LITTLETON, Colo. — More than five weeks after America's worst school shooting, authorities are just now getting down to performing key ballistic and other scientific tests on evidence taken from Columbine High School here, a sign that the investigation is far from being completed.
That reality, coming after the Jefferson County sheriff initially spoke confidently of finding a third gunman and possible collaborators, means it could be next fall before this still-grieving community and the rest of the nation understand precisely how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher on April 20.
Officials acknowledge that their investigation is grinding along and that it now appears likely that Harris and Klebold acted alone. If that conclusion is ultimately borne out, it may not ease much of the public desire that someone be punished for the attack that also injured two dozen students.
Many Believe Gunmen Had Help
"Like it or not, these things become political," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney now in private practice. The sentiment reflects the thinking of many in the community.
Silverman said the general belief is that someone must have helped the youths, so any final resolution that says otherwise would be met with a good measure of skepticism. "The district attorney and the sheriff in Jefferson County are both elected officials," Silverman said. For them, he added, "it would be a nice thing to be able to wrap up the investigation and be able to say that the two perpetrators are dead."
Investigators defend their methodical pace and point to some achievements already, such as the arrest of a young man for providing one of the four weapons to the shooters.
"But there is a lot of pressure," conceded Deputy Steve Davis, spokesman for the sheriff's office, the lead agency in the investigation. "People want answers. They want to see that everything is taken care of and that everybody is held accountable. And with two dead suspects, a lot of the 'why' questions may never be answered."
A task force of law enforcement agencies is on the case:
* The sheriff's office continues to work inside the closed school, laying out pieces of evidence on the gymnasium floor and attempting to re-create the estimated 20 minutes of gunfire before the two youths turned their weapons on themselves.
They will not complete the first phase of their inquiry until at least August, and they will then analyze evidence to determine whether criminal charges are justified against anyone.
"We used to have meetings every morning, and now we're down to just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays," Davis said. "And the conversations are the same every morning. We go around the room and each team says it's conducted so many interviews. But it's not breaking stuff."
* The Colorado Bureau of Investigation will be conducting tests on the more than 700 rounds of ammunition fired at the school, but examiners are just getting started and say they are weeks from issuing any final report.
"The work is painstaking," said CBI Director Carl W. Whiteside. "It will take weeks to get the final ballistics reports. Weeks."
* The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is examining the 65 pieces of evidence from explosives and bomb shrapnel at the school, just last week trucked that evidence to its laboratory in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Agent Larry Bettendorf said the ATF also is weeks from completing its work, despite the fact that the teens' bombs were "really, really easy to construct" and were not "sophisticated" devices that would be complicated to examine.
* The Jefferson County coroner's office is still working on autopsy reports for Harris and Klebold and the 13 victims of their attack. Sources said the lack of speed by the coroner indicates that other homicides, where there are "real" suspects at large, have taken precedence over the Columbine investigation.
* Officials have run down only half of the more than 2,500 leads developed in the case, Davis said.
Complicating the process, many potential witnesses, including the shooters' friends and parents, have hired lawyers and declined to be interviewed by investigators. Klebold's parents have spoken once to authorities and remain cooperative; Harris' parents refuse to talk unless they are given a grant of immunity from prosecution.
Investigators have commandeered several empty rooms on the first floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse, where leaders from the 10 eight-man investigative teams meet three mornings a week to trade information. As reports come in, they are passed on to members of an FBI squad that is collating the material into computer programs at the bureau's Denver headquarters.