This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 3, 1999
At first they thought it was a prank, the kind of crazy thing that students just a month from graduation might pull. They remembered some of those stunts - like the time a bunch of seniors hauled a big balloon shaped like an ice-cream cone from the Dairy Queen down the road and tethered it to the roof of Columbine High School. So even when they heard the sharp staccato sound - pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! - they never imagined that someone might really, truly be doing the unimaginable. Fifteen-year-old Chanelle Plank and her friends in math class heard the noise but thought some older kids might be pretending to attack the school, maybe making a video of the whole thing to laugh over later. Then they heard bullets twanging off the steel lockers, and suddenly "we were like, oh wow, he's got a gun. It's for real."
"It's for real" - and the once-placid Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., takes its place at the head of the lengthening litany of American towns made infamous by murderous teens. Plank and her friends ran to safety in the park across the street from Columbine High when it became clear that the pop! pop! pop! was indeed the sound of gunfire. Others were not so lucky - 12 students and a teacher were shot to death by the two students who ended their rampage by putting their guns to their own heads and blowing out their brains. Twenty-three more were wounded, several critically. It was by far the greatest toll in the spate of school shootings that has turned places like Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss., into sad symbols of a society seemingly paralyzed by the inexplicable violence visited on it by its own children.
The massacre in Littleton was shocking, to be sure, but at the same time all too familiar. Once again, the red-eyed teens weeping in each others' arms; the instant memorials fashioned from flowers, poems, balloons and stuffed animals; the squads of professional "grief counsellors" consoling the survivors; and the vows of politicians that "this must never happen again." Once again, the predictable finger-pointing. Champions of family values bemoaned the decline of same. Media critics criticized the media for polluting the culture with images of violence. And, of course, proponents and opponents of gun control conducted their own well-rehearsed verbal shootout. Legislators in Colorado and at least four other states hastily withdrew legislation designed to loosen gun controls, or pushed ahead with laws to tighten controls. The National Rifle Association, which in a stroke of masterfully bad timing had scheduled its annual convention in Denver this week, scaled it back from three days to one and quickly took down billboards it had put up around the city. They showed NRA president Charlton Heston clutching a rifle alongside the slogan: "Join me."
Even the armies of experts, though, seemed finally to concede that they had no good answers to the biggest and perhaps unanswerable question: why? Why did 17-year-old Dylan Klebold and 18-year-old Eric Harris, sons of the comfortable American middle-class, turn into mass murderers? Their backgrounds provided no obvious explanation. Littleton, on the southern outskirts of booming Denver, rolls out towards the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in a typical suburban sprawl of upscale housing developments and strip malls. Most of the 1,965 students at Columbine High lack for little; the school's parking lots were jammed last week with the kids' late-model cars. Klebold lived with his parents, Thomas, who runs a real estate company, and Susan, a college counsellor, in a $750,000 house on an exclusive canyon road. Almost every day, neighbours say, he drove his old BMW to the Harris family's $300,000 home on a cul de sac in a 10-year-old development called Chatfield Estates to hang out with his close friend Eric, whose father Wayne is a retired air force pilot.
Somehow, though, they felt like outcasts in a school whose complicated social taxonomy was dominated by athletes and preppies - what one student last week derisively called the "Abercrombie and Fitch army" after the upscale retail chain. Harris and Klebold, said those who knew them, felt scorned and rejected, and were determined to take their revenge. They did it at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, as students were in the midst of their lunch break. Dressed in their trademark long black coats, they walked into an entrance adjacent to the school cafeteria and opened fire. On the way inside they shot two students; their bodies lay near the doorway for the next 4 ½ hours.
As investigators recounted later, Klebold and Harris had an astonishing arsenal of weapons: a 9-mm assault rifle, a semiautomatic pistol with a 36-shot magazine, two sawed-off shotguns and a supply of some three dozen homemade bombs. They set some of them off, sending glass shards and shrapnel tearing into the bodies of their victims. As the two made their way through the hallways, students said later, they laughed.
Hundreds ran for safety - outside into the bright sunlight of a shirtsleeve spring day, or deep into hiding places inside the school. Teachers herded students into classrooms and even closets. Craig Nason, 17, was one of 60 students who crammed into an office off the choir room and barricaded themselves inside with filing cabinets and desks. "We heard the guns going off as they came up the stairs," he told Maclean's. "You could hear it right outside the room. We were like, who are these guys? When are they going to run out of ammo? It was like there was an army in there." Students called home on cellphones; a cacophony of beepers erupted as fearful parents tried to contact their children. Nason and the others huddled in fear for 2 ½ hours before SWAT team officers came to get them out.
The worst carnage was upstairs, in the second-floor library. Harris and Klebold trapped about 30 students there, and methodically went about selecting victims. One of them spotted a black youth, 18-year-old Isaiah Shoels, called him a "nigger," and shot him in the head as he begged for his life. They looked under a table where a girl was trying to hide, said "peekaboo!," and shot her as well. One of them asked 17-year-old Cassie Bernall: "Do you believe in God?" When she replied, "Yes, I do believe in God," he shot her to death too. They killed 10 students in the library before turning their weapons on themselves. Their youngest victim, Steven Curnow, was just 14 years old.
After it was all over, when Littleton turned to the business of grieving and groping for answers, it was clear in hindsight that there had been many signs that Harris and Klebold were deeply disturbed. Until two years ago, according to students who knew them, they blended into the school. But in their junior year (Grade 11), something went badly wrong. "They totally changed," recalled Mike Paavilainen, 17, standing outside Light of the World Roman Catholic Church where he had just attended a meeting for parents and students. "They started wearing all black and keeping to themselves. It was kind of weird."
They wore long black coats and joined a group of 15 to 20 students who called themselves the Trench-coat Mafia - TCM for short. They despised the jocks and preppies at Columbine High, the clean-cut kids who they said taunted them for dressing all in black. They listened to music with nihilistic, suicidal themes - so-called industrial rock from Germany and the death-cult music of Marilyn Manson. They identified with so-called Goth culture, with its black clothing and dark makeup. Harris developed a fascination with everything German, and talked about admiring Hitler, whose birthday fell on the day of the attack, April 20.
But even students who knew them could not agree that they posed an obvious threat. For all their anarchistic posing, Klebold and Harris faithfully attended before-school bowling classes that started at 6:30 a.m. three days a week. "They were nice guys," said a 17-year-old student who was clad all in black, sucking on a cigarette and would give only his first name, Nick. "We'd go for a smoke and talk about philosophy - Pluto and Aristotle and shit." (He meant Plato, but the sense was clear.) The problem, he told Maclean's, was all the rival cliques that divided Columbine High, with the trench-coat group at the bottom of the pecking order. "The jocks put them down," said Nick. "They get away with everything and people like me get away with nothing. Dylan and Eric really hated that."
They got into trouble with the law. In January, 1998, they were arrested for breaking into a car and placed in a so-called diversion program for juvenile offenders. In February, they completed that with glowing reviews. Harris, a youth court official wrote, seemed to enjoy an "anger management" course he was required to take, and "is a bright young man who has a great deal of potential." Klebold was also described as "bright" and "likely to succeed in life."
It was, of course, a complete misperception. Even as they were being schooled in "anger management," they were spinning out of control. A diary kept by one of the boys - police would not initially say which one - showed they had been planning the attack for a year, timing it for Hitler's birthday, and had stockpiled bombs for a considerable period. "We want to be different," the diary said, "we want to be strange and we don't want jocks or other people putting [us] down ... We're going to punish you." Publicly, there were significant warning signs. Harris, who was fascinated with violent computer games like Doom, maintained his own Web site, which included slogans like "What I don't like, I waste," and links to anarchist and bomb-making sites. He and Klebold even made a video in which they talked about blowing up the school. It showed them parading through the hallways of Columbine High in their black trench coats, threatening to destroy it, and was shown in one of their classes last fall. But no one saw it as a serious threat. "It wasn't taken seriously at the time," recalled Jared Foster, an 18-year-old senior who saw the video. "Lots of people in school talk about violence and stuff. They were just these weird guys who hung out in the parking lot listening to techno rock."
Others did take them seriously. "They'd go around saying they were going to take over the world and we'd all be under their power," said Tara Zobjeca, 16. "I was scared of them." And while other students hugged each other and laid flowers on the fast-growing memorial shrines, 17-year-old Michael Staver stood nearby and let loose his anger. "These kids were out of control - and people knew it and they didn't do anything about it," he said, choking back tears. "They marched around the school elbowing people out of the way and talking about killing people. It could have been stopped. You can't say no one knew."
Another student who knew Harris and Klebold well came forward to say he had even told police that the two were making pipe bombs and using Harris's Web site to threaten violence. "They knew," said Brooks Brown, 18. "They knew and they didn't do anything about it, and because of that people are dead." The father of a Columbine High student told the Rocky Mountain News he gave police printouts from Harris's Web site, which include this threat: "I live in Denver and I would love to kill almost all its residents ... People with their rich snobby attitude, thinking they are all high and mighty ... I will rig up explosives all over town and detonate each one of them at will after I mow down a whole area full of you." Police, said the unidentified man, did nothing.
What police found when they finally got into Columbine High after the shootings made clear that Harris's writing amounted to a virtual blueprint for the plan he and Klebold carried out last week. Somehow they had hauled a cache of explosives into the building - including 20-cm pipe bombs and devices studded with glass, nails and BBs designed to spray victims with deadly fragments. They planted about 35 devices throughout the school, including a 9-kg propane tank inside a duffle bag, rigged with a gasoline can and a timer. The pair, said Sheriff John Stone, "were not only on a killing rampage, but they were going to destroy the school."
Outside, they had booby-trapped Klebold's BMW and planted bombs in at least two other cars in school parking lots. It was stretching credulity, said investigators, that the two teens could have built all that without anyone else knowing or helping, or brought it all into the school without assistance. There were even suggestions that a third shooter had been inside the school, his face covered with a ski mask like those of Harris and Klebold. Several students, including 15-year-old Matt Katzenmeier, said they saw three different masked figures inside the school during the assault. Investigators began interviewing hundreds of students to find out who else might have known about what Harris and Klebold were up to - or even helped them. They seized Harris's computer to find out how the pair gathered bomb-making information and who else they were in contact with. "I don't know how two people could have brought all these things in," said Stone, "and this is widening out our investigation."
And where, asked many, were their parents - professional couples with good jobs and handsome homes? How could two teens acquire guns, learn to build bombs, construct three dozen explosive devices and place them throughout their school without their parents having a clue? On South Reed Street, the cul de sac where Eric Harris lived, neighbours recalled seeing the boys holed up in the garage for hours. Thirteen-year-old Allison Good, who lives two doors from the Harris house and whose brother Matthew was friendly with Harris, remembered him wearing black T-shirts decorated with swastikas. Another neighbour recalled hearing glass being broken the night before the attack - possibly as the pair prepared their bombs. Sheriff Stone revealed on the weekend that along with the unnamed boy's diary, police found a shotgun barrel on a dresser and bomb-making materials. "A lot of this stuff was clearly visible," he said, "and the parents should have known." Both sets of parents were being questioned by police.
The question left hanging was this: would Littleton be just one more name in a growing list of American towns scarred by such violence? Or would the unprecedented toll of death finally spark a serious effort to end it? The man in charge of the investigation, Jefferson County District Attorney David Thomas, stood in the spring snow outside Columbine High at week's end and spoke from the heart - not, he said, as a law enforcement officer, but as a lifelong resident of the area and the father of two children who graduated from the school. People from all around the world, he said, had been asking him: "What's going on in America? You're the greatest nation on earth, and this occurred in a suburban high school in Colorado."
Thomas talked about all the things that might have led to the killings - about cultural change and a mass media that desensitizes children to violence, about how his own department failed to spot the signs of impending trouble from Harris and Klebold, about how American society seems to be turning out children without feeling or remorse. "If we in America can't seize this moment," he said, "I'm not sure what will wake us up." Then he turned away and went back to piecing together how so many of the children of his home town came to die inside their own school.
A LENGTHENING LIST
Recent fatal high-school shootings in the United States (the last two in Canada occurred in 1975):
MAY 1998, SPRINGFIELD, ORE.: Boy, 15, opens fire at a high school, killing two students. At home, his parents are found murdered.
MAY 1998, FAYETTEVILLE, TENN.: 18-year-old honours student kills a classmate dating his ex-girlfriend.
APRIL 1998, EDINBORO, PA.: Science teacher shot dead by 14-year-old at a graduation dance.
MARCH 1998, JONESBORO, ARK.: Four girls and a teacher mowed down by two boys, 11 and 13, firing from nearby woods.
DECEMBER 1997, WEST PADUCAH, KY.: Three students killed in a hallway by mentally ill 14-year-old.
OCTOBER 1997, PEARL, MISS.: Two students shot dead by 16-year-old boy, who also killed his mother.
Maclean's May 3, 1999