Let the litigation begin

Kevorkian's lawyer's suit against the Columbine killers' parents is just the beginning.

By Dave Cullen

Published May 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"This is not about money!"

So declared Michael Shoels as he announced his family's $250 million wrongful death lawsuit against the parents of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. "This lawsuit is about change!" Shoels insisted. "That's the only way you get change, if you go rattling their pocketbooks."

Welcome to Round Two of the Columbine Tragedy, where the action shifts to the courtroom, but the focus remains squarely on the media.

Fresh from victory in the sensational Jenny Jones tabloid television trial, and several assisted-suicide cases for Dr. Jack Kevorkian before that, attorney Geoffrey Fieger flew to Denver to represent the parents of Isaiah Shoels, the only African-American killed in the April 20 attack that left 15 dead. The suit filed Thursday in Denver's District Court charges the killers' parents with five counts of parental negligence.

Fieger said the suit against the killers' parents is just the beginning: He plans to eventually target police, school authorities, gun manufacturers, accessories to the murders and "any individual who directly contributed to two sick children possessing an arsenal and access to the school."

The lawsuit was not filed in Jefferson County, where the murders occurred, but in Denver, Feiger said, because the Shoels family moved to Colorado's largest city since the killings to flee ongoing racial discrimination and intimidation. Michael Shoels said that days after his son was murdered, a young man in a trench coat showed up in his yard, and his wife Vonda "was terrified about continuing in that location." He said the police response was, "This is happening all over the neighborhood."

The legal wrangling might have begun sooner, if not for an anti-ambulance-chaser statute in Colorado, which forbids attorneys from contacting families until one month after the death of a victim. Technically, the moratorium did not apply in this case, as the family initiated contact with Fieger. Local reaction Thursday was fiercely negative, with talk radio dominated by anti-lawsuit sentiment, leveled generally against the lawyers rather than the Shoels family.

Fieger acknowledged "there will be cynics" who think the lawsuit is "about greed." But Colorado law limits awards in wrongful death cases to $250,000 -- state law restricts suits against governmental entities like the school district even further, to $150,000 -- and Fieger insists he'll spend more mounting the case than he can ever hope to recover. He admitted one goal of the lawsuit would be to overturn those dollar limits, which may involve additional suits in other jurisdictions. "This lawsuit is a symbol," he said. "This lawsuit is to serve as a living memorial to Isaiah Shoels."

The first lawsuit targeted the killers' parents, Fieger added, because it will give him time to develop the case against the other parties. He said he may even turn to federal courts to take advantage of this week's Supreme Court decision holding schools responsible for sexual harassment. "I can't believe that the Supreme Court would hold that immunity is gone from sexual harassment, but not for the loss of human life," he said.

The suit charges each of the four parents with five counts of parental negligence, which involve their allowing their sons to amass a cache of semiautomatic weapons; stockpile bombs and explosives; continue to hang out together, since each was "a co-conspirator and accomplice in a prior criminal act"; to "author extremist writings of a hateful nature"; and to continue to grant their sons "extraordinary privileges despite knowledge that [they] had been engaged in prior serious criminal activity."

But Fieger and the Shoelses seemed to have divergent agendas for their crusade. Fieger, who recently staged an unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan, delivered an impassioned opening statement that sounded like a stump speech for a third-party candidate for president. He ripped into "the excesses of liberal social engineering" that have "contributed to the erosion of personal responsibility and an excessive preoccupation with self-indulgent and material pursuits." But then he quickly turned on "conservatives" who he charged "destroyed the social safety net," including access to quality medical care and mental health treatment, "made the reality of a living wage unlikely" and destroyed our future with "mindless rhetoric about Second Amendment rights." He acknowledged that he developed his agenda independently of the Shoels family. "Those were my statements. The family doesnt tell me how to try the lawsuit. I think they agree with them. I ran them by them."

Michael Shoels, by contrast, ticked off a priority list that included morality in the home, prayer in the schools and an end to all forms of hate, including but not limited to pervasive racial bigotry. He repeatedly returned to the racial abuse his family suffered before and after the shootings, which he says went unanswered by law enforcement. Vonda Shoels remained quiet through most of the proceedings, but responded quickly and forcefully when asked what she hopes to accomplish with the suit: "Change! Because no one should have to suffer like we had to suffer."

None of the other families have announced lawsuits yet, and none had immediate reactions to the Shoelses' suit. Neither the Harris nor Klebold families commented on it, directly or through attorneys.

The lawsuit isn't the only wrangling about money in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. Locally there's been growing tension about the use of a $2.3 million Healing Fund, donated by strangers around the country to help the Columbine victims' families, as well as the 23 wounded survivors. Very little of that money has actually been distributed.

In the past few days, there have been local news reports detailing how victims' parents are upset about the way the money will be distributed. Several parents complained of mounting medical bills, and one mother told of being unable to work since the trauma, and having to beg for money to cover rent. A Wednesday meeting between families and Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who serves as co-chairman of the fund, seemed to ease some of the tension. Thomas announced that the funds would be used primarily to assist victims' families, with a much smaller allotment for the community. A survey will be distributed to families to resolve details, particularly whether the money should be divided equally, or based on need.

Meanwhile, victim Cassie Bernall's family declined to seek riches when they chose a publisher to tell the story of their daughter's conversion from troubled teen to Christian martyr. Despite interest from major mainstream publishers, they sold the book, titled "She Said Yes," to a small Christian publishing firm.

Dave Cullen

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

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