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The Nation

Bitterness About Columbine Lingers

Investigation: Families of victims say they are still waiting for a full accounting of what happened in the nation's worst school shooting.

April 08, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Brian Rohrbough, his face lined and pale, works to keep his tone even as he talks about the time that has passed since his son Danny died in the fusillade that ripped through Columbine High School.

Three years gone, he says, and police have yet to fully account for their actions that April day when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rampaged through the school. Rohrbough takes the stonewalling personally. He believes a policeman killed his son that day.

"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.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Columbine--An April 8 story in Section A incorrectly reported that Brooks Brown was shot to death at Columbine High School in Colorado nearly three years ago. He was the subject of death threats before the shooting, but he was not injured in the attack.

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.

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