Officials Admit Failure to Spot Plot in Littleton

The Investigation

New York Times/May 1, 1999
By James Brooke

LITTLETON, Colo. -- Law-enforcement officials here acknowledged Friday that they had done little to follow up a complaint a neighbor made last year that one of the teen-age killers at Columbine High School last week "talks often of making pipe bombs and using them to kill numerous people."

The officials, from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, also said they had told the sheriff's deputy assigned to the school and two administrators at Columbine about the complaint. In response to the complaint, the deputy engaged in "light conversation" with the teen-ager, Eric Harris, and his friends, but did not pick up signs that Harris was engaged in a yearlong plot that ended in a massacre at the school.

In releasing a copy of the complaint today, the sheriff's office said it had not confronted Harris or his parents because the neighbor who made the complaint did not want the Harrises to know he had done so.

Last week, Harris and a friend, Dylan Klebold, attacked Columbine with 30 pipe bombs and guns, killing 12 other students, a teacher and themselves. The report, dated, March 18, 1998, also said that officials had received information that the two made and detonated pipe bombs. A month after the complaint was filed, Harris began a diary that laid out the plan to blow up the school and a grand scheme to attack neighboring homes, hijack a jet and crash in New York City.

At a news conference Friday, sheriff's officials, noting the volume of complaints involving bombs they received last year, defended themselves against mounting criticism that they had ignored signs that the two teen-agers were unstable and dangerous.

Attached to the two-page report were copies of Harris's Web pages delivered to sheriff's investigators by the neighbor, Randy Brooks Brown.

Although the report noted that Harris wrote three times on his Web site about "wanting to kill" Brown's son, Brooks, Lieut. John Kiekbusch said today that the investigation had not got "to the point where a crime was identified."

"We all learned a lesson on April 20th," Lieutenant Kiekbusch said when asked if his office had mishandled the complaint. "We need to take these in a more serious fashion."

It is not clear whether the sheriff's office knew that six weeks before the complaint, Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a van. The Browns, who have complained bitterly of inaction by the sheriff's office in the past, did not answer telephone calls this evening.

Investigators said they were unable to call up the Web site on their own computers. They said they did not contact the parents of the two young men because, as Deputy Mark M. Miller noted in his report, Brown "was very anxious in remaining anonymous in making this report and did not want Harris or Klebold to have knowledge about his reporting them."

Brown, the report said, had reported Harris to the sheriff's office in 1997, and now feared that he would take revenge on his son, a classmate.

"God I can't wait till I can kill you people," a section of Harris's Web site titled "Philosophy" said. "I'll just go to some downtown area in some big ass city and blow up and shoot everything I can. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame.

"I don't care if I live or die in the shootout, all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you" as possible, he said in one of many diatribes laced with obscenities, mispellings and phrases in broken German.

Harris, who was taking psychiatric medication at the time, wrote: "No, I am not crazy. Crazy is just a word."

After three and a half pages listing, "You know what I hate," he described the detonation of a homemade pipe bomb: "Flipping thing was heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, brain-twichin, ground-moving, insanely cool!"

In a follow-up complaint, dated April 11, 1998, a sheriff's deputy reported that Brooks Brown's mother, Judy, had complained that Brooks had just received an anonymous threatening E-mail. The reporting deputy wrote, "They are very concerned and requested an extra patrol for the night."

Despite the Browns' plea for anonymity, the death threats were reported in the crime column of the March 25, 1998, edition of The Columbine Courier, a weekly newspaper that serves the school neighborhood.

"The father downloaded and printed 10 pages in which the boy threatened his son three times," read the three-paragraph item. Without naming names, the article related how the father had filed a complaint with the sheriff's office. "The boy also explained how to make pipe bombs and use them against people."

While the complaint languished as an "open lead" for a "suspicious incident," the sheriff's office did talk to a dean at Columbine and to Neil Gardner, the deputy assigned to the school.

Deputy Gardner told the school's two deans that "Eric Harris was possibly messing around with pipe bombs and explosives," said Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for the county school district.

He said the deans were not informed about the Web site.

No action was taken by the school because, Kaufman said, Deputy Gardner told the administrators that the sheriff's office was investigating the complaint.

Steve Davis, the sheriff's spokesman, said today that "Deputy Gardner, with this knowledge, occasionally engaged Harris and Klebold, along with several of their friends and associates, in light conversation.

Deputy Gardner made no observations of inappropriate behavior and has stated that both Harris and Klebold treated him with appropriate respect."

But on April 20, Deputy Gardner responded to a call of gunfire at the school.

The first police officer to encounter the attackers, Deputy Gardner has described how a person he believed was Harris fired a fusillade of about 10 rounds of semiautomatic rifle fire at his patrol car. Deputy Gardner has said that he fired back four or five shots, then jumped behind a nearby Blazer and fired another three or five times.

Before retreating into the school, Harris apparently raked the Blazer with another volley, shattering the windshield and rear view mirrors and sending bullets ricocheting underneath the car. The deputy, one of two policemen to fire at the assailants, was not injured.

Officials said today that they had identified the person who furnished the young men with the semiautomatic handgun, a Tec-DC9. Dave Thomas, the County District Attorney, said that investigators have interviewed the last owner of the gun, as well as the pizza store employee who apparently served as a go-between.

This high-powered 9-millimeter pistol, the District Attorney confirmed, went from the manufacturer in Miami to a wholesaler in Illinois, to a gun shop in a suburb north of Denver, to a gun show outside of Denver last fall.

The sale of a handgun to a minor is a Federal offense. Klebold died at age 17. Harris turned 18 on April 9.

Crime laboratory technicians are conducting ballistics tests to determine which guns fired the fatal shots. If bullets fired by the Tec-DC9 did not kill anyone, the gun seller may only face charges of illegal gun peddling, rather than being implicated in the murders.

Law-enforcement officials said today that they still had not talked to the parents of the two suspects since they hired lawyers on the day after the shootings.

Meanwhile, Columbine students picked up their class schedules today at Chatfield High School, long an athletic archrival. Today, a new banner greets the Columbine students: "Rivals No More. Friends Forever."

Some high school students planned to join a demonstration on Saturday morning against the National Rifle Association, which is holding its annual meeting in Denver.

"Short term, we want to show the N.R.A. that we are not going to be receptive," said Ben Gelt, an 18-year-old Denver high school senior who has leafleted about 20 area high schools for the protest.

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