- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

LITTLETON, Colo. The Columbine High School massacre has made District Attorney David Thomas famous. And infamous.

The lanky, mustachioed, Jefferson County lawman has appeared repeatedly on national television in connection with the shooting. Geraldo Rivera even refers to him as "my friend," and he has garnered the kind of attention politicians consider priceless.

But now he faces re-election. And although he wasn't among those lawmen on the parking lot with guns holstered while students were trapped inside and although he had nothing to do with the release to the media of the shooters' homemade video of the slaughter, he could bear the brunt of community anger in a race that's becoming a referendum on the Columbine tragedy.

"Given the horrific nature of this crime, it will be hard to imagine that Thomas won't be asked whether he did enough," said Denver political analyst Floyd Ciruli. "DA's races, certainly in more conservative communities, always revolve around, 'Are you tough enough on crime?' and here we have the crime of the century… . People feel someone has to be responsible."

Mr. Thomas has other vulnerabilities. He's a Democrat in Colorado's heavily Republican 1st Judicial District, which encompasses Jefferson and Gilpin counties. He has a solid challenger in Republican John Topolnicki, a 30-year career prosecutor in neighboring Arapahoe County.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to his re-election is the guilt-by-association factor. As the second most visible law-enforcement figure in the shooting's aftermath, he's inextricably linked to the much-maligned sheriff's department in the minds of some Columbine families.

"I've heard good things about Dave Thomas my wife's friend works in the DA's office, and she likes him," said Randy Brown, whose two sons attended Columbine last year and escaped the carnage. "But you have to wonder about someone's integrity when they're so closely associated with the sheriff's department. It appears to me that his career is more important than the truth."

Mr. Brown faults the district attorney for appearing to back Sheriff Stone during his continuing feud with the victims' families. "Anyone who is supporting or siding with Sheriff Stone is certainly supporting or siding with an indefensible position," said Mr. Brown.

Others argue that the Stone-Thomas connection is too much of a stretch for most voters to swallow. "Dave Thomas has no authority over John Stone except maybe persuasive authority," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor who had been viewed as a potential challenger to Mr. Thomas.

"Dave Thomas is always in trouble in that jurisdiction because he's a Democrat and it's Republican," said Mr. Silverman. "But I don't think voters are going to punish him for John Stone. People have short attention spans. They won't connect those dots."

Mr. Ciruli, the political analyst, said, "While there have been some pockets of dissatisfaction with Thomas, it's not as broad based as you see with Stone."

This isn't Mr. Thomas' first brush with a sensational murder case. Two years ago, he became involved with the JonBenet Ramsey investigation when he and other Denver-area district attorneys were named to an advisory board to assist Boulder prosecutors.

But it was Columbine that put him in the national spotlight.

First elected in 1992, Mr. Thomas bucked the district's Republican tide by building a reputation as a tough, effective prosecutor. Two of the six inmates on Colorado's death row were put there by Mr. Thomas. He was re-elected easily in 1996.

Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the Boulder congressional seat vacated by Rep. David Skaggs, ultimately won by Mark Udall. Thanks to a new state term-limits statute, Mr. Thomas ordinarily would be ineligible for a third term as district attorney, but the law allows him to run again because he was already in office when it took effect.

In an interview, Mr. Thomas, 51, stood by his record in the aftermath of the year-old massacre. On April 20, 1999, two Columbine seniors killed 13 and wounded 23 before taking their own lives, making it the worst school shooting in U.S. history.

"I don't think that will be an issue," said Mr. Thomas. "I didn't conduct the investigation, and I didn't have an opportunity to see the report [before it was released]. It seems to me that the controversy is about things I have no control over, like the [police] response."

"But the test will come in November, I guess," he added.

With the two gunmen dead, Mr. Thomas' office instead went after those who sold them the four firearms. In November, Mark Manes, 22, was sentenced to six years in prison for selling a gun to a minor. A second culprit, Philip Duran, is awaiting sentencing for supplying weapons to the gunmen.

"I don't think anybody could say Manes was treated anything but harshly," said Mr. Thomas. "We didn't give him anything."

But his decision to let off Columbine senior Robyn Anderson left some families stunned. Shortly before the shooting, Miss Anderson, then 18, bought two firearms for killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at a gun show.

Mr. Thomas has explained repeatedly that Miss Anderson could not be charged because she didn't break any laws. "They need to change some of the statutes," he said. "What she did wasn't a crime."

As far as Brian Rohrbough is concerned, however, Mr. Thomas just wasn't trying hard enough. Mr. Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed in the massacre, filed one of the 15 wrongful-death lawsuits pending against the sheriff's department.

"He [Mr. Thomas] could have charged her with accessory to murder, or contributing to the delinquency of a minor," said Mr. Rohrbough. "You can't say she doesn't qualify for those. There's no excuse for cutting her a deal."

Mr. Rohrbough also says he was rankled by what he saw as the district attorney's grandstanding in the weeks after the shooting.

"I probably wouldn't support him just because of the way the whole thing's been handled," said Mr. Rohrbough. "For example, he said he met with all the families and told them their child had been killed. Well, that's just not true. He's never met with me, and I know two other families who say the same thing."

Mr. Thomas also has been criticized for letting Harris slip through the cracks while he was part of the district attorney's juvenile diversion program. Both Harris and Klebold were referred to the program, which allows first-time offenders to avoid the criminal-justice system, after they were caught breaking into a truck.

One of the program's requirements is that the juveniles stay out of trouble. In March 1998, however, Randy and Judy Brown filed a complaint with the sheriff's department about Harris, saying he had threatened their son Brooks, was making pipe bombs and had posted a violence-spouting Web site.

The Browns asked to remain anonymous for fear that Harris would seek revenge on Brooks.

The sheriff's office has been blasted for conducting only a cursory investigation into the complaint. But the district attorney's office also has come under fire for failing to crack down on Harris after the Brown report was filed.

Kathy Sasak, the county's assistant district attorney, said the office never received the complaint. "We had nothing formal referred to us until after April 20," she said. "Then we were told the report was made, but that [there was a request that] it remain confidential, which wouldn't be out of the ordinary."

Mr. Rohrbough isn't buying it. "They had the information and didn't care about having the information," he said.

Mr. Thomas also raised the ire of some Columbine families when he came to the sheriff's department's defense.

"When he [Mr. Thomas] says, 'I've reviewed the complaint against Eric Harris and did not find it actionable,' well, if a kid can commit three felonies and threaten my son's life and that's not actionable, there's something wrong there," said Mr. Brown.

Both candidates for district attorney have strong ties to Columbine. Mr. Thomas' two older children are graduates of Columbine his daughter, Carrie, played on a volleyball team coached by Dawn Anna, the mother of shooting victim Lauren Townsend.

Coincidentally, the Republican candidate, Mr. Topolnicki, also saw his two sons graduate from Columbine. The 57-year-old prosecutor, who lives just a few blocks from Eric Harris' home, says he won't raise Mr. Thomas' handling of the tragedy as an issue during the campaign.

"I will absolutely not politicize Columbine I will not do that," he said, adding that he instead would run on his own record.

After the shooting, Mr. Thomas served as co-chairman of the Mile High United Way's Healing Fund, the largest of the Columbine funds, which collected $4.4 million for victims' families, injured students and community-outreach agencies. The fund is no longer accepting donations.

His re-election chances may hinge on Columbine, but Mr. Thomas says that the shooting is one of the reasons he decided to run again. "It's infused me with a desire to clamp down on violent crime even more," he said.

Mr. Thomas also wants to find an answer to the final unresolved question of the Columbine massacre:

"I'd really like to figure out why this crime occurred," he said. "Some people say you can't they were just crazy but I'm one who thinks there are motivations and reasons for everything. I'd like to understand where the hatred and anger came from."

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