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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

The pain of being right

Sheriff Wegener knows that sending in the SWAT team was the correct call, even though a teenage captive died. And yet ...

April 24, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Bailey, Colo. — HE knows he was right.

Sheriff Fred Wegener has reviewed every angle of his decision on that September afternoon seven months ago. A gunman was holding two girls hostage in a classroom at Platte Canyon High School. His last message to negotiators had been: This will be all over at 4 p.m.

It was 3:36. Wegener sent in the SWAT team.

As officers detonated explosive charges to break through the locked door, the gunman killed 16-year-old Emily Keyes.

Veteran police officers backed up Wegener's decision. Parents in this rural mountain town told him he made the right call. He's received hundreds of supportive letters from strangers nationwide.

The ones he's memorized, though, are the two that stung.

"You must be a coward. How do you cash your paycheck?" he recites, his voice flat. "You should have gone in sooner."

The other e-mail chided him for impatience, for provoking a gunman who had only discharged his weapon once, into a wall:

"I would much rather have a raped daughter than a dead one."

*

Wegener, 44, is on the phone in his tiny box of an office in the Bailey substation. He's a tall, muscular man with a bristly flattop haircut -- imposing, but in a friendly way -- and he seems to take up the whole room.

"From what I hear," he's saying, "from the information they had, they thought it was a simple domestic. They thought the guy had left."

Wegener is talking to a friend who has written about the 2004 school siege in Beslan, Russia. They're comparing notes about the law enforcement response to the horror at Virginia Tech last week.

Police there initially came under heavy criticism for concluding that an early-morning double homicide in a dorm was a domestic dispute. They did not cancel classes or issue a campus-wide alert; instead, they went looking for the boyfriend of one of the victims. They were still questioning him two hours later when Seung-hui Cho, 23, opened fire in Norris Hall, killing 30, then himself. The governor has appointed a panel to investigate.

Talking loudly, nodding vigorously, Wegener paces in front of his desk. He's reluctant to criticize Virginia law enforcement, he tells his friend. He doesn't have the facts. None of us does. We don't know what evidence the police considered; we don't know what went into their decision.

Only someone who has been there can imagine what those officers are going through now.

In the hours after the siege at Platte Canyon High, the sheriff struggled not to blame himself.

Addressing reporters late that afternoon, his voice shook. Someone asked whether he was second-guessing his decision.

"Yes," he said softly. "Of course."

That was the beginning of what Wegener calls his period of "doubtingness" -- just a couple of days, but hard ones. His mind kept circling back.

The first call about a gunman in the high school came at 11:36 a.m. on Sept. 27. At the scene within minutes, Wegener began escorting students to safety. He still sees their faces before him, pale and absolutely still.

He didn't spot his son, Ben, a junior, but he doesn't remember looking for Ben in particular. Wegener calls play-by-play for Huskies football. He has chaperoned middle-school dances, called balls and strikes for Little League. These were all his kids.

The gunman, later identified as a 53-year-old loner named Duane R. Morrison, had stormed into an English class, ordered out the boys and the teacher and locked himself in with seven girls. On a table, he had set down a camouflage backpack that he said contained enough explosives to flatten the school. His only demand was that police leave him alone.

Over the next two hours, Morrison released five of his hostages, one by one. At first, he talked to negotiators, but later fell silent inside Room 206. Each girl he released gave investigators the same account: Morrison was taking them aside in the darkened room and sexually assaulting them at gunpoint.

As he grabbed each student in turn, the others stood as ordered, facing the blackboard, listening to the sobs.

"He was hurting my girls," the sheriff said.

Later, Wegener learned two facts:

There were no explosives in the backpack.

Also, Morrison was impotent. He couldn't have raped the girls. He had loaded his backpack with tools for violent sexual assault, including handcuffs, knives, rope, duct tape, massage oil and a vibrator. He never opened the pack, though; he left it on a table and warned the girls not to touch it.

"All he could do was what he did do, which was groping. Not that I'm trying to minimize that," Wegener says. "It's bad enough."

Facts in hand, Wegener ran through the day again.

His conclusion: "There was no other possibility" but to confront the gunman with force. He could not have chanced waiting to see what 4 p.m. might bring. One hostage was able to run to safety as the SWAT team burst in. But Morrison had Emily in a chokehold. He shot her in the head, through his own hand, then killed himself.

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