"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Emily Wyant knew from the beginning: Columbine “martyr” Cassie Bernall never said “Yes.”
Wyant, who survived the Columbine massacre April 20, told the FBI months ago that the famous “unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” immortalized in a best-selling book by Cassie’s mom, Misty, never happened. She told Misty and Brad Bernall, Cassie’s parents, the same account, and she also told the Rocky Mountain News.
But it wasn’t until Sept. 24, one day after Salon News broke the story that investigators doubted Bernall’s famous gunpoint declaration of faith, that the News printed a long story detailing Wyant’s account.
How did the paper react so quickly, with a detailed, never-before-public account of Bernall’s death, a day after the new revelations? Sources at the paper confirm that the details weren’t actually new at all: They’d been sitting on the story for quite some time. The News ran the article nearly five months after obtaining the true story from Wyant, and two weeks after running news stories promoting the release of “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” — news stories that presented the account of Bernall’s martyrdom as fact.
The Denver Post didn’t get its new Bernall stories into print until Saturday. It followed up on Tuesday, after the paper was able to interview Valeen Schnurr, the young Columbine student who was asked by one of the killers if she believed in God — after she’d been shot. But the Post had been aware of rumors that the Bernall story was not true earlier than that, though it had not confirmed them, according to assistant city editor Evan Dreyer. “We had heard it; we were working on it,” he said.
The belated media outing of the truth about Cassie Bernall raises questions about why the story took so long to find its way into print. Misty Bernall’s book landed on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list at No. 14 this week, with 350,000 copies in print and more than 250,000 already sold, according to the publisher. In the past three weeks, the Bernalls have appeared on Today, 20/20 and Larry King Live, among others. The story has inspired a massive surge in Christian youth groups’ recruitment around the country and overseas.
Emily Wyant watched with disbelief as the Bernall myth mushroomed. “Once she started hearing all that, she said, ‘That didn’t happen. Why are they saying that?’” her mother recalls. The girl kept waiting for investigators or news reporters to refute the myth, so she would not have to come forward herself.
“She never wanted to ever, ever say anything against it,” says her mother, who did not want her first name used because of community sensitivity about the Bernall controversy. “She just was real frustrated with it, and she just kept saying, ‘But that never happened. Why are they saying that?’ That’s the thing that bothered her.”
Wyant is the only living person who actually witnessed Bernall’s death. She was hiding beneath a table right beside Cassie when it happened. “Emily was right there next to her, and in fact, she was looking right in her eyes, so you’d think she would be able to hear that, being right next to her, if anything was exchanged. And she can’t remember anything being said,” Wyant explained.
As the Rocky Mountain News reported Sept. 24, Wyant and Bernall were studying alone together in the back of the library. After the gunmen rushed in, the girls crouched beneath a table together, and Cassie began praying aloud: “Dear God. Dear God. Why is this happening? I just want to go home.” Dylan Klebold suddenly slammed his hand on the table, yelled “Peekaboo,” and looked underneath. He shot Cassie without exchanging a word. Wyant’s mother confirmed that the Rocky Mountain News correctly reported the details of her daughter’s account.
Salon News reported last Thursday that investigators believed the famous exchange actually took place between Klebold and Valeen Schnurr, and was mistakenly attributed to Bernall. Now Schnurr herself has confirmed that story. On Tuesday the Denver Post reported her account, which she also told to Salon News:
Schnurr was down on her hands and knees bleeding, already hit by 34 shotgun pellets, when one of the killers approached her. She was saying, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, don’t let me die,” and he asked her if she believed in God. She said yes; he asked why. “Because I believe and my parents brought me up that way,” she said. He reloaded, but didn’t shoot again. She crawled away.
Schnurr’s testimony has been unwavering since the start. After interviewing every person who survived the library to unravel discrepancies, investigators came to believe her story was accurate, and was probably the only such exchange about God with the killers. Investigators have gone public with that belief since the Salon story broke last Thursday.
On Saturday, the Denver Post reported sheriff’s spokesman Steve Davis going
on the record to state that a lot of investigators had strong doubts about
the alleged conversation between Cassie Bernall and Klebold, that they had
shared those doubts with the Bernalls, and that those doubts had only grown
since they alerted the Bernalls to their concerns.
Friday, the Rocky Mountain News also cast doubt on the account credited with
starting the Cassie myth. Division Chief John Kiekbusch said the entire
story-that the exchange about God had been between Bernall and Klebold –
began with survivor Craig Scott.
“[Scott] told investigators he heard the “Yes” comment and recognized the voice as Cassie Bernall’s,” the News reported. “He did not actually see the individuals involved … Investigators said Scott was asked to point out where the gunmen were at the time, and he indicated a table where Valeen Schnurr — not Bernall was hiding.”
A reporter for the paper said the News was waiting to run a story debunking several Columbine myths, including Bernall’s, until a few weeks before the report was released. It was not until the Salon story broke, he said, that Wyant would allow the paper to use her name. News metro editor Steve Myers confirmed that the paper had much of the information about the myths Salon debunked Sept. 23.
“The things that you reported were not unknown to me,” Myers said. He abruptly ended the conversation when questioned about the ethics of sitting on the Bernall disclosures when the book was released.
But as recently as Sept. 10, the publication day of “She Said Yes,” the News was running news articles presenting the story as fact. The paper actually ran two articles that day, one promoting the book’s release and the other enthusiastically reporting on the surge in Christian youth recruitment inspired by the story. The first story explains early on that the book’s title refers to 17-year-old Cassie’s “final moments before dying.” Toward the end of the article, it hedges slightly, with the following paragraph:
“According to some fellow students who survived the carnage in the Columbine library, one of the two gunmen asked Cassie if she believed in God. ‘Yes,’ she answered. The gunman asked, ‘Why?’ — then pulled the trigger.”
It offers no reference to dissenting views. The second story was unequivocal, repeatedly presenting the story as fact. “Bernall’s answer to her killer — ‘Yes, I believe in God’ — has helped seed a harvest of youthful faith in Colorado and across the country,” it reads.
Neither story presented the slightest hint that the paper had long been planning to shatter that claim.
Clearly, the story of what really happened to Cassie Bernall is a sensitive one in the Columbine community.
The Wyant and Bernall families had dinner together some time after the massacre. “Emily just kind of wanted to let them know that she was with her when she died,” her mother said. She confirmed that Emily told the Bernalls the exchange about God between Cassie and her killer never happened. “Yes, she did tell them. She didn’t volunteer that, they asked her.”
But the Bernalls dispute that conversation. Chris Zimmerman, Misty Bernall’s editor at Plough Publishing, released a statement saying: “[Wyant] was interviewed for “She Said Yes” and never disputed the original accounts of Cassie’s death, as widely reported in the national media. Now, however, she says she doesn’t believe Cassie ever exchanged words with her killer. Brad Bernall, Cassie’s father, says, ‘We are surprised at Emily’s new account. It is inconsistent with the one we received from her and her parents earlier.’”
Wyant said Emily was torn for months over the escalating myth, and her parents tried to caution her against bearing the entire weight of a potential backlash. “She was in a tough position,” her mother said. “So we were trying to guide her and help her, try and make the best choice. She doesn’t know the ramifications that could come afterwards. She was just thinking about ‘I want to tell the truth.’”
Emily expected the ordeal to end once she spoke to the Rocky Mountain News, and was surprised and frustrated that it didn’t. “It was kind of like therapy for her to get it out,” her mother said. “And she kept waiting to see it, but …” she trailed off.
Wyant said that a News reporter told her the paper was conducting its own thorough investigation, compiling stories from every person in the library, putting them together into maps of where everyone in the room was, “to get an idea of what really happened.”
By contrast, no one from the Denver Post contacted the Wyant family until Saturday night, asking for a reaction to the statement from Misty Bernall’s publisher.
The Post’s Evan Dreyer admitted to conflicted feelings about tackling the
controversy over Bernall’s martyrdom. “For a lot of these stories, it comes
down to: We’re the local media,” he said. “We have to weigh lots of
questions of sensitivity, caring and concern for the victims’ families, more
so than a lot of the national media does.
“So, as local media, you think twice and three times and four times about
whether that’s a story you want to go with. But maybe we are erring too much
on the side of concern and sympathy, and [Salon News] sort of forced the
Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."More Dave Cullen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)