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Columbine settlement on the table

By Mike McPhee and Evan Dreyer
Denver Post Staff Writers

Nov. 29, 2000 - The families of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and one of the gun suppliers have offered a $1.6 million settlement to 13 victims' families to avoid years of legal wrangling.

The Nov. 20 offer follows a Sept. 25 request from lawyers for wounded students Sean Graves and Lance Kirklin for about $3 million in homeowners insurance coverage from the Harrises, Klebolds and three other defendants.

"As Winston Churchill would say, we are not yet to the end of the beginning," said Stephen Wahlberg, co-counsel for Graves and Kirklin and the chief settlement negotiator for all parties.

"We don't even have all the parties at the table," Wahlberg said. "And even if we reach a settlement, we don't know how to do the right thing." Records show the Klebold family's homeowners insurance policy could provide up to $1.3 million in settlement money, and the policy for Harris' family up to $300,000.

Wahlberg said discussions, ongoing since early this year, easily could fall apart.

While the Klebolds, Harrises and gun-seller Mark Manes have offered $1.6 million, gun suppliers Robyn Anderson and Phil Duran have not responded, Wahlberg said.

Also not included are the families of six slain students represented by lawyer Jim Rouse. Rouse declined to comment for publication, but the Nov. 20 settlement letter from the Harrises' lawyers says Rouse has repeatedly refused to join the negotiations.

Wahlberg would not say if a rift is emerging between families of survivors with extensive medical bills and families of those killed at Columbine on April 20, 1999.

Eighteen unrepresented victims and potential plaintiffs also are not included in the settlement proposal. They need to be, Wahlberg said, to preclude them from filing lawsuits in the future.

"The offer is contingent upon the settlement fully and finally resolving all of the claims of all of the victims and victims' families to whom the offer is being made," the Nov. 20 letter from Harris lawyer C. Michael Montgomery states.

"Lawyers in any civil litigation have an obligation to resolve the case," Montgomery said in an interview Tuesday. "And as with any case, that's what we're doing." Wahlberg and Gary Lozow, who represents the Klebolds, said they were disappointed the letter was leaked to the media. "We are still in the middle of extremely delicate negotiations," Wahlberg said.

"The Klebolds are hopeful that the good-faith efforts will carry on for all of the parties," said Lozow.

Wahlberg said he's trying to come up with a counter-proposal to the $1.6 million offer.

Lawyers for Manes, Anderson and Duran could not be reached for comment. Manes and Duran both pleaded guilty to providing Harris and Klebold, who were minors at the time, with a handgun. Manes is serving six years in prison, Duran 4_ years.

Anderson, who helped Harris and Klebold buy their three long guns, was never charged.

The victims who would be involved in the settlement are: wounded students Graves, Kirk lin, Anne Marie Hochhalter, Valeen Schnurr, Evan Todd, Jeanna Park, Mark Taylor, Casey Ruegsegger, Patrick Ireland and Richard Castaldo, and slaying victims Isaiah Shoels, Dave Sanders and Rachel Scott.

There are nine wrongful-death and negligence lawsuits pending in federal court on behalf of about 20 victims' families. Other defendants include government agencies such the Jefferson County school district and Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. They are not included in the settlement talks.

Wahlberg said his clients have ongoing and extensive medical bills. And even if all the assets of the Klebolds, Harrises, Maneses, Andersons and Durans were seized, "they wouldn't come close" to covering those costs.

"There's a limited amount of money and some very serious injuries that will require long-term care," Wahlberg said.

Kirklin's injuries included a gunshot wound to the face, and Graves was left partially paralyzed.

In addition to seeking a settlement among the dozens of participants, Wahlberg and co-counsel Walter Gerash also have asked President Clinton to establish a medical trust fund for the Columbine victims.

The White House in April turned down an initial $50 million request. The state also rejected a request to set up a fund. Depending on who succeeds Clinton, the new president also will be approached, Wahlberg said.

Wahlberg's clients and the other plaintiffs have until Dec. 22 to file final amended lawsuits in federal court, under a new schedule set Monday. A hearing on the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuits is scheduled for April 27.

Wahlberg said other defendants, including Ron Hartmann and James Washington, may be added to the lawsuit.

Hartmann and Washington surfaced last week among 11,000 pages of Columbine investigative materials released under a court order by the sheriff's office. The two are private gun sellers who sold one of three guns to Anderson, who bought the weapons for Harris and Klebold at a gun show.

Harris and Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded nearly two dozen others before killing themselves in the worst school shooting in U.S. history.

Denver Post staff writer Andrew Guy Jr. contributed to this report.

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