Sheriff ordered to release Columbine evidence. Papers show draft search affidavit.
By Jeff Kass and Kevin Vaughan, News Staff Writers, Rocky Mountain News 4/7/01
The affidavit was written in 1998 by two sheriff's deputies, one looking into allegations that Harris had threatened a fellow student, the other investigating pipe bombs.
While the proposed search warrant was never given to prosecutors or to a judge for review, it's now clear that deputies were suspicious of Harris long before he and his friend, Dylan Klebold, killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine on April 20, 1999.
The disclosure shocked Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Daniel, was murdered outside the school.
"Columbine never would have happened," said Rohrbough. "There's absolutely no way it would have happened.
"If they had gone to Harris' house, they would have found the bombs, the bomb-making materials and the planned attack on Columbine. Thirteen innocent people would still be living happy lives that they wanted to live."
The release is the result of a new court fight involving the families of some of the dead and injured, the parents of the two killers and CBS News.
The group went to court after concluding that Jefferson County had held back information when it released material in November to abide by a court order.
Harris and Klebold, seniors at Columbine, plotted the attack for a year, writing extensively about their plans. By the time the teen-aged killers ended their lives in the school's library, they'd murdered 12 students and a teacher and wounded more than 20 other people.
It was the worst school shooting in American history.
Sheriff John Stone did not return a message left at his office late Friday afternoon. He also did not return earlier calls about the case, and he was unavailable when a reporter visited his office twice in recent weeks.
District Judge Brooke Jackson's order calls for the release "as promptly as practicable" of:
As in his earlier orders in the case, Jackson required the sheriff's department to block out some information, including names of students on a "hit list," medical reports, the names of some witnesses and potential suspects, and instructions about building pipe bombs.
Sheriff's officials have continually sidestepped questions about a 1998 report from Randy Brown, the father of former Columbine student Brooks Brown. He reported in March 1998 that Harris had make Internet threats to kill his son and had posted violent writings and information about pipe bombs.
After the Columbine massacre, sheriff's officials defended their actions, contending they were limited by the reluctance of Brown to be identified and the inability of investigators to access the Web pages.
One of the sheriff's deputies who wrote the affidavit was looking into Brown's report. The other had investigated an incident in which pipe bombs were left in a field in south Jefferson County, said Pam Russell, spokeswoman for Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas.
Russell said the officer assigned to the pipe bomb case spoke with the deputy assigned to the Web site case. She was not sure why the two decided to compare notes, but they wanted to look into whether the pipe bombs were tied to Harris.
Rohrbough alleged in court that a personal friend of the Harris family halted the investigation.
"Clearly, they have plenty of reasons for not wanting us to have this information," Rohrbough said Friday. "They've denied that it ever existed. We've known about this (affidavit) for well over a year.
"And now, the sheriff's department is finally going to have to admit to the world that they have it."
The next steps for the deputies, who have not been identified, would have been to submit it to the district attorney and then to a judge, Russell said.
District Attorney Ed Thomas was not shown the draft affidavit until after the Columbine shootings, Russell said. But he concluded then that it had lacked probable cause necessary to get a judge to sign it, she said.
Jefferson County released 11,000 pages from its investigation file in November. That release came in response to an earlier order by Jackson.
The families had sought the records in support of lawsuits which allege the sheriff failed to recognize warning signs from Klebold and Harris, and botched its response to the deadly attack.
The 11,000-page report was represented as the entire case file, according to the families.
"We thought, `Well, that's it, they produced everything,' " said Kim Ikeler, an attorney representing three students injured in the shooting.
"Jefferson County said the 11,000 was all of it," Rohrbough said.
The families, contending that the sheriff and the county violated Jackson's order by withholding information, sought the rest of the documents. They were formally joined by CBS News, which is preparing a segment on Columbine to air April 17 on 60 Minutes II -- three days before the second anniversary of the tragedy.
CBS said that in the course of conducting interviews and reviewing the 11,000 pages that were previously released, it found numerous gaps in information.
However, Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler said some of the material sought by the families and CBS was not specified.
"The sheriff's office openly responded, giving them everything they thought was the request," Oeffler said.
The families filed a public records lawsuit in April 2000 asking for "all memoranda generated by employees, representatives, or agents of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department regarding the Columbine tragedy."
Everything meant everything, according to the families and CBS.
"We are perplexed how certain materials that were made, maintained, or kept by the Sheriff's Office in order to prepare its Final Report could be designated as part of the `Evidence Book' or placed in the `Evidence Vault' and not produced for Judge Jackson's review," Denver attorney Thomas B. Kelley wrote to the county on behalf of CBS.
Oeffler insists the county never said it had turned over everything.
"It's always been clear," she said. "There are materials that were not reviewed."
But Kelley, the attorney for CBS, said Friday's order proved that more materials existed than were previously disclosed.
"I think it's clear that everything was not released," Kelley said. "I'm not sure it resolves any question about whether it should have been released or not. I think that's going to be a moot question.
"This does provide for the release of significant information, and I hope the county will release it quickly."
Some additional information was knocked loose last month by the latest round of legal actions.
The county on March 19 released a 200-page log of evidence, ranging from shotgun shells to computer disks.
But an apparent numbering gap has the victims' relatives convinced that Jefferson County is hiding something.
The county attorney's office recently released 12 pages "inadvertently omitted during the copying process" before November's release of the 11,000 pages.
One of the newly released pages is numbered 13,968.
The last page in the Columbine investigative files released to the public appears to be 11,138.
That's a difference of 2,830 pages.
Oeffler said Judge Jackson has kept some of those pages from being released to the public.
Others of the "missing" 2,830 pages, she said, include medical records of shooting victims that have long been known to be excluded, as well as the evidence logs that were recently released.
There's another quirk in the 12 recently released pages. The code before some page numbers begins with JC OO3; the code for the pages released to the public earlier begins with JC 001.
Oeffler said she did not know if there is a volume that begins with JC 002, or how many others there may be.
Jackson, through his clerk, declined comment, citing the ongoing case.
Among the audiotapes that Jackson ordered released are two made during an interview investigators conducted with Neil Gardner, the deputy was assigned to the school. Gardner traded shots with the killers in the first moments.
The county had earlier released transcripts of interviews with Gardner and other officers who fired their guns. But it fought the release of the tapes.
"The goal of the Open Records Act is to allow access to information and not to make a better television show," the county wrote in one filing.
The families and CBS said they want to be sure the transcripts are complete and to determine whether the tapes "have been tampered with to erase or alter information."
"There is no evidence to support their claim that the tapes have been, or could have been, tampered with," Oeffler said.
Judge Jackson sided with the families and CBS.
"If the question before the court," he wrote in Friday's order, "were whether I think it would be a nice idea to air sound bites from these audiotapes on 60 Minutes, I would say, `No.' There must come a point where enough has been said, and where respect for the individuals involved in the Columbine incident should take precedence over other considerations.
"However, this court cannot function as an arbiter of good taste."
Staff writer Katie Kerwin McCrimmon contributed to this story.
April 7, 2001