“I think victims’ families have certain rights–to be told the truth about what happened,” he says. “All I want is the truth.”
The worst school shooting in U.S. history has left not only many lingering questions but also a legacy of rancor and continued accusations.
A few weeks ago, someone leaked Columbine crime scene photos to the Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s two daily newspapers. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department had pledged they would never be made public. Though the paper ended up not publishing the photos, the resulting brouhaha prompted Sheriff John Stone to order his entire department to take polygraph tests to identify the paper’s source.
Parents of the 12 slain children had been pinning their hopes on an independent legislative investigation, complete with subpoena power, to resolve unanswered questions about the massacre and its aftermath. Many of the parents broke into tears last month when the state Legislature, citing the high cost, voted down a bill calling for the investigation. The state representative who sponsored the legislation has vowed to reintroduce it soon.
The Colorado attorney general and the Jefferson County district attorney have taken their own steps to staunch criticism of the Columbine investigation. They recently asked the approximately 35 law enforcement agencies that responded to the April 20, 1999, massacre to turn in everything they possess, including investigative interviews and other records related to the case.
They hope to create a clearinghouse of information and curtail the numerous accusations that authorities either withheld data or gave out wrong information. Critics applaud the effort but say it should have been done long ago, before evidence was lost or destroyed.
At the same time, Sheriff Stone, still smarting from the accusation that a policeman may have shot Danny Rohrbough, has asked the sheriff in nearby El Paso County to look into the thoroughness of his Columbine investigation. The results of that review are expected to be made public within several weeks.
Also, Jefferson County Dist. Atty. Dave Thomas recently asked the county coroner to conduct an inquest into Rohrbough’s death. But the coroner declined, saying he did not want to put witnesses, many of them students, through more trauma. He also said the inquest would serve “no purpose” because it would not change the official conclusion about Danny Rohrbough’s death unless new evidence surfaces.
Father Keeps Fighting
Meanwhile, Columbine-related lawsuits have dwindled to a single case. More than a dozen suits, filed by the victims’ parents against the Harris and Klebold families, the police and others have been settled or thrown out of court.
The remaining lawsuit was filed by the family of Columbine teacher Dave Sanders, who bled to death inside the high school even as students begged rescuers to help him. The suit, for which no trial date has been set, contends that Sanders died because rescuers waited three hours to enter the building.
“It’s a story with the longest legs I’ve ever known,” Thomas said. “There’s always something new. The latest is the release of these photos. It didn’t just happen by accident. Someone wants to keep this story alive.”
One person keeping the Columbine story from fading is Brian Rohrbough, who installs high-end sound equipment from his industrial park shop in suburban Englewood.
Rohrbough has joined with his former wife, Susan Petrone, in the quest for information about the death of their only son. Rohrbough, 43, whose neatly trimmed hair is going gray, is one of several parents of Columbine victims who have appeared on television and radio programs to demand a complete accounting of the shootings.
Rohrbough has long contended his son was killed by “friendly fire,” based on his interpretation of the evidence. But he stunned the Columbine community late last year by filing a federal court document asking for the reinstatement of a lawsuit that named Denver Police Sgt. Daniel O’Shea, who had been decorated as a hero for his actions at Columbine, as the man who accidentally shot Danny Rohrbough.
“I think he shot Dan,” Rohrbough said. “I think O’Shea got on the scene and then Dan comes running down the stairs and he mistook Dan for a gunman and shot and killed him.”
Rohrbough’s evidence is circumstantial. He first named O’Shea after learning that soon after Columbine, an emotional O’Shea told an acquaintance that he thought he might have shot an innocent student during the melee.
Coupled with that is the tape-recorded statement of a former deputy sheriff–also a onetime family friend–who told Rohrbough he saw Danny shot much later than the official version of events. According to Rohrbough’s analysis, that would have put O’Shea at the scene rather than on his way to it. The former deputy, Jim Taylor, later said he had not seen Danny fall to the ground.
Finally, Rohrbough points to the fact that the bullet that killed his son was never found, making it impossible to link the shooting to Harris and Klebold.
O’Shea denied Rohrbough’s accusation. What he had told the acquaintance, O’Shea explained, was that he was glad he hadn’t accidentally shot a student–any student–during the shootout. He also said television footage shot during the massacre backed up his version of what happened. Rohrbough says the footage was shot an hour after the attack began and proved nothing.
O’Shea said after seeing the film: “Daniel Rohrbough was shot by Klebold and Harris right at the outset of this, before anybody had a chance to dial 9, much less 911.” He declined to be interviewed for this report.
Sheriff Stone and his chief lieutenants also declined to comment. Citing the advice of their attorneys, they also refused to testify before the governor’s commission investigating Columbine.
The sheriff has come under fire from various quarters, mostly from parents battling for records about what happened on the day of the massacre. Stone also has been criticized for making speeches outside Colorado while staying silent at home, as well as for giving videotapes made by the killers to Time magazine.
On Friday, he announced he would not run for reelection, citing the strain of the job since the shootings.
“John Stone is a very complex individual and one I haven’t been able to figure out,” said Thomas, the district attorney. “I think what’s happened is sad for him personally and sad for his department.”
Critics fault Stone’s department for bungling the post-Columbine investigation and for not recognizing Klebold and Harris as dangerous when, a year before the shootings, it received complaints about them.
Just recently, it became clear that no detailed record exists of how O’Shea expended 60 rounds of ammunition, more than a third of all shots fired by officers that day. Law enforcement was again criticized last month because ballistic experts didn’t run complete tests on the bullet found in the backpack of student Corey DePooter, killed in the school library. The bullet came from the carbine fired by Harris, but a sheriff’s spokesman said the oversight was discovered only recently.
And then came the pictures leaked to the Rocky Mountain News. One purportedly shows Harris and Klebold after they committed suicide inside the school.
“What this shows is that it’s an incompetent department,” said Randy Brown, whose son Brooks was killed at Columbine. “These photos were trophies, things to take home and show around.”
Brown and his wife, Judy, were the parents who complained to the Sheriff’s Department a year before Columbine that Harris was making death threats on the Internet, including one against their son. The complaint was never acted on.
“I believe Jefferson County and the state of Colorado are about as corrupt as it can get,” he said. “They know this is a major failure by a police department and no one will admit it. They have no interest in finding the truth here.”