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Deputy's eyesight in question

By Trent Seibert
Denver Post Staff Writer

Nov. 23, 2000 - The Jefferson County sheriff's deputy who traded gunshots with Eric Harris in the opening moments of the Columbine massacre was not wearing his prescription eyeglasses, according to records unsealed this week.

That Neil Gardner was instead wearing non-prescription sunglasses while firing at a target 60 or 70 yards away could become an issue in negligence lawsuits filed by victims' families against the sheriff's department.

Might Gardner have had a better chance of hitting Harris if he'd been wearing his glasses? When the two traded shots, 11 of the 13 people killed by Harris and Dylan Klebold were still alive.

"If his vision is 20/30, no big deal," said James Rouse, an attorney who represents six families. "If it's 20/300, what's he doing shooting a gun?"

Gardner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Jefferson County sheriff's officials also were unavailable to answer questions about whether Gardner needed glasses to shoot and if it was improper for him not to be wearing them.

The mention of Gardner's glasses comes in a single paragraph in a report filed by Arvada police Detective Russ Boatright.

Boatright questioned Gardner several hours after Gardner traded shots with Harris on April 20, 1999. Boatright's nine-page report was among the documents released Tuesday under a court order.

"There's no follow-up," Rouse said. "They should be asking follow-up questions on issues that seem to be important."

It's not clear how important the glasses were. Boatright's report does note that Gardner was able to see clearly enough to give a detailed description of the gunman who was firing at him and that the shooter seemed to be "fidgeting" with a "dark-colored long rifle."

Jim Shults, a Colorado-based former SWAT trainer and critic of the Columbine response, said the glasses may not be significant.

Shults said that if Gardner, a 15year department veteran, could drive his car without glasses, he probably didn't need them to shoot.

In the police report, Gardner said he was driving an unmarked police vehicle.

It's more important for an officer to align the gun's sight at a threat than to see intricate details of that threat, Shults said.

Gardner, Columbine's school resource officer, was coming back from getting lunch at a nearby Subway sandwich shop when, at 11:15 a.m., the first call for help came over his radio.

He was responding to a "female down" call when he spotted Harris at the school doors. At 11:24 a.m., Harris emptied his 10-round rifle at the deputy from 60 to 70 yards away, striking two nearby police cars.

Gardner returned four shots from his .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol before Harris disappeared into the school.

Gardner told Boatright he may have hit the gunman in the right shoulder. But Harris' autopsy report does not indicate a gunshot wound other than the fatal self-inflicted shot to the head.

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