Greg Bohlen was directing traffic on April 20, 1999, when he got the news that changed the world.
“Shots fired at Columbine High School.”
Back then, he was Cpl. Bohlen of the Littleton Police Department. Today, he’s Chief Bohlen at the Colorado School of Mines. But so much else has changed.
“I’d be silly to say it didn’t change me,” he said. “I don’t think it had a negative impact upon me. It changed me as a tactical officer, as far as what we do. My lesson learned, I think, is that we did a lot of good things. I wish we could have done a lot more. But I was proud that we took care of each other. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it doesn’t bother me to talk about it. … I don’t want to be that guy where people go, ‘Oh, that’s the guy that doesn’t talk about Columbine,’ but I also don’t want to be ‘that Columbine guy.’ I’ve never wanted to be that guy, but internally, I’m proud of it.”
At a burly 6-foot-2, Bohlen is more grizzly bear than teddy bear. He gets a gleam in his eye when he Tasers his police-academy students at Arapahoe Community College (with their permission, of course), and laughs at them all the way through pepper-spray day. But his eyes light up when he talks about his kids and his wife, Pam, and they soften as he recalls holding the body of Columbine student Rachel Scott, dead on arrival.
‘Bedlam’ at scene
The day of the Columbine shootings started inauspiciously, when a truck took out a pole at Santa Fe Drive and Prince Street. Bohlen was directing traffic at the scene with fellow officers when the calls started coming in. It took them just a few minutes to get to the school.
“But it was already just bedlam,” recalls Bohlen. “A lot of people were standing around waiting to be told what to do, and I was putting my SWAT gear on. But every agency was doing what they were supposed to do. For me, the biggest piece of the communication problem was people not talking to each other.”
Because Littleton SWAT officers carry all their gear all the time, Bohlen was able to suit up right away.
“Then I look up and see Littleton Fire Rescue coming really slowly down Pierce Street, and the back doors are open,” he said. “I see paramedics I know, and they’re walking next to the vehicle. They were all solemn. I look in the back of the rescue unit, and there’s these two boys basically stacked on top of each other. Just from the looks on the paramedics’ faces, not so much what they said, I could tell they’d been through quite an ordeal in that short period of time. That’s when I knew this wasn’t just kids screwing around. It really brought to light the seriousness of what was going on.”
He and fellow SWAT Officer Chet Neal were assigned to a lead team, along with officers from Denver and Jefferson County, to recover three students lying near the southwest corner of the school. Recall the image of the SWAT team on the lime-green fire truck: Bohlen was the one in full gear with the longer rifle.
“Chet and I spoke and said, ‘We’ve got to stay together, buddy.’ The plan was to go to the south parking lot. I didn’t know any of the other guys, but some of it was kind of unspoken. We were going to go down there and get those kids.”
But on the way, they were diverted to a different location. Neal and some of the others on the ad-hoc team saw an open door and slipped inside the building — contrary to popular reports that no officers entered until it was too late, notes Bohlen.
“So suddenly, we’re a smaller team,” he said. “We see a kid banging on the window, and we tell him to come out the door. I couldn’t even tell you what he looked like now. But we got him out.”
When they reached the downed students, Bohlen covered other officers as they ran to get Richard Castaldo.
“I go to look at the kid, and he’s been riddled with bullets,” recalls Bohlen. “It’s hard to accept that people are shooting each other in a school. We tell them we’ve got one victim out, but he’s immobile. They sent a deputy car. I tried to pick him up by myself, but I couldn’t. Another guy helped, and we got him to the car.”
Next they brought Scott to him. Bohlen knew she was dead, and laid her on the ground.
The team set to work evacuating a flood of kids from the building. When Bohlen returned to a covering position by the fire truck, he looked up to find the rest of the officers gone.
“I had to leave Rachel and Daniel Rohrbough,” he said, obviously pained.
He made his way back to the tactical command post in front of the school.
“They wanted me to stay and debrief, but I asked my sergeant, ‘Where’s our guys?’ He said, ‘They’re in there.’ And I said, ‘Then that’s where I’m going.” And he didn’t argue with me.
“Being back with my team really gave me a sense of comfort. We just fed off each other. We were just doing what we do. We wanted to find those kids and stop them. We knew about Dave Sanders, we just couldn’t find him for a number of reasons, like communication and misinformation. I found a baseball in the hallway, and I picked it up. It reminded me these were just kids. I kept it in my SWAT bag until I left SWAT.”
They made their way through the school, clearing areas and “bucket brigading” kids to safety. They smashed in doors with fire extinguishers and tried to follow the trail of ammunition shells to the killers.
“Every room took on its own personality,” he remembers — in some, terrified kids were hiding in closets or the doors were barricaded with desks; in a few, police were welcomed with cheers.
“I saw inside the library, but I didn’t go in,” he said. “They had us stand down. We were fatigued, but we didn’t realize it. The retreat from the school was pretty slow for us. We dragged our feet because we thought there was more for us to do. I wanted to do more, we wanted to do more. We just stood there and kind of looked at each other. We were making sure we were OK. They eventually had to come get us and get us out of there.”
Worries about family
The rest of the day was spent debriefing, meeting with a mental-health professional, communing with colleagues and, finally, home.
“I did worry about my family,” he said. “It’s difficult on Pam. But I’m so very, very lucky. We met when we were 15. She didn’t like what I did, but she accepted it. I was thinking, ‘My wife is going to see this on TV, and she is going to freak out.’ She knew I would be there, because she knows that is what I do. I would be there doing my job. … When I got home, there was my uniform shirt sitting there on the couch, all balled up. My wife had been cuddled up with it all day.”
After it was all over, then-Chief Gary Maas awarded every LPD employee who worked that day a certificate of recognition. When Maas abruptly retired in 2006 after a rather scathing independent study suggested a change in leadership might be in order, Bruce Beckman, then a police commander and now a city councilor, took the helm. He awarded Bohlen and Neal each a Medal of Valor.
In the meantime, it didn’t take long for the reporters to find them.
“But (Cmdr.) Bill Black always said the best SWAT team is the team that goes and does its job unseen and unheard,” he recalls. “So we didn’t do interviews. They tried, they tried like crazy. … I still had to drive home that way. The media moved in and dug up the street, they had to put power in. I still had to drive by it and see it, but we never talked to them. They’d get our pager numbers, and they’d say, ‘This is so and so and I need to interview you.’ And we’d say no. And they’d say, ‘You don’t understand. I’m so and so.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
Telling Littleton’s story
It didn’t stop the media from talking about them, though.
“It was frustrating to hear on talk radio, ‘It’s their job to get killed, not the students,’” he said. “There’s no constitutional requirement to die in the line of duty. We serve and protect, but if we don’t take care of each other, we can’t take care of you.”
Bohlen has spoken to the Law Enforcement Network and other agencies about that day.
“I think we have something to say, and we can talk to SWAT, and we can tell Littleton’s story,” he said.
Some Littletonites bristle at the idea that the city is so identified with a tragedy that happened just outside its borders. But Bohlen points out that every day, first responders who were there still work here, still carry those memories, still live by the lessons learned in Columbine’s hallways where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves.
“You could argue it wasn’t in Littleton, but you weren’t going to win that fight,” he said. “Eventually it came down to that it’s the Littleton community. … Our kids, there are things that they’re never going to know. You and I know what it’s like to live without cell phones and school shootings. The world’s changed. Columbine wasn’t the first time, but it had never been of that magnitude before, with bombs and napalm and propane tanks. And that two people could form a relationship and conspire for that long — it’s stunning.”
One lesson Bohlen hopes the entire community learned is: “See something, say something.”
“Don’t say, ‘I thought it was just a prank. I thought they were making a video.’ Well, who wouldn’t think that?” he said. “It’s really impossible to overreact now. People say, ‘We don’t want to bother you.’ Well, this is what we do.”