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Tapes show Columbine confusion

Some SWAT officers were sent to school, others to headquarters

Published August 7, 2000 at 4:41 p.m.

As the Jefferson County SWAT team responded to the Columbine High School shootings, confusion reigned over whether to send officers to the sheriff's headquarters in Golden or the crime scene, 17 miles away.

At least one officer was told to go to both locations.

That is among the information contained on more than 40 hours of recently released 911 and dispatch tapes from the day of the shootings.

Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said the department "apparently" made a decision to break from procedure that day and send some SWAT to Columbine and others to headquarters. SWAT officers typically are briefed and gather equipment at headquarters before going to a crisis.

Jefferson County officials have been criticized for several issues related to the shootings, including the SWAT response.

"Normally, they would come to headquarters," Stone said of the SWAT officers. "But this was not a normal situation."

The portrait of SWAT response, as played out on the tapes, is not that neat.

"We have a SWAT call out?" begins a call to dispatch, apparently from a SWAT officer. "We're takin' it into headquarters, I take it?"

The dispatcher begins to respond then checks with another operator.

"Uh, yeah, we're takin' it ... Where are they meeting? ... Carla? Where's SWAT meeting?"

The answer — Leawood subdivision, next to the high school — seems to bother the SWAT officer. "All right," he says, "all our gear's at headquarters."

The sheriff's office has previously acknowledged some problems in responding to the shooting, such as difficulty locating mortally wounded teacher Dave Sanders. Confusion in deploying the SWAT team is among several new images of law enforcement chaos revealed in the tapes.

Among other problems:

* Dispatchers and other officers could not reach the command post. At one point, the number dialed rang to a woman's cellular phone.

* No one might have been guarding the home of gunman Dylan Klebold, despite orders to do so.

* The trail of Klebold and fellow gunman Eric Harris often led to the Internet. But the sheriff's department seemed ill-equipped to deal with the technology.

* Dispatchers sometimes told callers that there was no list of those who had been killed or injured or of those who had fled to safety. At other times, they gave people a hot line number or told them to go to Leawood Elementary School, which had become an evacuation area.

Friends and relatives of Sanders were told he had been taken to Swedish Medical Center, taken to a different hospital or was still at the school.

On rare occasions, sheriff's officials went out of their way to check on students. But in one case, it was on behalf of another law enforcement officer.

Since the April 20, 1999, shooting, criticism of the sheriff's department fice has focused on whether a more rapid SWAT response could have saved Sanders' life. The tapes give little new information on that issue.

But they confirm accounts that police were aware of Sanders' location in the school and his deteriorating condition but still had trouble finding him.

"The injured patient that you have, is he on the upper level or lower level?" crackles one radio transmission. "That's the problem right now."

It is difficult to tell from the tapes alone if the chaos on the radio regarding SWAT deployment translated into a delay in reaching Sanders.

SWAT experts from across the country did not want to second-guess the efforts of Jefferson County officials that day.

Many of those inside the department refused to comment, citing pending lawsuits. The sheriff's department also declined to release an official list of SWAT officers, even though many of their names frequently appear on the tapes.

But Randy Brown, who led a recall effort against the sheriff and has listened to the tapes, was unsparing in his criticism of the police response.

"The SWAT teams failed the children of Columbine in every respect that day," he said, citing what he called a mismanaged deployment as one issue.

Most of those contacted inside the sheriff's department have not listened to the tapes.

"You may find and hear things I may not even be aware of," said Stone, who noted he was not monitoring all the radio traffic that day. "Take it for what you've got in the (Columbine) report."

When a crisis such as the Columbine shootings begins, SWAT members might be on patrol, in their offices or off duty. Dispatchers then page the officers, who include Jefferson County deputies and Arvada police officers.

But confusion over dispatching SWAT officers to Columbine is illustrated by the case of Arvada Officer A.J. DeAndrea, who at different times was told to go to two locations.

He answers his first page: "Officer DeAndrea, Arvada. SWAT callout?"

Dispatcher: "Yeah, you need to come to headquarters."

Later, dispatchers can be heard discussing who has checked in for SWAT. DeAndrea's name is not mentioned.

Dispatchers are told to page SWAT members who have not checked in. But they end up repaging people who already have called, including DeAndrea.

"I just got a second page for SWAT call-out," DeAndrea says.

Dispatcher: "We've had a shooting down at Columbine. The command post is meeting at Leawood (Drive) and Pierce (Street)."

DeAndrea: "Has the SWAT team already left the sheriff's department?"

Dispatch: "Let me find that out. ... SWAT's meeting down (at) Leawood and Pierce."

According to Stone, the SWAT team was broken up because some officers went to the scene to gather information. Others went to headquarters to gather special SWAT equipment.

Many departments use similar procedures when responding to certain crises, according to interviews with SWAT observers across the country.

Stone declined to comment further on the details of that day, citing the pending lawsuits.

DeAndrea also declined to comment.

Dispatchers that day handled a crushing load of sad, angry and arguably wasteful calls: One man who called spent precious moments trying to remember the title of a movie that mirrored the shooting.

And if dispatchers were confused, it's no surprise to national experts.

"Whenever you have anything the size of Columbine, there was bound to be a communications problem," said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and former Los Angeles Police Department officer. "You think you're marching east, but you're going south."

Jefferson County sheriff's Lt. Phil Domenico had similar sentiments.

"They probably didn't know," where to send people, he said of dispatchers. "They are confused."

He added: "Chaos would be a mild term ... for what was going on in dispatch that day."

A makeshift SWAT team of Jefferson County, Denver and Littleton officers was the first to enter the school, at 12:06 p.m., according to the sheriff's report. That was almost an hour after the shooting began.

At 12:41 p.m., a team led by Jefferson County Sgt. Barry Williams was mustered at the scene, according to the report. This is the team that would reach Sanders by 2:42 p.m.

An officer named Williams appears on the dispatch tapes calling in for SWAT. It is unclear where he goes first, although his comments indicate he is going to headquarters.

"(Jefferson County SWAT commander Terry) Manwaring says he wants a command post set up down south, but I can't get him back on the line to find out where," the dispatcher says.

"OK, I'll be on my way in," the officer says. "I'll try to get in contact with him in just a minute."

Williams did not return calls seeking comment.

As police struggled, so did friends and relatives in the search for Columbine students and teachers.

Dispatchers told callers they did not have any information on who had been evacuated, injured or killed.

But when Jefferson County sheriff's Deputy Aaron Fosler called to check on a friend's daughter who was at Columbine, officials seemed to go the extra mile.

Then-sheriff's Lt. Jeff Shrader made the call to another officer.

"Tell me if you can help me out with this," he says. "Aaron Fosler is a friend of a Littleton officer, you may know him, Sean Dugan."

Shrader later adds: "He's having trouble locating his daughter. And now they're having trouble locating the father. You happen to have any information about where he may be?"

The other officer, whose name is unclear, replies, "The father? ... No, but I can find out."

Shrader, now division chief of law enforcement, could not recall the phone call but said he was barred from speaking about events that day because of the lawsuits.

In the end, Fosler says he was told the same thing as everybody else: Dispatch did not have a list of students' whereabouts.

"I think it's just like anybody would have done," Fosler said of his call, "and I got the same information."

After repeated inquiries, dispatch did, at one point, make a call to try to locate Sanders.

Finding students and teachers was not the only problem for dispatchers. Sometimes they couldn't find the police.

One officer called in after checking on who was guarding the Klebold house.

"I just got off the phone with Littleton Police Department," he says. "They looked at me like I was crazy. 'What do you mean? We don't have a unit on Deer Creek, on Cougar Road."'

Dispatch: "You're kidding."

Officer: "No."

Dispatch: "All right, I'm getting a little bit frustrated here."

The officer has an idea.

"I'll try calling the command post," he says.

Dispatch: "Don't dial that 347 number; I just did, and it's disconnected. It goes to some lady's cell phone."

Officer: "So how do you get ahold of them?"

Dispatch: "I don't have any idea. I guess I'm going to have to get them on the radio."

Stone was not familiar with the specifics of who was guarding the Klebold house. But he acknowledged it might have been impossible to get into the command post while the "command bus" was being set up.

"Sometimes that phone isn't working at all until you get the lines patched through," he said, "But the radios are operational."

Some citizens called in with tips, and encountered another type of technological glitch. A caller found an Internet profile possibly linked to the suspects.

"Do you have an e-mail address there?" he asked.

"No, we don't," he is told.

Similar statements on the next tape.

"Sarge... do you have access to America Online right now?" a dispatcher asks a co-worker.

The reply: "No... I don't have any AOL accounts here."

Contact Jeff Kass at (303) 954-5212 or kassj@RockyMountainNews.com.

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