John Stone, Jefferson County sheriff during Columbine High School shooting, dies

John P. Stone, a former Jefferson County Sheriff who headed the office during the Columbine High School mass shooting, died Sunday morning while in hospice care in Eden Prairie, Minn. He was 73.

Elected sheriff in 1998, Stone served one term which was defined by Columbine, including the sheriff’s office’s initial response to the high school scene, where responders waited to enter the building, as well as controversies involving the aftermath of the April 20, 1999, mass shooting in which two student gunmen killed 12 students, a teacher, and then themselves. Twenty-four people were physically injured in the shooting and countless people, near and far, were psychologically scarred.

In 2002, when Stone decided not to run for re-election, he told The Denver Post:  “This was my dream job and it has turned into a nightmare.”

Current Sheriff Jeff Shrader, who served under Stone, recalled his former boss as a kind man who was committed to his family.

“John’s daughter called me this morning with the sad news. I worked with and for John when he was a county commissioner and then when he served one term as sheriff,” Shrader said. “In all the years I knew him, he was a kind and caring man who loved his family deeply. My sincerest condolences to his family and friends.”

After the Columbine shooting, a recall effort by locals, including some families of victims, was initiated against Stone. Area residents Randy and Judy Brown spearheaded a recall effort, saying the Sheriff’s Office, under Stone’s leadership, mismanaged its response to Columbine and the subsequent investigation. The Browns crossed swords with Stone, in part, because the sheriff once named their son as a suspect in the case. It was an unfounded accusation.

“I have no enmity, no  anger toward him, he was simply not qualified for that situation and that great a tragedy,” said Randy Brown. “I really believe he didn’t know what was going on with all the coverups of Columbine. There were so many, and there were other players involved who were more important than him. I’m really sad, what a shame. This makes me very sad.”

Born in Battle Creek, Mich., on July 7, 1949, Stone earned a criminal justice degree from San Jose State University in 1971. He later earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado Denver.

On May 28, 1971, Stone was drafted into the U.S. Army and after his release from active duty, he served with the California National Guard until October 1976.

Stone came to Colorado in 1974 and he served as a police officer in Lakewood for 13 years. Stone was elected a Jefferson County Commissioner in 1987 and he served District 3 for three consecutive four-year terms. He also served as president of the Bancroft Fire Protection District from 1982 until 1987.

As a commissioner, Stone was a “strong supporter of transportation improvements, particularly new roads, bridges and interchanges in the fast-growing south part of the county,” according to a county biography. He also supported county libraries and open space.

Gary Laura, a former Jefferson County commissioner, recalled a March 1996 trip with Stone to London where the two were watching a boxing match on television and the program was interrupted by breaking news — a shooting massacre in Dunblane, Scotland.

The news report described in detail that a “local man” walked into the elementary school, firing multiple shots from four pistols, killing 16 students, a teacher and injuring 15 others. The killer then shot himself.

“John was totally devastated by this horrible incident,” Laura said. “Of course at that time, John didn’t even know, nor was he thinking, that he would be Jeffco sheriff someday.”

Laura recalled Stone, his colleague and friend, as a prankster who was also known for his unbridled pursuit of frequent flyer miles.

One of Stone’s pranks involved Laura’s work desk. When Stone knew that Laura would be out of the office for awhile, Stone gradually, over time, lowered the desk by turning the height adjustment on each desk leg.

“After a few weeks, I noticed something was wrong with my desk,” Laura said. “It got so bad that I couldn’t pull my chair up to it without hitting my knees on the center drawer.”

Stone smirked with amusement until he finally told Laura what he had done. They readjusted the desk legs together.

In 2003, Stone worked in private security, founding JP Stone & Associates. In 2006, he was hired by Northwest Airlines as a district security coordinator based at Denver International Airport. Northwest transferred Stone to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport where he was regional security manager. He retired from Delta Airlines.

In April 2006, Stone met Susan Gates, at that time a Northwest Airlines flight attendant, while she was training at DIA. On Dec. 8, 2010, they were married in South Tahoe, Nevada.

“John and I really hit it off when we went on a date to the Minnesota Zoo,” Gates-Stone said in an interview prior to Stone’s death.  “We never separated after that day when we fell in love. We spent years traveling all over the world.”

She described their relationship as “soulmates” who met late in life.

Stone is survived by his wife; a daughter, Lori Babcock; brothers Jerry and Steven; a sister, Pat Ulicki; two stepsons and a stepdaughter; and two grandsons. He was preceded in death by a son, Brian; and his parents, Elvon and Norma Stone.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

Steve Garnaas was a staff writer with The Denver Post from December 1984 until January 1998.

 

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