“Columbine” used to be just a high school in Littleton, a quiet town in Jefferson County, Colorado. On the morning of April 20, 1999, two black trench coat-clad students, armed with assault rifles and sawed-off shotguns and acting in concert with timed explosives, changed that. By killing 12 students and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made the school into a national Rorschach test.
Gun control groups started shouting almost before the blood had dried. Allow children to be around guns and this sort of thing was bound to happen, they argued. It’s no coincidence that Michael Moore’s 2002 anti-gun mockumentary is titled Bowling for Columbine. The family values crowd grabbed hold of the pair’s obsession with violent video games and faux Satanic music to use as a stick to beat Hollywood over the head with. Shock rocker Marilyn Manson had to cancel concerts in the face of loud, angry charges that his music had contributed to the massacre.
It turned out that the young plotters weren’t fans of Manson’s music, and if a few of the larger explosives wouldn’t have proved duds, the gun debate would have been almost moot, because it would have been difficult to reconstruct what exactly happened. But the facts served as a flimsy dike to contain the sentiments of a public that was looking for pointy horns and haloes. One of the 13 deaths, Cassie Bernall was hailed as a martyr based on a conversation that likely never took place.
Columbine inspired acres of newsprint, several books — from inspirational Christian writings to hell-in-a-handcart warnings about kids these days to Douglas Coupland’s near great novel Hey Nostradamus! — and ticker tape parades full of red tape. When your school institutes a zero tolerance “anti-bullying” policy, thank Messrs. Harris and Klebold. More metal detectors were installed, and the push to ban violent video games got a serious boost.
ALL THAT SAID, maybe it will be a little easier to understand the bombshell that broke across the mountain state last Thursday. A state judge released the report of a grand jury that was charged with looking into police behavior regarding the Columbine case. Though the grand jury finally flinched from indicting anyone, they made all the appropriate noises about disturbing questions.
The cover of the Rocky Mountain News captured it best: an angry man in khaki pants and dark blue button-down shirt with graying slightly disheveled hair, standing on the courthouse steps, looking at reporters with almost a sneer, his right index finger stabbing at the report. His wife stands close but not right at his side, sullen-looking, her arms clasped together at her midsection. The critic here is one Randy Brown, and the firecracker of a pull quote is “people died because of this.”
The short of it is that then Jefferson County Sheriff Office investigator Michael Guerra had looked into the case of Eric Harris about a year before the school shooting occurred. Based on the teen’s violent history and some sinister sounding writings on his website (in which he wrote of making pipe bombs and apparently fantasized/plotted violence) Guerra drew up an affidavit to get a search warrant to canvass the Harris house in search of contraband. Higher-ups decided that they didn’t have probable cause, and there the matter rested.
Until April 20 of the following year, that is. Watching the grief and fury of the parents and the local community, and the political firestorm that it ignited in the nation, it was decided at a quasi-clandestine meeting that this information not be shared with the public. Also, some shredding took place, though current and former members of the Jefferson County police maintain that nothing was untoward about either of these things.
Balderdash, I say. It is not clear that any laws were broken, but what is clear is that the Columbine Cops engaged in rump covering of the worst sort. Instead of taking their lumps, they decided to let the matter linger and fester, and they don’t seem contrite about it even now. Contacted for comment by the Rocky Mountain News, former sheriff John Stone called the investigation “a bunch of bulls—t,” called the reporter a “horse’s ass” and hung up the phone, thus adding a new interpretation to the Columbine Rorschach, this time of bureaucratic indifference and inhumanity.
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