coming so late, many of the suits relied
heavily on depositions from the family of Brooks Brown, a Columbine student
who says he was warned by Harris to leave the school shortly before the
massacre.

Most of the initial suits charge that the department
failed to properly investigate
a series of complaints by Randy and Judy
Brown, including Harris’ death
threats against their son and his now
infamous Web site. The Browns first
reported the site to the department
March 18, 1998, 13 months before
the massacre.

Gerash has coordinated with the other
lawyers, and described many of the
suits as motivated by “the year and a
month that [the sheriff's department]
didn’t do
anything. They had deliberate
indifference,” he said.

The suits could lead to poetic justice
for the Browns, who have become
perhaps the most bitter adversaries of
the department in the past year. Sources
close to the family report that they were,
and remain, close friends with the
Klebolds and have been distraught that
his murders and suicide were not
prevented. But their initial dismay was
nothing compared with their anger over the
attacks
their son Brooks suffered after Sheriff
John Stone publicly accused him of
involvement in the massacre.

For months Stone continued to insist
that
others were involved, despite protests
from detectives performing
the investigation. Eventually, he
reversed himself, and now says he
believes
Harris and Klebold acted alone. The
Browns are organizing a recall election
of Stone and plan to begin
circulating petitions this summer.

One of the biggest mysteries in this
flurry of lawsuits had been whether the
Klebolds would join the litigation. They
filed a notice of intent to sue
last October in advance of the
deadline, but their attorney, Lisa
Simon, announced Wednesday that they
would not proceed against the sheriff.

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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