Inside the Columbine High investigation

Everything you know about the Littleton killings is wrong. But the truth may be scarier than the myths.

Published September 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

They were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They didn't target jocks, minorities or Christians. They had a hit list, but nobody on it was hit. They expected their bombs and explosives would wipe out most of the school.

As investigators get closer to producing an official report about the Columbine High School massacre, it is already clear that much of what was reported last spring about the motives and methods of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was untrue.

Multiple sources close to the Columbine investigation have disclosed key findings to Salon News, including a glimpse into Harris' infamous "diary." Lead investigator Kate Battan broke five months of virtual silence with her public comments. The sources say that many of the most notorious events from the shooting spree -- repeated over and over in news reports, on TV chat shows and now in a bestselling book -- simply never occurred.

Investigators now know conclusively that the attack Harris and Klebold launched April 20 was planned as a suicide mission, driven by indiscriminate hate, and intended to wipe out most of their suburban school. Their hatred was boundless, often ludicrous. In his so-called diary (which was not a diary as such, but rather a journal that he wrote in occasionally), Harris raged against everyone from slow drivers in the fast lane to the WB network. And his celebrated "hit list" -- actually a compilation of scattered lists and designations -- included targets as bizarre as Tiger Woods. His diary opens with the telling phrase: "I hate the fucking world."

They were equal-opportunity haters, railing against minorities and whites, praising Hitler's "final solution" -- and then ranting against racism. Their scribblings also reveal standard teenage concerns: The same writings where Harris described his plans to destroy his school April 20 found him obsessing about finding a date for the prom, held three days earlier.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department expects to release its final report in late November. The department has analyzed more than 10,000 pieces of evidence with the assistance of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It has tracked 4,000 leads and conducted several thousand interviews with over 2,000 people. The original investigation crew of 80 has now been scaled back to about a dozen.

Although some Klebold texts, such as school essays, survived, they pale in comparison to the Harris written file. Klebold kept no journal, and his hard drive was wiped clean of personal files. His profile was developed largely from friends, family and survivors. But enlightening interviews with his parents in late April -- Harris' family has refused to speak with investigators -- balanced Harris' written record, sources said.

"I know a lot about both of them," Battan said.

The investigation has shattered the perception that Harris led the rampage and Klebold was barely more than a hapless follower. While Klebold seemed to have the more passive personality, one source after another stressed that they were "equal partners" in the assault. Among other details, forensic evidence confirms that they were responsible for a nearly equal split of the murders.

While the investigation has revealed a great deal about the killers' plans for destruction and revenge, it has frustrated those seeking an explanation. Schools, parents and communities can work to combat racism, or anti-Christian prejudice, or the schoolyard cruelty that might lead students to seek revenge against jocks, but fighting against indiscriminate hate is much thornier.

"Everybody wants a quick answer," Battan said. "They want an easy answer so that they can sleep at night and know this is not going to happen tomorrow at their school. And there is no such thing in this case. There's not an easy answer. I've been working on this nonstop daily since April 20th and I can't tell you why it happened."

The biggest myths about the tragedy have to do with the question of who Harris and Klebold were really targeting in their rampage. Jocks, African-Americans and Christians have been widely described as their chief targets. Not a scrap of evidence supports that conclusion. In addition to voluminous evidence from the scene, Harris left behind a wealth of detailed plans and commentary making their targets plain.

"It's pretty clear now that the initial plan was to have the two propane bombs they put in the cafeteria go off," a top investigator said. "And that's as indiscriminate as you can get. Every kid killed was a target of opportunity," not singled out to settle a score, he said.

Battan called their behavior random: "Sticking a gun underneath a table and firing -- they didn't even know who was under that table."

The jock myth grew out of now-legendary reports that the killers began their library killing spree with the demand: "All jocks stand up!" But it never happened, multiple sources confirmed. The notion that the pair was targeting jocks didn't even pass the initial smell test, Battan said: "How many of the jocks hang out in the library at lunch time?" "They knew where the gym was," another investigator added.

Likewise, Isaiah Shoels' death was unrelated to his race, investigators insisted. Early reports had the killers searching him out, but there was no evidence that such a hunt occurred. "[Every] young boy or girl happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, including Isaiah Shoels," one said. Eyewitnesses disagreed about whether Harris and Klebold called him a "nigger" while they gunned him down, but if so, it was clearly a cruel taunt rather than a motive for his murder.

But cooperative sources quickly clammed up when questioned about the most celebrated Columbine story of all, immortalized this month in Misty Bernall's bestseller, "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall." "This is just too sensitive," a key source said, insisting on anonymity even for that statement. According to Misty Bernall's book, which has energized Christian youth movements around the world, the killers put a gun to her daughter Cassie's head and asked if she believed in God. When she said yes, they blew her away.

But while no one would go on the record, key investigators made it clear that an alternate scenario is far more likely: The killers asked another girl, Valeen Schnurr, a similar question, then shot her, and she lived to tell about it. Schnurr's story was then apparently misattributed to Cassie.

"Many of the kids were actually hiding under desks and hearing only bits and fragments of the conversation," one investigator explained. "It appears that exactly who they taunted, what questions were asked and who replied what may never be crystal clear." And even if it is clear, investigators clearly don't intend to tell. They cited the tense political climate around the story in this heavily evangelical community, as well as the potential embarrassment to Cassie's family, uniformly describing the Bernalls as sincere victims who may have been misinformed "through no malicious intent."

But investigators were willing to say that whichever girl was asked about her faith, her life did not hinge on her answer. One key investigator said there is no evidence the outcome would have been any different if she had denied she believed in God.

The bottom line, investigators insist, is that regardless of which spiteful jibes the killers tossed about during the shooting spree, none of the taunts bore any relation to their motives. "Were there things said about jocks?" Battan asked. "Probably. About God? Probably. Was there a 'nigger' comment? Probably. But that's not what it was about." Investigators agree it was about hate. "We can tell you why they did it, because they tell us why they're going to do it," a key source said. "They did it because they were consumed with hate."

"They hated everybody and everything," echoed Division Chief John Kiekbusch, the ranking officer overseeing the case.

While questions about what led to the tragedy remain unanswered, the factual details of what transpired on April 20 have been nailed down quite cleanly. As the initial shock wore off last April, an increasingly common question became not why Harris and Klebold killed so many students, but why so few.

"You had 500 students in the cafeteria," one source said. "They could have killed a lot more if they wanted to. If they had gone in two different doors, they could have literally had a murderous crossfire. They could have killed hundreds of students, and that's not counting the pipe bombs."

Investigators have no way of explaining why Harris and Klebold improvised so poorly once their initial plan went awry. Harris' writings provide detailed plans for the attack, but there was no plan B. "I know the plan was to kill as many kids as they could," a top investigator said. "Why didn't they kill more when [the bombs failed]? I don't know. Let's just call ourselves lucky."

What they do know is that the attack was set to begin in the packed cafeteria, just after the start of the first lunch period. Harris and Klebold planted the two main propane bombs in the center of the room just after 11 a.m., then returned to their car to gear up. They strapped on a daunting arsenal of weapons, harnessed them with military web gear, pulled on the trench coats to cover it all and waited in the parking lot for the explosions. After the blasts, the plan was to "either go in, or wait as students came streaming out and then start shooting at them," an investigator said.

The bombs were set to detonate at about 11:16. They waited an extra four or five minutes, then apparently concluded there was a problem, an investigator said. "Then it looks like they decided: 'Well, what the hell; the bombs didn't go off, let's just start shooting.'"

Random passersby on the steps outside the library served as the first targets: two killed, several more injured. Then they entered the building on the second floor, gunned down Dave Sanders in the hallway, and made their first trip into the library, where they eventually took down most of their victims.

They never entered the cafeteria until later, after most of the students had fled. At that point, they again attempted to detonate the bombs, with Klebold even hurling a Molotov cocktail at one. It's commonly believed that the shooting began in the cafeteria, because so many students fled that area reporting gunfire. But those students were actually hearing gunfire and seeing smoke from the steps just outside the building.

The number of students killed in the library has been widely perceived as irrefutable evidence that the killers selected their targets. Just over 50 students were trapped in the library, the reasoning goes, and only 10 were killed. Therefore, Harris and Klebold must have been selecting carefully. But that reasoning ignores more than a dozen additional students shot there, several more shot at, and many who escaped when Harris and Klebold temporarily left the room.

What investigators can't explain is why they chose to kill so sporadically once the operation was under way. "We know after they killed them in the library they had kids that had locked themselves in classrooms all over the place," an investigator said. "They could see [Harris and Klebold] walk by and they had glass on the doors. There were still little pockets of two or three kids here or there hidden under tables in the cafeteria. They could have easily walked around, and in numerous ways killed more people. So why didn't they? Maybe we're just lucky that these were 17- and 18-year-olds who were not as superior as they thought."

Five months after the massacre, investigators also refute other key allegations about the pair: that they were members of the Trench Coat Mafia, raised by negligent parents, practicing
Goths or frustrated gays.

Harris and Klebold are still routinely referred to as belonging to the Trench Coat Mafia. As recently as Wednesday, in a report on Sears' decision to stop selling a trench coat-wearing action figure, CNN Headline News was referring to "the two Trench Coat Mafia teens who were responsible for the Columbine High School massacre last April." But sources unanimously and unequivocally confirm that the group had nothing whatsoever to do with the murders, and very little to do with Harris and Klebold.

Some of the confusion concerning a wider conspiracy lies with premature remarks made by Sheriff John Stone the morning after the massacre. But the department has since ruled out the possibility that the killers were connected with the group of Columbine outsiders known as the Trench Coat Mafia.

"Harris and Klebold were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia," one investigator said. "They were kind of friends of fringe members." Battan scoffed at the notion of any significant association: "They were outcasts in that!"

By the time of the murders, most of the Trench Coat Mafia had graduated or dropped out, and the term was almost an anachronism, investigators explained. That didn't stop a flurry of would-be terrorists from latching onto the name. "Suddenly, there were thousands of Trench Coat Mafia all over the country," Davis said. "I get Internet threats from, like, Iowa that they're the Trench Coat Mafia," Battan laughed. "Well, there is no Trench Coat Mafia!"

That didn't stop anyone associated with the group from being ostracized. They went virtually unseen at the innumerable memorials and grief ceremonies, and some students even threatened "retaliatory" violence should they show their faces in nearby Clement Park, which became the site of impromptu memorials last spring.

It was widely reported that students associated with the group were effectively prohibited from finishing the school year with their peers at Chatfield High School. However, district spokesman Rick Kaufman says it had nothing to do with the Trench Coat Mafia per se. Eighteen students were identified as acquaintances of Harris and Klebold, he said.

They were offered alternatives such as home-based tutoring, "because of the raw emotions, the strong feelings that existed right after the tragedy." "Twelve of the 18 said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' and returned to school," he said. "Six of the 12 accepted the offer. There was only one student who we were not going to allow back to school."

As far as trench coats themselves, Klebold was known to wear one occasionally. However, "No student can recall ever seeing Eric wear a trench coat, other than once, this past fall [1998], other than the day of the shooting," Kaufman said.

But weren't the killers at least trying to evoke some echo of the group by donning their trademark trench coats for the assault? "I can say firmly that the reason they wore coats was for logistical, practical reasons," a key investigator said. The practicality comes into focus with an accurate picture of the armaments the killers loaded themselves with: two guns apiece -- a TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, a 9 mm rifle and a pair of shotguns -- along with a healthy supply of ammunition and pipe bombs. "The idea was so they could walk up to the school without being seen walking across the parking lot carrying a gun."

Just as some early reports tarred the Trench Coat Mafia, others criticized Harris' and Klebold's parents for inadequate supervision. But investigators staunchly resist a blame-the-parents scenario, discussing the Harris and Klebold families in surprisingly sympathetic tones. They have largely ruled out the parents as contributors to the problem. Certainly no criminal charges are anticipated, Sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis confirmed. Battan bristled at the suggestion she was seeking evidence of criminal culpability in questioning the Klebolds, or that she has any such intent with the Harrises, who have steadfastly refused to talk to investigators.

"It really does begin with the family," Battan said. "But I'm here to tell you, I sat down and I've spent a lot of time with the Klebolds, and they're nice people. It's not like they're these monsters that raised a monster. I mean, they truly are clueless about any warning signs that this was going to happen."

Other investigators offered similar assessments. The prevailing sentiment around the investigation is that most of the people pointing fingers at the parents would have been just as easily taken in by their own kids.

Division Chief Kiekbusch was among the minority refusing an opinion -- "It's not for us to judge their parenting skills," he averred -- but he did offer an explanation. "These kids put on a fagade for their parents," he said. "Perhaps the parents were somewhat naive, but I think there was a very deliberate attempt to mislead a lot of people: their friends, teachers ... When they got caught [breaking into a car] they were able to successfully get past a magistrate, a probation officer and everyone else."

Investigators also criticized the media for propagating the myth that the pair were Goths. Apparently it took nothing more than reports of black clothing and eyeliner among the unrelated Trench Coat Mafia for much of the national media to label them Goths. "That became a whole issue for a week," one investigator said. "Marilyn Manson canceled his concert."

ABC's "20/20" aired a particularly ignorant "report" the night after the tragedy, linking the killers to the scene with alarmist messages about Satanism and cults. Aside from the fact that the report completely misrepresented and maligned the movement, neither Marilyn Manson nor the Goths had anything whatsoever to do with the killers, who had nothing but contempt for the music.

And investigators were adamant in dismissing rumors that the killers were gay, which swirled around Columbine High, and some national talk shows, immediately after the tragedy. The rumors seem to have originated two years ago, with a single member of the Trench Coat Mafia who may have been gay or bisexual. Investigators described how the animosity escalated between jocks and the Trench Coat Mafia, and this individual preyed on the jocks' homophobia to get a rise out of them.

"[He] knew that it freaked the jocks out," Battan said. "So he quite often would act out -- somewhat inappropriately -- more to get a reaction than what he may have been thinking or feeling." Another investigator said that this same person would "taunt [the jocks] back by hugging and kissing on one of the other Trench Coat Mafia guys." Although Harris and Klebold were only sophomores at the time, rumors have persisted ever since that anyone associated with the Trench Coat Mafia was gay.

But more substantial information about Eric Harris arose just after the shootings. In late April, gay leaders in Denver said they feared he might have been gay or sexually confused, because a local youth counselor said three young people told him Harris had confided such feelings before his suicide. Salon News has been unable to contact those youths directly, and their credibility remains questionable. Investigators and school officials insisted that none of Harris' texts and none of the interviews turned up a shred of evidence even suggesting such a possibility. Battan said unequivocally that he was not gay or gay-leaning.

"What I see is a guy kind of chasing around skirts like I guess many seniors do," another investigator said. "He talks about being frustrated because he can't get laid." Harris was particularly obsessing over a prom date just three days before the murder, the source said. Harris did manage to get a girl over to his house that night, but not to the prom.

Of course this behavior would fit just as well with a conflicted teen trying to hide or repress homosexuality, but investigators said those feelings would probably reveal themselves in other ways, and none of that was apparent in his writings. One key investigator agreed to go back through Harris' documents looking for any such hints, and found none. Sources in Denver's gay community, who feared a backlash if one or both killers turned out to be gay, say the truth may never be known.

As they continue to search for the truth, investigators have developed theories about how the myths emerged and spread. Some sprang directly from the mouths of traumatized students. Sensational comments attributed to the killers -- many from single, hysterical students fleeing the building early in the siege -- were broadcast on national television even as events unfolded, and soon took on the authority of fact. Hundreds of trapped victims were just a cell phone away from the latest television reports; and stories of the stories traveled inside the siege at unprecedented speed.

"Students heard what other students said on TV and started repeating that as if it were true," one investigator explained. In fact, Battan says the biggest myth remains that the building was still under siege while those stories were escalating. Many Columbine students are still unaware that the killers lay dead hours before they fled the building with their hands on their heads. The entire episode lasted less than a half hour, Battan said. "I know to the minute, but I'm not going to tell you."

This unprecedented reinforcement of hearsay inside the attack site complicated an inherently problematic situation. "Eyewitness testimony, in general, is not very accurate," one investigator explained. "Put together with gunshots going off and just the most terrifying situation in their life, what they remember now may not be anywhere near what really happened."

By Dave Cullen

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

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