Outsiders, even among the outsiders

Littleton killers didn't quite fit in, even with the "Trench Coat Mafia."

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Six hours before they opened fire on classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were merrily bowling with their gym class at Belleview Lanes in nearby Englewood. Senior Dustin Harrison said they showed up bright and cheerful for the 6:30 a.m. session, and he laughed and joked with both of them. Even with hindsight, he could find nothing unusual about their behavior, no indication of what they had planned.

Harrison, who had been good friends with the pair since middle school, repeated the story that began emerging about Harris and Klebold on Wednesday: that they were newcomers to the school's Trench Coat Mafia, and were only cosmetically assimilated to the group -- adopting the black clothing and long dusters associated with the crowd, but none of its notoriously antisocial behavior.

They were, it seems, outsiders even in the outsider group, and no one could explain why they went on their killing spree Tuesday, a rampage that at last count had killed 14 students and one teacher and left 16 victims hospitalized, 11 in critical or serious condition.

While none of the dozens of students interviewed Wednesday was particularly surprised to hear the gunmen had come from the ranks of the Trench Coat Mafia, many were stunned to learn the killers were Harris and Klebold. "They were the nicest guys!" one student gushed, a sentiment echoed throughout the afternoon.

Students gathered outside the school to memorialize their fallen peers Wednesday afternoon were virtually unanimous in the clear distinctions they drew between the pair and the eight to 10 core Trench Coat Mafia members. Harris and Klebold, who do not appear in the 1998 yearbook picture of the group, had just joined this past fall, and were not yet assimilated, most students said.

Core Mafia members were described as standoffish, antisocial and isolationist, disdaining social contact with nonmembers and even refusing to participate in classes, students said. They were variously described as Goths, white supremacists, Marilyn Manson listeners and Adolf Hitler fans, but nobody could really describe a coherent worldview that distinguished the group, except their disdain for the mainstream.

"They set themselves completely apart," said senior Melissa Snow. "They didn't talk to anyone else. They had their own little world."

"They're anti-everything," said senior Brad Johnson, a strapping 6-foot-2-inch rugby player and tight end on the football team.

Dustin Harrison expressed frustration that Harris and Klebold had been placed within the group. He also said media reports were wrong to lump the two boys, indistinguishably, with one another. He described Dylan Klebold as an aggressive racist, routinely walking down the hall railing against "niggers" and "spics." He wore Gothic clothing lettered with German phrases, but wasn't into the "Nazi mentality," Harrison said. Several students talked about Klebold's sporadic and severe bouts of depression, though it was apparently not evident the morning of the massacre.

Eric Harris, by contrast, was described as bubbly and effervescent. He was a fierce proponent of Nazi principles, though curiously, Harrison insisted, not its racist elements. He reportedly interacted well with the handful of minority students at Columbine High School, and no one could recall him making any of the racist outbursts attributed to Klebold.

Both students were described by their peers as brilliant, particularly in math and computers. Klebold, who was studying calculus, was cited as possibly the best math mind in the school. Harrison said the two had only become good friends this school year, about the time they hooked up with the Trench Coat Mafia. He saw them daily both in gym and psychology class, where, ironically, they had just begun studying abnormal psychology on Monday.

Students were stunned and grieving on Wednesday, walking around the school area with blank, vacant stares, looking a little like the Kosovar refugees arriving in Albania. Perhaps no group was more visibly shaken than Columbine High's athletes, the "jocks" reportedly targeted by Harris and Klebold. A group of football players stood around uneasily Wednesday morning, discussing their anguish, confusion and guilt about the rumor that the rampage was meant for them.

"I'm feeling kind of guilty for the victims and the families," said junior Landon Jones, who plays several sports, including football and basketball. "They might first start hating the suspects and then start hating us. Jocks already have the stereotype of being jerks."

Ironically, these students said, though jocks had been the reported targets of Klebold and Harris, none of their friends had died or been wounded by the killers. Many of the jocks had just left campus for lunch when the melee began. Jones, for instance, was just driving off for lunch when the shooting began. A friend jumped in his car and yelled, "Get the hell out, they're opening fire in our school." They heard gunfire echoing in the parking lot, but they never saw anything.

"At the time it's almost like a movie," Jones recalled. "You're like adrenalin's going. You don't picture kids dying, you just picture a rush to get out of there. And then later on you get by yourself and you start realizing it's more serious than just a movie."

"None of my friends were there," said Brad Johnson. Having missed the chaos, they were having particular difficulty connecting to the horror. "I just can't picture kids actually dying," Jones said. "I don't want to picture it."

Most students said Columbine High had the standard cliques -- jocks, brains, potheads, geeks and Goths -- but denied there was significant animosity between the groups. Despite some of the athletes' worries, no students specifically blamed the jocks for the killings. But several identified a few athletes as repeatedly harassing members of the Trench Coat Mafia. "There were jerks who did it," said Snow. "But for the most part everyone got along."

For their part, some of the jocks seemed to be struggling with the notion that their persecution of outsiders could have had something to do with triggering the carnage. But most rejected the idea that their cruelty might have had deadly consequences. Johnson, especially, lashed out at the killers. "I think they're just whining. Everybody gets picked on in their life. It makes me mad."

But Johnson described his sorrow at the murder of his friend Isaiah Shoels, the African-American student whom the killers reportedly sought out in the library, ridiculed as a "nigger" and then shot in the head. "I walked to class with him every day," Johnson recalled. He was one of only five or six black students at Columbine. "Nice kid, couldn't have been more than five feet tall. He didn't offend anybody. I'm going to miss him."

Despite reports that the killers targeted minorities, all of the victims but Shoels were reportedly white. By all accounts, students of color, who made up only 3 percent of the school's population, mixed easily with whites. A few Latino students, who asked not to be identified, said they had not experienced discrimination at the hands of the overwhelmingly white majority. "I'm surprised anyone in the school knew what the word minority is," Snow said.

Ultimately, Johnson expressed guilt about the students who died in an assault meant for jocks like him. "I feel guilty because I keep hearing they were after jocks, and they didn't hit one. I would have gone in there and I would have given my life for those innocent little kids, the little freshmen and sophomores ... They wanted to hit jocks, they didn't hit a one. I kind of wish I was in there, so I could have helped them."

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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