If you haven’t read Columbine, by Dave Cullen (2009), you should. Cullen covered the story of the massacre of students at Columbine High School by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in 1999. Cullen covered the story as a journalist beginning on the day of the attack. His book includes a blend of his contemporaneous reporting and nine years of research, including hundreds of interviews and the examination of more than 25,000 pages of police evidence, many hours of video and audiotape, as well as the work of other reliable journalists. Cullen explains in his Note on Sources: “To avoid interjecting myself into the story, I generally refer to the press in the third person. But in the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong, I was among the guilty parties. I hope this book contributes to setting the story right.” (Author’s Note on Sources.)
Two powerful things stood out for me in this book. First, Cullen’s description of the killers, “two good students with lots of friends, who were secretly stockpiling a basement cache of weapons, recording their raging hatred, and manipulating every adult who got in their way.” He described them further with the chilling description of callousness with a powerful sadistic streak. This second part describes the person or people who were capable of the OCCK murders.
The most powerful fact that hit home, however, was how the Jefferson County (CO) Sheriff Department behaved in this case to cover its ass and how, even in a case this horrific, the department had no problem throwing the parents of victims under the bus. As an outsider, you might even have initially bought the concept that these “mouthy” parents were “disrespecting” the county authorities in their quest for the truth. Thank god someone like Dave Cullen pursued this story and made public the shameful acts of that agency in the face of the most horrific mass-shooting in a high school.
In 1997, two years before Harris and Klebold hunted and shot dead their fellow students and their teachers on April 20, 1999, Randy and Judy Brown, parents of a boy at Columbine who had been friends with Dylan and Eric, warned the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department about Eric Harris for more than 18 months. In fact, they had complained to the department some 15 times. (Columbine, p. 165.) The Browns viewed Eric as a “criminal in bloom,” and they spoke to Eric’s dad repeatedly and kept calling the cops. (Id. at 163.) All of it was ultimately ignored.
Law enforcement was called to Columbine High School after shots were fired, and as the horror unfolded, Jefferson County discovered they had files on both Harris and Klebold. They even had 12 pages from Eric Harris’ website in their file, spewing hate and threatening to kill. They had ignored this information since 1997.
The sheriff’s department quoted from Eric’s site in an application for a search warrant, but, inexplicably, never executed the search warrant. This was well before the carnage on April 20, 1999. The warrant established probable cause to believe Harris was building pipe bombs.
Although Jefferson County quoted extensively from Eric Harris’ website in the search warrants executed in the very aftermath of the killings on April 20, they then denied ever seeing that website! “They would spend several years repeating those denials. They suppressed the damning warrants as well. Then Sheriff Stone fingered Brooks [the Browns’ son] as a suspect on The Today Show.” (Id. at 165.)
To the Browns it looked like retribution. Yes, their son had been close to the killers—close enough to see it coming. The Browns had blown the whistle on Eric Harris over a year earlier, and the cops had done nothing. After Eric went through with his threats, the Browns were fingered as accomplices instead of heroes. They couldn’t believe it. They told the New York Times they had contacted the sheriff’s department about Eric fifteen times. Jeffco [Jefferson County] officials would insist for years that the Browns never met with an investigator—despite holding a report indicating they had.
The officers knew they had a problem, and it was much worse than the Browns realized. Thirteen months before the massacre, Sheriff’s Investigator s John Hicks and Mike Guerra had investigated one of the Browns’ complaints. They’d discovered substantial evidence that Eric was building pipe bombs. Guerra had considered it serious enough to draft an affidavit for the Harris home. For some reason, the warrant was never taken before a judge. Guerra’s affidavit was convincing. It spelled out all the key components: motive, means, and opportunity.
A few days after the massacre, about a dozen local officials slipped away from the Feds and gathered clandestinely in an innocuous office in the county Open Space Department Building. It would come to be known as the Open Space Meeting. The purpose was to discuss the affidavit for a search warrant. How bad was it? What should they tell the public?
Guerra was driven to the meeting, and told never to discuss it outside the group. He complied.
The meeting was held secret, too. That held for five years. March, 22, 2004, Guerra would finally confess it happened, to investigators from the Colorado attorney general. He described it as ‘one of those cover-your-ass meetings.’
District Attorney Dave Thomas attended the meeting. He told the group he found no probable cause for the investigators to have executed the draft warrant—a finding ridiculed once it was released. He was formally contradicted by the Colorado attorney general in 2004.
At a notorious press conference ten days after the murders, Jeffco officials suppressed the affidavit and boldly lied about what they had known. They said they could not find Eric’s Web pages, they found no evidence of pipe bombs matching Eric’s descriptions, and had no record of the Browns meeting with Hicks. Guerra’s affidavit plainly contradicted all three claims. Officials had just spent days reviewing it. They would repeat the lies for years.
Several days after the meeting, Inspector Guerra’s file on his investigation of Eric disappeared for the first time.
The cover-your-ass meeting was a strictly Jeffco affair, limited mostly to senior officials. Most of the detectives on the case—including the Feds and cops from local jurisdictions—were unaware of the cover-up. They were trying to crack the case.
(Id. at 165-66
As time went on and the lies continued, law enforcement’s failure to address the obvious intensified the public’s suspicion. Families suspected a lie but couldn’t prove it.
[T]he public had two pressing questions: Should authorities have seen Columbine coming? And should they have stopped it sooner once the gunfire began? On both these controversial questions, Jeffco had obvious conflicts of interest. And yet they charged ahead.
It was a staggering lapse of judgment. Jeffco could have simply insolated the two explosive issues into an independent investigation. It would have been easy enough; they had nearly a hundred detectives at their disposal, few of whom worked for Jeffco.
The independent investigation didn’t seem so obvious in 1999. The commanders were essentially honest men. Not one had a reputation as a dirty cop. John Kiekbusch was deeply respected inside and outside the force. They believed they were innocent and the public would see that. And many of them were. Stone and his undersheriff had been sworn in only three months earlier—they bore no responsibility for missing any warning signs from Eric Harris. Most of them had no role in command decisions on April 20. Kate Battan was running the day-to-day operations; she was clean.
But some cops made really bad decisions after April 20. Survivors were right to suspect a cover-up. Jeffco commanders were lying about the Browns’ warnings about Eric, and Randy and Judy Brown made sure everyone knew. Inside the department, someone was attempting to destroy the Browns’ paper trail. Shortly after the massacre, Investigator Mike Guerra noticed that the physical copy of the file he had put together on Eric a year earlier disappeared from his desk. A few days later, it reappeared just as mysteriously. [Luckily, this guy testified truthfully under oath when the Colorado attorney general opened an investigation into this mess.] Later that summer, he tried to call up the computer record and found it had been purged.
The physical file again disappeared and has never been recovered.
Over the next several months, division chief John Kiekbusch’s assistant took part in several activities [evidence purging] she later found disturbing.
(Id. at 248.)
Families of some of the victims ended up filing a lawsuit against officials in what they described as a “Hail Mary Pass” to get answers. The way the judge handled that lawsuit was a third powerful issue that stood out for me. More on that tomorrow.
So were the Browns disrespectful to investigators by questioning what they knew made no sense and what would have happened if they “just let the professionals do their jobs?”!! Jefferson County was disrespectful to the Browns and to the parents of the murdered students, despite their forceful protestations to the contrary. And the judge in this case actually had a spine, as you will see. Finally, the Colorado attorney general actually conducted a full-on investigation into this joke of an investigation. The Michigan attorney general won’t go near the OCCK case.