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Suit Over Columbine Death Is Allowed

Crime: Judge says officials showed an indifference to teacher's plight long after the shooting.

November 28, 2001|Associated Press

DENVER — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that sheriff's officials can be sued over the case of a Columbine High teacher who bled to death in the 1999 massacre, saying law officers callously failed to reach him until hours after the shooting had stopped.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock said Jefferson County sheriff's officials demonstrated "a deliberate indifference toward Dave Sanders' plight shocking to the conscience of this federal court."

However, the judge threw out the eight other lawsuits brought against sheriff's officials and school administrators over the shooting rampage. He said authorities were confronted with "an unprecedented and rapidly evolving violent situation."

Rescuers did not reach Sanders, 47, until about five hours after the massacre was over. The judge noted that authorities knew the teenage gunmen were dead about 3 1/2 hours before they reached Sanders. They also knew where he was and knew that he was critically wounded, Babcock said.

The judge said there is sufficient evidence that sheriff's officials "acted recklessly in conscious disregard of the risk that Dave Sanders' survivable wounds would prove fatal" if they delayed help from reaching him.

Sanders' relatives are suing for unspecified damages, alleging sheriff's officials held back their SWAT team and also prevented other authorities and private citizens from rescuing him.

Peter Grenier, the lawyer for Sanders' daughter Angela, said the ruling was bittersweet.

"It's bitter in a sense for Angela, because it certainly confirms the viability of her claims that law enforcement officers' actions actually were a cause of her father's death," he said. "But we're very pleased the judge followed the black letter of the law and allowed the case to go forward."

Calls to the sheriff's office and school district officials were not returned.

Acting Jefferson County Atty. Bill Tuthill said the rulings overall came as a relief. He said the blame rests with the teenage gunmen.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 fellow students and Sanders, and wounded more than two dozen others before committing suicide on April 20, 1999, at the high school near Littleton.

Victims' relatives and survivors sued, alleging the sheriff's office and school administrators failed to investigate earlier threats and crimes by the two gunmen.

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