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'Three Years of Hell' for Colo. Sheriff

Columbine: With the killers dead, John Stone became the scapegoat in the school massacre.

April 20, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOLDEN, Colo. — It was always his dream to be a small-town sheriff in the California mountains. Instead, John Stone became sheriff of Colorado's largest county. And four months into the job, he was leading the investigation of a national tragedy: the deadly shooting at Columbine High School.

Since then, Stone has been called incompetent and pathetic. He's been given the nickname "Sheriff Stonewall." And the credibility of his investigation into the massacre has been questioned.

In a rare interview Friday, the eve of Columbine's anniversary, Stone spoke from his office here with resignation about the three years since two teen gunmen opened fire on their classmates.

"There is the initial shock, the grieving, the cleanup, the reporting and the ugly stage," said Stone, 52. "We are in the ugly stage. Still. I ended up being the most visible person in this case. That's where the blame is focusing."

Indeed, Stone has become the Western sheriff who's being run out of town; he recently announced he will not seek reelection.

The grief from the killing of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine has spread well beyond the dead. Families have been driven to the edge of bankruptcy caring for severely injured children, marriages have imploded from stress and school officials have struggled to account for the bullying atmosphere they allowed at their award-winning suburban campus.

The sheriff, charged with protecting the people of Jefferson County, has been a handy scapegoat for it all. Still, during three years of relentless second-guessing, Stone rarely has taken on his media critics, deciding he "couldn't win a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel."

"This whole thing took on a life of its own," said Stone, at times bitter. "There's nothing left to say; it's been rehashed and rehashed. But life's too short. The toll this is taking on my health has been horrible. I don't want to be always looking over my back."

To his defenders, Stone has unfairly borne the brunt of a community's unresolved issues. All the while, they say, Stone was dealing with his own pain brought up by the attack: the memory of his 15-year-old son's suicide years before.

"The man has been publicly pilloried and burned; it's appalling," said Bill Skewes, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. Because the two gunmen took their lives, Skewes said, there was no one to punish after the massacre.

"Normally in circumstances like this, the bad actors are around to be punished," he said. "But they took their lives, and the people who lost their children have nobody to take it out on, to see justice is done. It's a natural human response. They have taken it out on Stone. They have attacked him unmercifully."

But for many Columbine families, there is no forgiving the sheriff. They say he botched the rescue, bungled the investigation and withheld vital information.

He was criticized for overestimating the casualties in the first hours after the attack, but Stone says he was passing on the information he had at the time. The day after the massacre, Stone hypothesized that the two gunmen had three accomplices and he incorrectly named another teenager as a suspect.

If he erred, Stone said, it was in sharing his theories with the media.

The second-guessing started even before the stand-off concluded. Officers were called cowards for taking three hours to enter the school; the delay resulted in a teacher bleeding to death in a science room. Stone defended the officers' actions, noting that police were being fired upon. The response was "by the book," at least as it was written at the time, Stone said. There was no template for dealing with a school siege. Now there is, and he helped design it, Stone said.

By far, the most withering criticism has come from victims' families. They repeatedly have asked for information about the attacks, especially anything that could shed light on how their loved ones died or were wounded. The sheriff's office, they say, has steadfastly refused to share those details.

Stone said he has released all the information he can.

But even formerly neutral observers denounced Stone last summer after he refused to testify before Colorado Gov. Bill Owens' Columbine commission. The commission's sober-minded chairman lashed out at Stone.

"He provided no information and stonewalled our commission," said William Erickson, former chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.

Erickson's widely published comments begat the nickname "Sheriff Stonewall," now in common use here.

The whole incident was not only damaging, Stone said, it was politically motivated. He said his investigators extensively briefed the commission once, but the panel insisted on having Stone testify again in a televised session.

Stone said the then-county attorney advised him that if he testified this time, he and all his deputies would lose their immunity from prosecution. That led to the "refusal to testify" criticism.

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