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  • Writer's pictureRita Gleason

Navigating the Evidence and Why Proper Names Matter

RANT commencing in 3...2...1...

Like most people who know more than just the basics about the Columbine High School shooting, I have a lot of concerns about how the police handled things before, during, and after the attack. So, by degrees, this problem is relatively minor but still warrants a "what were they thinking?!" commentary.

As you know, I'm in the process of converting all police and associated Columbine documents into searchable Word files to make navigating the evidence easier for researchers. Originally, it was meant to be a "simple" conversion- get the PDFs into Word and clean up anything that didn't convert properly. But as I began going through the documents again I was reminded about the issue with NAMES. There are thousands(!) of instances in which the names of the perpetrators, victims and witnesses are completely butchered. Shooter Dylan Klebold is identified countless times as KleYbold. Throughout a portion of injured victim Valeen Schnurr's statement she is consistently referred to as SCHURR. These aren't a huge deal since they are easy enough to figure out. But what about people like Aaron Hancey, who helped provide first aid to Mr. Sanders, who is variously referred to as things like Erin Haney and Erin Hulce? I cannot begin to relay the number of these kinds of egregious mistakes I have found.

Why does this matter? Because during an investigation, if someone tells you that "so and so" saw or did something and you write down "so and so's" name incorrectly, it SLOWS THINGS DOWN when you then have to go back and figure out who that is so that you can question them, too. Especially in a case of this nature, where there are literally thousands of witnesses that need to be interviewed and dozens of different investigators responsible for taking those statements.

It's understandable that when you are talking to high school kids that they may not know how to spell the last name of a friend or acquaintance. But it is completely unacceptable that the investigating officers did not consult class lists, the yearbook, etc. to confirm the identity of those mentioned. Maybe in the first 10- 12 hours after the attack this wasn't feasible, but it certainly was thereafter and every single one of those officers who took statements on that first day and every single officer on every day afterward should have used such a list to make sure they knew exactly who was being spoken of. It does no good to create a lead sheet for subsequent interviews if you don't actually know the name of the person that needs to be interviewed! It also does no good to input a misspelled or incorrect name into RAPID START, which is the program the police used to help them determine who had been and who still needed to be contacted. If Officer A enters the name Hulce and Officer B is searching the system for Hancey, it is going to take a while before someone figures out this is referring to the same person! Throughout the police documents you see names mentioned that appear to have no subsequent follow up, and it leads me to wonder how much of this is because the names are just plain wrong.

In undertaking the PDF to searchable Word file conversion, I realized that it would be pointless to to leave those mistakes in the 11k because if a researcher was looking for a specific name and it was entered incorrectly in the documents, they'd have trouble finding it (ex. victim Valeen Schnurr's name is misspelled 36 times in one of HER witness statements!).

So, in addition to converting the documents from PDF to Word, I am also checking each and every name against Columbine yearbooks, news reports, Internet searches, etc. to ensure proper spelling. For example, if person "X" mentions they were sitting with "Y" in the cafeteria I confirm the spelling of "Y's" name via one or more of these sources, then I look for "Y's" statement in the police documents to ensure that their version of events is consistent with "X's". This means that sometimes I am CHANGING spelling or a FIRST or LAST NAME within the police documents. I will ONLY do this if I am certain that I have correctly identified the person referred to; if I have any doubts I begrudgingly leave it as it is.

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