Why the Columbine report is delayed

Still fielding attacks over leaked video footage and grim timing, the sheriff's department is waiting for the right moment to release the full details of the high school massacre.

Published February 14, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

When will the public finally see the official report from the Columbine investigation?

"Very optimistically, I'd say it's six to eight weeks away," said Jefferson County Sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis Wednesday. "Very optimistically," he added. "I'm thinking more."

For five solid months now, the sheriff's department has remained a "month or two" away from releasing its report on the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., a shooting spree that left 15 dead, including the two teenage attackers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The report is intended to finally clear up the perpetual misconceptions about the April 20 massacre. Since mid-September, Davis has said that the investigation is virtually complete, with the top brass focused on how to present the 200 to 300 pages of material.

Officials at other local agencies are loath to go on the record criticizing the department, as they're counting on early warning from the department to prepare for both the community turmoil and the fresh media onslaught the report is expected to trigger.

But privately, grumbling over the perpetual delays has been mounting, and the sheriff's department has grown increasingly isolated, facing attack from all directions.

The latest challenge came two weeks ago, when the parents of Brooks Brown, a Columbine student who says he was warned by Harris to leave the school shortly before the massacre, announced they were organizing a committee to force a recall election against Sheriff John Stone. In order to do so, they will have 60 days after they file official papers to obtain nearly 42,000 signatures -- one-fourth of the votes cast in the election Stone won in 1998.

Even those who once supported Stone have grown frustrated by that 10 months of stonewalling by the department, which has left much of the public with wild misconceptions about the basic facts of the case.

And many Columbine residents have been even more infuriated by the steady trickle of leaks from the investigation: the Harris journals in September, the surveillance video footage in October, first glimpses from the suicide-message videos in November, the full contents of those tapes in December, which Time magazine revealed in a cover story. With each leak, families, students and support agencies have been caught off guard. On top of it all, the timing of the video release just before Christmas and final exams was particularly galling.

Increasingly, community leaders are concluding that the only way to wrench this soap opera out of the news cycle is to get the information out into the open. That way, investigative reporters will soon have dug through every scrap of information promising enough to pursue.

"Everything you do in the meantime, you create new little brushfires," said a major community leader who requested anonymity. "It just hasn't been planned out very well."

The publicity surrounding each minor disclosure often inspires a fresh round of mischief -- like the Internet threat that closed the school the week of the Time cover story. That event was finally resolved Wednesday, when Michael Ian Campbell pleaded guilty to one felony count of communicating a threat across state lines. He will be sentenced April 28, and could receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors recommended leniency, however, and probation is expected.

In many people's minds, the mystery and information vacuum created by the ever-impending report just opens up fresh opportunities for additional bursts of coverage. None of the blockbuster revelations of the past several months would have been news, they argue, if the report had already been released.

But the sheriff's department has responded by continuing to delay, rather than expedite its report. Attacks against the department were relentless and withering in December, and sources close to the investigation say it has responded with a bunker mentality. They say investigators are reassessing every section of the report to insure it can withstand attack from every corner. "But of course you can never cover all the bases," one insider said. "You just have to get it out in the open and take your lumps."

Meanwhile, in the absence of any definitive statement or news conference from investigators, reporters return again and again to the same erroneous news coverage to obtain the basic facts, according to school and sheriff's department officials. School district spokesman Rick Kaufman attributes much of the problem to national reporters and editors brought in to cover the latest subplot -- Internet threat, restraining order, petition drive -- unaware that facts about the initial attack at the school were so dramatically misreported last spring.

Davis has a similar take. "We're still dispelling myths about the Trench Coat Mafia," he said. "Unfortunately, the media has allowed that myth to become lore." Davis is happy to set straight anyone calling for clarification, but that's proved highly ineffective in alerting reporters to question information they routinely take for granted.

Columbine residents appear resigned to at least two to three more returns of the media horde. The first will come at the anniversary of the massacre in April. The second will follow the aftermath of the report's eventual release, and promises to last for several weeks. Potentially most dramatic of all would be the broadcast of the killers' suicide-message videos, should they ever get out of litigation.

Legal battles over the videos have only recently gotten under way, and threaten to postpone television broadcast of the tapes for months or years, if not forever. After the contents of the tapes were leaked to Time magazine in December, three separate court proceedings began.

The Klebold family acted first, filing a motion in county court within days, asserting that the tapes belonged to the killers' estates -- that is, their parents. A few weeks later, an unidentified woman mentioned on both the videos and on the so-called hit list obtained a temporary restraining order against dissemination or screening of the videos, hit list or any other physical evidence. (Her lawyers said she was concerned about undue invasions of privacy.) The restraining order was renewed in late January, and another hearing is scheduled for March 3. At that time it could be terminated or converted to a temporary injunction.

The sheriff's department filed its own motion in January in U.S. District Court requesting a declarative judgment as to its legal right to duplicate and disseminate the videos under copyright law. Any decision in that case is probably months away.

Should the videos pass all those legal hurdles, the killers' faces will no doubt one day fill the airwaves bragging about their intended crimes. The department has already been flooded by requests from television stations who want to broadcast the tapes.

Extensive coverage of Harris and Klebold carrying out the attack is less likely. No one has challenged the school district's ownership of the surveillance tape that captured parts of their actions, and Davis says he expects it to be returned to the district upon the close of the investigation. District officials were infuriated when a grainy reproduction of a short segment was smuggled out to CBS last fall, and a video still was later published on the December cover of Time. They are adamant that the full, clear footage never see the light of TV.

The timing of the report could prove the next big controversy for the sheriff's department. If the latest estimates for the report's completion -- six to eight weeks -- prove right, the department could find itself wrapping up its report just as the memorial program planned for the first anniversary of the killings approaches.

Some in the community want the department to work toward an April 20 release, on the basis that two traumas might be collapsed into one event. On the other hand, some fear that students and families facing flashbacks and depression triggered by the anniversary will be in no condition to face the media invasion the report will instigate, or the troubling questions it will raise.

Davis acknowledged that those two arguments have emerged, but said the department is trying to disregard such external concerns. "We will release it whenever it's finished, whenever that is," he said.

In any case, Davis said he expects coverage of the eventual release to be intense. But readers looking for fresh revelations will be disappointed. "I wouldn't look for any major surprises," he said. "Everything in that report has been pretty much reported."

The report itself will fill in a lot of details, but many of the most profound questions will never be answered, he said. "I have every indication the report will raise more questions than it answers."

By Dave Cullen

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

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