Identifying the Deceased

    Waiting outside for the bomb squad and the SWAT teams to declare the school building safe were various people, including Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Nancy Bodelson and Sheriff’s Investigator Kate Battan, lead investigator for the case. 

    Earlier Tuesday evening, the Coroner, Sheriff Stone, District Attorney Dave Thomas and several victim advocates had met with the families of students still missing.  Each family had been asked to write down information about their child – the age, hair and eye color, what the student wore to school that day, if she or he had obtained a driver’s license, and any other characteristics that might help in the preliminary identification of the deceased.

    Families were provided a special phone number to the Coroner’s Office should they need to speak to the Coroner or her staff.  Contact was also possible through the Sheriff’s Office victim advocates.  In Jefferson County, the coroner generally provides official identification and death notification.  Dr. Bodelson told the families they should not expect to hear from her office until a positive identification had been made.

    While waiting for the school to be secured, Bodelson and Battan searched through a copy of the 1998 Columbine High School yearbook. They were looking for photographs of the missing students -- in preparation for entering the crime scene.  The command post declared that, due to the continuing searches and safety concerns, no investigators would be allowed into the building until the following morning.

    When the coroner and the investigators entered the school early Wednesday morning, there was tremendous pressure to identify the deceased and notify the families as quickly as possible. Throughout Wednesday, the coroner and an expanded team of coroner investigators completed their scene investigation, removed the bodies and personally transported them to the coroner’s office in Golden.

    While the crime scene was being processed, DA Thomas and Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter decided to proceed with a preliminary death notification to each family still waiting for confirmation.  On Wednesday afternoon, they told each family that, based on current information obtained by the authorities, their child or spouse was likely among the fatalities.

    Each Columbine fatality required a positive identification and an autopsy. That effort started late Wednesday night with each person being officially identified and the families notified. Fingerprints were used for most of the identifications. 

    Four additional forensic pathologists, from Boulder, Denver, and Arapahoe counties, were asked to help so that the autopsies could be completed as quickly as possible.  By Thursday afternoon, all autopsies were completed, the cause of death determined in each case and the bodies released to the mortuaries designated by the families.

    Information about each case was kept confidential, shared only with limited law enforcement personnel and the individual families. However, a general media statement acknowledged that, from the preliminary investigation, all the deaths were the result of gunshot wounds.  Two deaths were “consistent with self-infliction.”  Thirteen autopsy reports have been sealed by the court.