New York – Written by Pam Russell, Public Information Officer, District Attorney’s Office
In the first few minutes after hearing that shots had been fired at Columbine High School, District Attorney Dave Thomas and Assistant District Attorney Kathy Sasak began piecing together information in an attempt to determine exactly what was happening in south Jeffco. Contact was made with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s office began monitoring television coverage that began at about the same time.
Eric Harris was soon named as being one of the shooters by some of the students who had fled the high school. Sasak and the DA’s staff immediately began accumulating information from their files, through the Juvenile Assessment Center and the Sheriff’s Office. Sasak discovered that Eric Harris had been on the DA’s Diversion Program and that he had a co-defendant, Dylan Klebold. She and the staff quickly gathered as much information about Harris and Klebold as was possible and made it available to the District Attorney who had responded to the scene.
Official information about the incident was slow in coming and sketchy based on the size of the crime scene and the emergency response, the number of potential victims and the difficulties involved in securing the school to make it safe for law enforcement and emergency service providers to enter. Within the first hour, the DA’s staff knew only that shots had been fired, that there had been explosions, that there was possibly a shooter on the roof of the high school, that there were at least two gunmen, and that there were injuries.
District Attorney Thomas and Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pautler arrived at the high school scene within an hour of the initial report of shots fired and explosions.
The prosecutor’s role in any homicide is typically to provide legal advice at the crime scene. It quickly became clear that due to the magnitude of the situation, normal activities would be overtaxed and people would step into roles above and beyond what would ordinarily be part of their standard operating procedure.
An office command center was set up in the district attorney’s office with links to District Attorney Thomas, who was at the command post near Columbine High School. The office command center was headed by Sasak and manned by the public information officer, the chief investigator, a chief deputy district attorney and other staff. Two deputy district attorneys went to the Sheriff’s Office to review prepared search warrants for the Harris and Klebold residences.
Throughout the first day, April 20, the command post at the District Attorney’s Office was in constant contact with DA Thomas at the scene. Information being reported on television from interviews with students and teachers who had been inside the high school was provided to the crime scene command post. Records on the two suspects were pulled. Resources, including investigators, victim witness specialists and diversion counselors were dispatched to the scene as needed. Pautler was assigned to the investigative command post to review all warrants and answer legal questions.
Increasing demands were placed on prosecutors to communicate with the community and to provide information to the families of the victims. Up until 7:30 a.m. on April 21, only SWAT teams and bomb squads had been inside the school. Officials had descriptions (physical and clothing worn) of students who did not return home the previous evening. They did not have a solid count on the deceased within the school. At 7:30 a.m., members of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the county coroner did a walk-through and were able to tentatively identify the 15 bodies at the school. District Attorney Thomas developed a relationship with many of the families beginning on April 20, and on April 21, did five death notifications based upon tentative identification in the school.
By 12:45 p.m., April 20, four DA investigators arrived at Columbine High School. By 2:30 p.m. eight more arrived following a request for additional assistance. The 12 investigators who responded to the high school remained on the case throughout the next two weeks. Their primary responsibilities were to interview students and witnesses. From April 20 through June 4, nine investigators were assigned to the incident on a full-time basis. Overall, investigations spent 2,941.75 hours working on the case. This includes 397.75 hours of overtime.
On April 20, Kim Slaughter, director of the District Attorney’s Victim Witness Assistance Unit, and three victim witness specialists went to Leawood Elementary School to help with victims and families. Slaughter worked with Karen Joyce-McMahon, coordinator of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Victim Services Unit, and Steve Siegel, a Denver representative of the National Organization of Victim Assistance Crisis Response Team, to design a plan of action to respond to victim needs.
The District Attorney’s Victim Assistance Unit worked in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Office Victim’s Assistance Unit, the Jeffco Center for Mental Health, and other service providers from the first day. The agencies came together to act as a coordinated team focused on the victims’ needs during and following this tragedy.
Immediately following the incident, the Crime Victim Compensation Board decided to make all 2,052 students, faculty, staff and their immediate families eligible for Victim’s Compensation. The first priority for the DA’s Victim Assistance Unit was to notify each of the 2052 of his or her rights to these funds. The office created a cover letter, a simplified application form and with the help of the school district (mailing labels), Kinkos and the Post Office, it mailed to all 2052 on the Friday following the incident. To date, 609 applications have been received and $393,145 has been paid to providers and victims.
By April 24, the Mental Health Incident Management Group had been established. The victim services providers were also arranging a series of debriefings for law enforcement, DA and other emergency services first responders. The next project, which began at essentially the same time, was the creation of a victim services office and mental health facility to be located in the Columbine area.
There have been two primary and two secondary criminal cases filed as a result of the incident. In each case, victim witness specialists are assigned to each of the 38 families most directly impacted by the shootings. These include the families of the 13 deceased and 25 injured students, faculty and staff of Columbine High School. The Victim Witness Specialists notify and coordinate with the families at each court appearance of defendants named in these actions.
The first of the two primary cases that were filed by the Sheriff’s Office was against Mark Manes. Manes, 22, was arrested on May 3, 1999 for selling the TEC 9 semi-automatic, assault style handgun to Harris and Klebold. He was also charged with possession of an illegal, dangerous weapon, the sawed off shotgun. On August 18, 1999 he pled guilty to both counts and on November 12, 1999 was sentenced to a total of six years in prison. In sentencing Manes, Chief Judge Henry Nieto addressed the intent of the statute concerning "Providing or Permitting a Juvenile to Possess a Handgun," saying that it was designed to prevent handguns from getting into the hands of young people who sometimes make impulsive, immature decisions. In spite of Manes’ plea for leniency (based on the fact that he did not know what the pair intended to do) Judge Nieto stated that had Manes known what Harris and Klebold intended, a different crime would have been committed with much more serious repercussions. He asked the 35 families in the courtroom not to focus their anger at this young man, but to direct that energy towards a memorial to those slain by taking a stand against violence in our society.
The second of the Sheriff’s primary cases filed was against Philip Duran, charged with the same two counts as Mark Manes for his alleged role in the sale of the TEC 9 and for possession of the sawed off shotgun. Duran pled not guilty on January 20, 2000 and a trial date is set for June 6, 2000. On March 3, Duran was charged with a third count, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Harris and Klebold worked with Duran at a restaurant and allegedly met Mark Manes through him. Harris and Klebold met Manes at a gun show and made inquiries about the TEC 9. On January 23, 1999, Klebold went to Manes’ house, gave him $300 as a down payment and took possession of the weapon. Approximately two weeks later Klebold and Harris allegedly gave the remainder of the money to Duran to deliver to Manes.
Faye Ralene Holt of Arvada, was arrested and charged with providing a false report of explosives after she, allegedly, phoned in a bomb threat to Pomona High School on April 28, 1999. She pled not guilty to the charge against her. (She was convicted on April 7, 2000, of making a bomb threat to the high school and her sentencing is scheduled for May 25.)
Gary Sowell, an employee of Hugh M. Woods, was charged with false reporting for providing false information to authorities regarding the sale of the propane tanks used on April 20. His jury trail is pending.
The Healing Fund
The Healing Fund was the first major fund to be set up to aid the victims and the community after the Columbine shootings. It was created by the Mile High United Way (MHUW) and other community-based interests on April 20, 1999. The fund ultimately raised and distributed 4.5 million dollars. Because of a prior relationship with MHUW and his visibility in the community, District Attorney Thomas was asked to co-chair the fund. A portion of the fund is still being distributed based upon victims needs through the Colorado Organization of Victim Assistance.
While law enforcement and emergency service providers from over a hundred agencies worked frantically at the scene, mental health and victim service providers began to design a facility to provide the necessary resources to victims and to the community during and following this mass tragedy. One of the results is Columbine Connections. This resource center provides mental health and victim services to anyone in the Columbine community as well as a teen center, S.H.O.U.T.S. (Students Helping Others Unite Together Socially), that provided students a safe, healthy environment where teens could hang out and heal.