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Cover Story

Columbine Murders Offer Lessons for the Future

April incident, at the hands of two heavily armed teens, claimed the lives of 12 high school students and a teacher and reportedly had been planned for a year.

June 01, 1999  |  by Dennis Hall

The massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School outside Denver, Colo., in April was the worst schoolyard carnage by students in this nation's history and many providing training lessons to law officers across the country for years.

"What I'll always remember is the feeling that this can't be happening," an emotional Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokesman, Capt. Ray Fleer told POLICE a few days after the incident that captured the world's attention. The JCSO — an agency of approximately 300 sworn deputies — is handling the intense investigation of the shooting by two teens who also wounded 28 people at the school in Littleton, a town with a population of about 40,000.

The two suspects committed suicide at the scene.

Assisting in the probe have been the FBI, ATF and several police agencies.

Asked what America's police agencies could learn from the tragedy in the hopes of preventing- or al least minimizing the deaths and injuries from- these types of seemingly inevitable juvenile shooting incidents, Fleer said: "Do what you can; train and prepare as a department."

"But I think we'll all see some more lessons coming down the pike on this."

The Columbine H.S. shooting by two well-armed students from a campus group called "The Trenchcoat Mafia" was the latest in a rash of similar incidents around the country in the last 18 months. Those shootings had killed 14 people and wounded 40 others before April's massacre in Colorado.

As of POLICE's deadline, investigators were looking hard at the possibility of accomplices while trying to probe the extent to which Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, had planned their crime.

Meanwhile, a police search of Harris' home found a diary detailing a year-long plot to bomb the school, kill at least 500 classmates, murder neighbors, then hijack a jet and crash it into a major city.

Additionally, there were confirmed reports that a number of warnings about Harris had been brought to the sheriff's department's attention more than a year ago. Apparently, however, these leads had not been aggressively pursued by investigators, raising questions about how far police should go in following up tips that involve death threats and allegations of bomb making.

Media Coverage Not Accurate

Some media reports in the week following the shooting repeatedly raised issues surrounding the police response at the scene but a Jefferson County sheriff's public information officer, Deputy Wayne Halverson, told POLICE that "the media got a lot of it wrong."

"We had a deputy at the site when the incident started who was advised by a janitor that a bomb had gone off.

"That deputy immediately responded to the area, confronted one of the suspects and exchanged gunfire with him at the same time the school was calling 911.

"We had six more deputies on-scene within eight minutes," he said, adding that these officers attempted to assess the scene and maintain some kind of perimeter control while awaiting more backup units. "Some of our deputies are angry about the media coverage but more information will come out eventually about how we handled this.

"Something like this has never happened before anywhere. It's not easy or typical when you have 1,800 kids pouring out of school at you," he said. "We also know now that some students were holding doors shut out of fear, which prevented officers from getting inside the school."

As for coordination among law enforcement agencies on-site, Halverson said: "At one point we had 500-700 officers at the scene and it was a tremendous cooperative effort among local, county, state and federal law enforcement."

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