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12/20/99 -- 2:30 AM

Families angry at sheriff's handling of investigation and media

LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) - Even as a child, Richard Castaldo was never afraid of the dark, his mother says.

That changed after the Jefferson County sheriff's office allowed a Time magazine reporter to see videotapes made by the two teen-age gunmen who attacked Columbine High School, killing 12 students, a teacher and themselves. Richard was shot eight times and is paralyzed.

The detailed account of the videotapes made Time's cover last week and also made headlines across the country. The night after the reports were published, Richard had nightmares.

``He started crying out and I crawled in bed with him and held him,'' Connie Michalik, Richard's mom, said. ``He is an 18-year-old kid who has never needed a night light, but he wouldn't let me leave until I set one up.''

Ms. Michalik and Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine, want Sheriff John Stone to quit or be ousted for releasing the tapes that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made of their plans to slaughter students and teachers and blow up the school.

Both parents say their suffering has been immensely more painful because of what they call Stone's incompetence and grandstanding.

Stone says he won't resign.

The sheriff has been on the defensive since the April 20 attack. On the day of the shooting, his staff refused to give an estimate of the number of people killed, but Stone stepped in and said it could be as high as 25. The final toll was 15.

Over the next few days, Stone's department was criticized when it was learned Harris and Klebold had probably killed themselves three hours or more before SWAT teams entered the high school.

In the meantime, teacher David Sanders bled to death. Ms. Michalik says Richard also would have died if he had been inside the school; he was wounded outside, where he was rescued by officers.

Stone and others in his department said they had to wait to assemble a strong team before entering the building that might have been filled with killers.

Then, while Stone's staff refused to release information on evidence in the case, the sheriff released details of Harris' diary to a local reporter. It included entries saying the duo hoped to kill 500 people at the school, then hijack a plane and crash it in New York City.

He also told reporters he believed three teens arrested near the school the day of the attack might have been involved. His staff later rousted him out of bed to hold a news conference disputing report.

The latest controversy involves his decision to let a Time see the videotapes. It published a story last week based on the tapes that critics said served the killers' goals of becoming famous for the killings.

``It seems as if the murders of the 13 innocent people were exploited to gain positive public relations for politicians and their departments,'' said former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman. ``The most offensive part is the Jefferson County sheriff's department is finishing the job for Klebold and Harris.''

Denver Post columnist Chuck Green reported Friday that Stone had relied on reports from subordinates about what the tapes contained until he reviewed the tapes for himself - after they had been released.

``The sheriff himself had never bothered to watch the tapes,'' Green said. ``Although he is in charge of the Columbine investigation, Sheriff Stone hadn't taken the time to sit in a chair and watch the remarkable videotapes of Harris and Klebold planning the crime.''

Also on Friday, U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland expressed concern about the release by Stone's office of a portion of an Internet threat that forced the closure of Columbine High School on Thursday and Friday. The material was released before a teen-ager was arrested in connection with the threat in Florida.

Stone told a local reporter Tuesday that he made a poor decision by letting the Time reporter see the videotapes, but doesn't plan to quit.

``If I did something ethically wrong or if I botched the investigation, I would consider it,'' Stone said. ``But I got `scoundreled' by a national publication. ... I don't consider that an ethical violation.''

Stone insisted Time had agreed to view the videos only for background and promised not to quote from them.

Time executives contended there was no such agreement.

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