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Report Clears Officer in Columbine Slaying

Inquiry: Independent investigation finds that Eric Harris, one of the teen shooters, killed Daniel Rohrbough.

April 18, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOLDEN, Colo. — An independent investigation released Wednesday found that a student slain during the Columbine High School massacre was not killed by a police officer as his parents have long claimed.

The report concluded that Daniel Rohrbough, 15, was shot by Eric Harris, one of two teen gunmen whose rampage killed 12 classmates and a teacher three years ago.

The 1,200-page report by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office contradicted the official Columbine investigation on several points. That report, issued by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in May 2000, has been the subject of intense criticism and spawned dozens of lawsuits. The controversy led to an unsuccessful recall effort against Sheriff John Stone.

The El Paso County probe concluded that Denver SWAT officer Sgt. Dan O'Shea did not accidentally kill Rohrbough outside the school on April 20, 1999. It also said Rohrbough was not killed by gunman Dylan Klebold, as the Jefferson County report concludes. Rather, ballistics evidence shows that the bullet recovered from Rohrbough's body was a "textbook match" to Harris' gun, said El Paso Sheriff Wesley Anderson.

In one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, roamed Columbine High School, tossing homemade bombs and shooting scores of classmates. The pair eventually killed themselves in the school library.

El Paso County officials met with the parents of Daniel Rohrbough for 2 1/2 hours Wednesday morning to review their findings. Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone said that, while the new report gives them a glimpse for the first time of what happened to their son that day, it also reinforces what they say has been the incompetence of Sheriff Stone.

"We have been searching for the truth for three years," said Brian Rohrbough. "I think we finally got the facts that resemble the truth. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office never, ever gave us access to this information. But I never gave up hope of finding out what happened. But if this is a victory, there's nothing to celebrate."

Stone asked neighboring El Paso County in December to investigate whether Rohrbough was killed by a law officer. The results were presented April 10 to the Jefferson County district attorney's office.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and a lawyer for O'Shea did not return phone calls.

Rohrbough said Wednesday he regretted naming O'Shea in a lawsuit claiming the officer mistakenly killed their son. The lawsuit, he said, was based on information provided by Jefferson County.

Barry Arrington, a lawyer for the Rohrbough family, noted that the Jefferson County report set Daniel Rohrbough's death at a time when O'Shea was known to be near the boy. That and other information led the family to believe the high school freshman was caught in police gunfire.

In contrast, the El Paso County report concluded that Rohrbough was killed at least 36 minutes before O'Shea was even on the scene. It also accounted for three spent shell casings that came from O'Shea's gun that were found near the teen. The report said O'Shea was providing covering fire for two policemen who were checking on Rohrbough.

Rohrbough was in the cafeteria when the lunchtime rampage began. He fled the school with two other boys. They inadvertently rushed straight into Harris and Klebold, who were picking off students from the top of a staircase outside the school.

Rohrbough was hit by at least two bullets and fell to the sidewalk. Then, according to the Jefferson County report, "Klebold goes back down the stairs to the area outside the cafeteria and shoots Daniel Rohrbough again at close range, killing him instantly."

An autopsy included in the Jefferson County findings said one bullet hit the teen in his left leg, a second entered his abdomen and lodged in his chest and the third entered his chest and exited his upper back.

The bullets that hit Rohrbough's chest and abdomen traveled upward, the autopsy concluded.

Rohrbough's parents first questioned the official account about a year after their son's death.

The distraught father began to pepper the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office with questions: If Daniel was running away from Harris and Klebold, how could he have been hit twice from the front? If the two gunmen were standing on stairs above Daniel, how could the bullets enter the boy's body in an upward trajectory? If Klebold delivered the fatal shot from close range, why wasn't a bullet or fragment found near the boy?

All those questions were answered Wednesday.

According to the lead investigator, Cmdr. Joe Breister, Rohrbough was hit in the leg first, causing him to spin around and face Harris. Harris then fired two quick shots, hitting Rohrbough as he fell. He said that the upward trajectory was explained by the angle of Rohrbough's falling body.

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