Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Columbine High School Massacre

Cover Up?

The revelation that there had been a complaint made against Eric Harris to police on August 7, 1997, a full seven months prior to that made by Columbine parents Randy and Judy Brown sparked a new investigation and again raised the specter of a coverup by police. Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar launched an independent investigation into the handling of the report in October 2003.

The investigation learned that the 1997 report was made by a deputy, Mark Burgess, and forwarded to investigator John Hicks - the same detective who later handled the Browns' report and who had a hand in drafting an affidavit for a search warrant for Harris' home in 1998 that was never followed through on. The fact that part of the Browns' report was found with the 1997 report indicates that someone in the Sheriff's department had already made the connection. 

In 2001, a judge ordered the sheriff's office to release the draft affidavit for a warrant to search Harris' home written with Hicks' assistance. The affidavit showed that investigators had linked Harris to an unsolved pipe bomb case and that the Browns had met with Hicks on the day they claimed, a fact that had previously been denied by officials.

The report into the investigation was released in January, 2004 showed sheriff's deputies were well aware of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - with 15 contacts in six incidents - many months before their horrific April 20, 1999, attack on the school.

Included in the report is the claim by Hick's that top Jefferson County sheriff's officials lied to the public after the Columbine tragedy about their knowledge of the killers. Another former deputy claimed that one official, then-Lt. John Kiekbusch, effectively ended a March 1998 investigation of the soon- to-be killers when he decided detectives didn't have enough evidence to search the Harris home.

Salazar also acknowledged that his investigators were still searching for missing documents, including a file belonging to a former sheriff's deputy that deals with the 1998 report.

As a result of the investigation Ken Salazar requested Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, on April 27, to convene a grand jury investigation into lingering questions about events that preceded the attack.  It was not clear what criminal charges, if any, could arise from the grand jury's investigation.

In September, 2004 the grand jury found that:

  • In a private meeting with Jefferson County officials a few days after the Columbine shooting it was decided not to disclose a draft search warrant for the home of Columbine killer Eric Harris that had been rejected because at the time it was believed there was not enough evidence to justify the search. Among those at the meeting, held in a conference room in the offices of the Jefferson County Open Space Department, were District Attorney Dave Thomas, then-County Attorney Frank Hutfless and then-sheriff's Lt. John Kiekbusch.
  • It had been alleged that Kiekbusch ordered the destruction of a "pile" of Columbine records and uncovered evidence that key documents were apparently purged from the computer system at the sheriff's office in the summer of 1999.
  • That the meeting was called to discuss the "potential liabilities" of the draft affidavit and "how to handle press inquiries that may arise concerning the document."
  • A Jefferson County sheriff's deputy, Mike Guerra, spent two hours at the Columbine High School as part of his ongoing investigation into allegations that a junior named Eric Harris had posted violent writings on the Internet, some threatening mass murder. While he was there, he briefed the deputy assigned to the school, Neil Gardner, about the probe. He described Harris and Klebold as "misfit kids that weren't a problem to anybody."  Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis, as well as the school district's spokesman, Rick Kaufman, and attorney, Bill Kowalski, all said they had no knowledge of any visit by Guerra.
  • The report by Mike Guerrra, as well as some computer files, had gone missing and as yet had not been found.
  • That the daily logs were probably destroyed as part of the normal practice of purging records after the passing of a couple of years.

No indictments were made following the conclusion of the grand jury investigation.

Once again there is no definitive conclusion to be reached – no single event or action that can be held up as the one thing that could have prevented the Columbine School shooting. While in retrospect the signs might seem all too clear, is there anything that the school, parents and police could have done? The school had notified the parents of their concerns, the parents had been involved in discussions with both the school and police, and the police had placed the boys in the standard counselling programs available at the time – should they have done more? Would it have changed the outcome? Hopefully in time, the answers will become clearer.

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