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Remembering Columbine: Law enforcement officers still struggle with memories, criticism

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By AJ Vicens

"I had never prepared to work a scene like that — to walk into a school that should be loud and filled with laughter and instead see bullet holes. When you see dead children and a dead teacher, it's so senseless."

— Investigator Kate Battan

For the law enforcement officers who responded to the shootings at Columbine High School 10 years ago, life has never been the same.

From the emotional scars left by that day’s horrific events to the second-guessing that came afterward, for many — including some members of the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office — it remains difficult to put the experience in the past.

Two Jeffco officers talked with the Courier about their memories of April 20, 1999, and the challenges they’ve faced in the years since.

Investigator Kate Battan

Kate Battan, one of the sheriff's homicide investigators, headed the investigation into the deaths of the 15 people who died at Columbine that day.

Battan came to the sheriff's department in 1986, and moved to investigations in 1992, where she focused primarily on complicated financial crimes. In 1996, she worked her first homicide, but nothing could have prepared her for Columbine.

The largest homicide investigation prior to Columbine was that of William "Cody" Neal, who raped three women in the summer of 1998 before killing them.

A room at the sheriff's office in Golden holds Battan’s Columbine files. Six large metal cabinets contain more than 30,000 original documents related to the case. The color-coded books represent different aspects of the investigation; several concern the library, others focus on the cafeteria. There are separate volumes for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

One cabinet contains more than 5,100 leads and tips the sheriff's office received in the hours and days after the shootings.

Battan arrived on the scene that afternoon and got an inkling of what was to come. She had to interview thousands of students and dozens of teachers, some who knew nothing about what happened and some who knew a lot. The initial on-scene investigation was complicated by hundreds of reporters, sometimes interviewing students before police did. Battan heard many conflicting stories.

"It caused a real challenge for the investigation," Battan says. "It's crazy the amount of information getting out there that was wrong."

Battan's team would grow to include 80 investigators. And although Battan was a seasoned investigator accustomed to keeping her emotions separate from work, the case was very difficult.

"I had never prepared to work a scene like that — to walk into a school that should be loud and filled with laughter and instead see bullet holes,” Battan said. “When you see dead children and a dead teacher, it's so senseless."

To this day, Battan sees images of the victims, and her heart breaks a little more each time.

"It makes me want to do a better job and be a better investigator," she says.

Battan was not immune to the storm of criticism and litigation that came in the wake of the tragedy. She says that although she and her co-workers did the best they could, she wishes some things had been handled differently.

Her biggest regret is that the sheriff's office failed to follow up on a report made by the Brown family a year before the attacks. Harris threatened Brooks Brown, a one-time friend and Columbine student, through a Web page. The Brown family reported the threats to the sheriff's office.

"That is a hard pill for the sheriff's office to swallow," Battan says, adding that the report "didn't reach the top of the stack."

Since then, the sheriff's office has learned to take Internet threats much more serious, she says. "We learned that from Columbine."

After 10 years, Battan says the sheriff's office has come a long way, but it can always improve.

"We're not saying we're perfect," she says. "With the benefit of hindsight, we might have changed some things."

Battan also regrets that many myths about the shootings managed to become embedded in the collective psyche. For example, Harris and Klebold were not loners with few friends, as was widely reported. And the shootings did not last for hours — the gunfire actually ended after about 17 minutes.

Battan also objects to the manner in which the tragedy has been characterized.ee "I don't consider it a ‘school shooting,’ " Battan says. "Their primary objective was to blow up the school. Had they been successful, we would have had more victims than Oklahoma City."

Division Chief Dave Walcher

"That day, I was leaving the department right when it happened," Walcher recalled. "I heard a barrage of radio traffic. When it really hits the fan, you can tell by people's voices on the radio. Something was going on that was big."

Walcher, who had recently been promoted to lieutenant, drove from the sheriff's office in Golden to Columbine High School in less than 20 minutes. He arrived between 11:40 and 11:45 a.m., established the scene's command post, and took operational control of the law enforcement response to what was then the worst school shooting in America.

The situation quickly became "unmanageable," Walcher says, as 900 police officers and other law enforcement agents from 34 agencies arrived.

"Some of them were backup we requested," Walcher says. "But some heard about it on the radio and came down on their own."

Minutes after Walcher's arrival, an "ad hoc" group of police officers, some SWAT members with gear and others in plainclothes formed a team and headed into the school.

Early discussions among Walcher and other officers were focused on getting the scene under control.

"Because of all the different reports, we thought there were six to eight shooters," Walcher says.

He spent the rest of the afternoon trying to coordinate various SWAT actions, which became difficult because teams could hardly hear their radios amid the blaring alarms inside the school. The SWAT teams went door to door, evacuating rooms full of students and teachers.

Walcher stayed at the school until 2 a.m. April 21, when he went home to try to sleep.

"I came back at 5 or 5:30 (a.m.)," he said. "I couldn't really get any sleep." He wanted to make sure the scene would be properly handed off to the investigations team.

Walcher went in the library, where the worst of that day's violence took place.

He was hit instantly with "the tragedy of it all."

"It was the worst thing I'd ever seen," Walcher says. "I'm a human being like everybody else."

In the years since the shootings, Walcher has had to deal with personal and legal issues. The sheriff's office was hit with a flurry of lawsuits related to its response that day. "They make it sound like I was the one who wanted to get someone killed," Walcher says. "It was a brutal couple of years, a difficult time in this organization."

After the tragedy, he spoke with other law enforcement agencies about the lessons learned that day.

Walcher bristles when people tangentially connected to Columbine embellish their roles, or when someone who wasn't there talks about what went wrong.

"I don't Monday-morning quarterback other agencies," Walcher says. "Unless you were there, you shouldn't have an opinion. In a perfect world, you have a scene, you show up, and you know what's going on. That (day) was very disjointed; things were fluid. From my point of view, you show up and do the best you can do at the time."

Walcher says some good has come from the experiences. First-responders now have maps and floor plans of all schools in their cars, along with information on building keys, alarm and sprinkler systems and up-to-date contact names and phone numbers. The sheriff's office also teaches deputies “rapid and immediate deployment,” or RAID, to reduce the department's reliance on SWAT.

"I'm smarter than I was, better educated and better trained than I was," Walcher says.

If a similar situation happened today, there would still be operational problems, he adds.

"But apples to apples, we would do better."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.