Stung by mounting criticism, lawsuits and now judicial rulings against a yearlong policy of selective silence about the Columbine High School tragedy, the Jefferson County sheriff's department abruptly reversed course Wednesday and began distributing a bloody, music-backed video tour of the massacre site directly to the public at $25 a pop.
Victims' families, outraged, accused the county of gross insensitivity and possibly even retaliation for the nine lawsuits filed last week on behalf of 15 families against Sheriff John Stone, the department and the county.
"I'd say that they're doing it as a spiteful slap in the face of the families," said attorney Barry Arrington. Last week he filed one of the most explosive lawsuits on behalf of five families who lost children in the attack. It charged that a friend of Eric Harris' father in the sheriff's department squelched a search warrant that could have averted the massacre; that students were needlessly trapped in the library for slaughter; and that Dan Rohrbough was killed by a sheriff's deputy rather than by Harris or Dylan Klebold.
The families also expressed outrage that the sheriff's department had been characterizing the tape as a "training video" since it came to light last fall. At the time, the sheriff's department publicly apologized and gathered up all copies of the tape. Officials said they had granted the Littleton Fire Department access to view and then duplicate the material for instructional purposes. It was used in 82 seminars across the United States
and Canada. Since then, the families have repeatedly asked to view the footage but have been consistently refused.
The video released Wednesday is in fact a memorial montage -- in questionable taste -- with absolutely no instruction of any kind. In fact, it includes no narration whatsoever, and is organized around three pop songs.
The video opens with the "Friend of Mine" song written and performed by two Columbine students just after the massacre. It moves on to give a detailed tour of the wreckage inside the library and the rest of the school, set to the three songs. No bodies are shown, but it's hard to imagine a viewer who won't be disturbed as the camera zooms in on fresh bloodstains, wandering from small splatters to enormous pools. Each site is set off by numbered yellow evidence markers -- several clearly labeled with the name of the child killed there -- all accompanied by Sarah McLachlan crooning "I Will Remember You."
"Don't let your life pass you by," she wails, as the camera hovers over a staggering pool perhaps 4 to 6 feet wide, so thick it visibly rises up over the floor.
The video closes with Cheryl Wheeler's political folk song "If It Were Up To Me," which sounds as if it were written specifically about the rampage, but was actually recorded and released earlier.
"Maybe it's the movies, maybe it's the books/Maybe it's the bullets, maybe it's the real crooks/Maybe it's the drugs, maybe it's the parents," Wheeler sings. The final lines break the rhythmic mantra of the song and conclude: "Maybe it's the end, but I know one thing. If it were up to me, I'd take away the guns."
Attorneys for the families howled at the characterization of the video as remotely related to training. "It's voyeurism," Arrington said. "Voyeurism is the only purpose it serves."
Attorneys for the Rohrbough and Fleming families said they couldn't stomach watching it last week without turning down the volume.
The video does not contain footage of the killers shooting up the
cafeteria, as had been widely reported in advance of the public release.
This exclusion raised some puzzling questions, the answers to which were not immediately
clear Wednesday afternoon. The so-called training video was widely
understood to have been the source of the infamous 90-second cafeteria
footage broadcast by CBS last October. And victims' attorneys had been
quoted widely in major news outlets Wednesday describing the cafeteria
footage on the advance copies of the video they viewed. The county statement
Wednesday said those reports were incorrect, but did not explain the
The video also includes two hours of helicopter footage shot by the local CBS affiliate, which the department had previously refused to release to the families.
Last week Jefferson County District Judge Brooke Jackson began ordering classified materials released to the families over the sheriff's heated objections. Families were to able to view the material only in the department's offices, and were forbidden from disclosing the contents. Monday Jackson issued a new ruling requiring the department to release the long-delayed "final report" to families by May 15, whether or not editing is complete. He also directed them to immediately release the video to the families. The new rulings
impose no gag orders on the families, but Rohrbough's attorney Jim Rouse said
the old order forbidding them from discussing the draft final report remains
in place until they receive the updated version.
"This short video includes some footage shot inside the school, including the library, that may be difficult for some viewers," Jackson wrote. "However, there is no compelling public interest consideration that requires that the video or any part of it not be disclosed under the Open Records Act."
Tuesday County Attorney Frank Hutfless stunned the families by announcing the videos would be released to the public as well as the families. Hutfless released a brief statement with the videos, citing the judge's ruling. "Because the judge said the tapes should not be kept closed under the Open Records Act, the county attorney made the decision to release the tapes to the public as well. This is in order to avoid additional lawsuits by the public or news media that would likely result in the release of the report to the general public."
The statement did not specify whether the same logic would apply to the final report, or other material Jackson is expected to release soon. Sheriffs' and county officials otherwise refused comment.
The sheriff's department has spent the past year touting the 200- to 300-page investigative report as the last word on the massacre. They say it will clear up most of the mysteries. Officials say it will also exonerate the department of charges that it should have allowed SWAT teams to storm the building before Harris and Klebold killed 12 students, one teacher and finally themselves. But it suddenly appears likely that the report may be overshadowed by a much greater store of data.
Many of the attorneys have suggested the official report will be little more than a whitewash in areas concerning the department itself, and they have their eyes set on 200 volumes of supporting material. Those volumes were demanded in the lawsuit which first began opening up the material last week, but Jackson said he would delay ruling on the data until he could personally review it. He has since announced he is working nights and weekends to complete the review and is expected to rule within days.
So far Jackson has released every item he has reviewed, and his recent rulings have been free from gag orders. Attorney Arrington said he expects a favorable ruling on the 200 volumes this weekend.