What you never knew about Columbine

As a Salon reporter, Dave Cullen exploded myths about the tragic school shooting, now the subject of his new book. He talks about what the media bungled -- and what still surprises him.

Published April 6, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

Dave Cullen's "Columbine" is a chilling page-turner, a striking accomplishment given that Cullen's likely readers almost certainly know how the tragic story ends. Twelve students and one beloved teacher died at the suburban Denver high school on April 20, 1999, the worst school shooting rampage until two years ago, when Cho Seung-Hui slaughtered 32 classmates at Virginia Tech.

I know more about the Columbine story than most of Cullen's audience: I was Cullen's editor at Salon 10 years ago, on that awful day when the cable networks told us teenagers were dying in Littleton, and he told me over the phone he'd head there immediately. Little did either of us know then that he'd still be at Columbine a decade later.

So I can't be dispassionate about this book. I will point to raves from Time and Newsweek before offering my own personal observation: I knew Cullen was a dogged reporter and a terrific writer, but even I was blown away by the pacing and story-telling he mastered in "Columbine," a disturbing, inspiring work of art.

In "Columbine," Cullen is surprisingly but appropriately modest (appropriately, because it makes the book better) about his own role in exploding trite Columbine myths. You'll read his book and learn that the smartest crime investigators were frustrated and bedeviled by national and local media jumping on specious favorite theories about the killers and their victims — theories that investigators knew from the beginning weren't true. The killers weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't gay, they didn't target jocks or minority students. Eric Harris was a psychopath, but Dylan Klebold was a depressive who'd shown little capacity for hatred and violence.

Maybe most explosive, against the backdrop of the strong suburban Denver evangelical culture, was the story that student Cassie Bernall was killed because of her Christian faith, after she said "yes" when Dylan Klebold asked if she believed in God. The tale simply wasn't true, despite the fact that Bernall's mother, Misty, and the girl's evangelical church launched a campaign around Cassie's martyrdom that culminated in Misty Bernall's moving memoir, "She Said Yes," which wound up on the New York Times bestseller list and won her interviews with "Larry King Live" and "The Today Show."

What you won't learn, except in the footnotes, is that it was Cullen who broke most of the crucial Columbine myth-debunking stories and expanded on others. He was an army of one against the dozens sent by large national dailies, the news magazines, and local and national television networks. But he had key advantages: He lived there, he's charming and ingratiating, he's got an instinct for bullshit, and he's got a heart bigger than most hearts I know. He suffered through the Columbine story with the locals after the national stars went away; he also had the distance from local politics that a national outlet provided him. Still, what got him the story was his passion and smarts and sensitivity — he knew how to wrangle information out of traumatized teens and families and investigators because he was traumatized, too; I'll never forget some of our conversations when he talked through his own despair at what he was seeing.

As journalists debate the role of citizen storytellers and others who have a stake in the news we report, Cullen offers an interesting window — he was absolutely a trained professional who nonetheless never hid his devastation at the loss of the young lives at Columbine, or his place in the grieving community. He shows what someone with remarkable skills but even more remarkable compassion and judgment can do to break a good story. It was my honor to be his editor — and to discuss this book with him.

After immersing yourself in the book for 10 years, as you got into the last year of writing, and last interviews, were there still any surprises for you?

Oh, yeah. There were surprises all along the way. You know, I would say the biggest surprise was Dylan. I think I understood Eric very well. But it wasn't until later — it was, God, about seven years in — when the journals were finally released, when Jefferson County finally relented, and after, well, it went to the state Supreme Court, and was forced to release a thousand pages of the killers' writings. And that's when I saw Dylan's journal the first time. I'd seen all of Eric's by then, I had leaks. But Dylan's was just such a revelation.

Eric's was what you would expect. It's "hate hate hate." It's all Eric. It sounds like a murderer in the works. Dylan's is — he's literally talking about love on almost every page, and he's growing up. You can take his journal, and just take your thumb and just flip through it and it will shock you. You see these hearts all the way. It's like, "What is this killer drawing hearts for?" And they were not ironic or anything like that. He has entire pages filled with hearts. He draws out, literally, the road to happiness, with a dotted line dug down the middle, with a big heart at the end.

I also started to feel as though I was reading a novel and I didn't know what happened. Like, "Maybe Dylan won't do it. Maybe he won't show up that morning. Maybe prom will..."

Oh, I love that.

You were so good about not making glib judgments in the book, but now I'll try to get you to make some glib judgments. Looking back now, with almost 10 years' hindsight and everything you've learned, do you feel like law enforcement really screwed up in not keeping track of these guys and figuring out at least Eric's capacity for major, major cruelty and danger?

There are nine different story lines in the book the way I plotted it out. And each one, I gave myself the job, I had to see that story line from the perspective of the main character. And sometimes I tried to sort of use their language and sort of present it as that person would see it through that person's eyes. Not how we would think about it now. But the decisions they were making at the time, what they were going on. How they were seeing it at the time. And that included the cops.

And, you know, a neighbor lady reporting some kid as being a juvenile delinquent or he's making a threat — you know how many of those roll in every day? I mean, they just come in by the truckload. And, no, you don't think, "Oh, maybe he's going to be committing mass murder." You know, even if he has a Web site where he's talking about killing people, like, "Yeah, you know, I'm going to like..." You know, teenage boys make jokes about killing people. So, to a point I think probably, if you had a thousand cops in that situation, most of them would have done the same thing, not thought anything of it. Until — until there was, well, there were a couple things. When Judy Brown, this is the neighborhood mom who kept...

The mother of Dylan and Harris' former friend Brooks Brown?

Yeah. Brooks' mom. She kept reporting them. When she printed [Eric's] Web pages, there was a lot of damning stuff in there. There were specific threats. And when you look at the FBI report later on school shooters, on how to identify threats, specificity is the most important thing. If a kid says, "Oh, I want to kill everybody," you know, he's just saying... If he says, "Tomorrow morning at 8:22 a.m. when the principal walks into the assembly in the gym, I am going to attack with an AK-47 and these 100 rounds of ammunition I got at Kmart." That's high risk.

That you take seriously.

Yeah. And there's a lot in the pages that Judy Brown picked up. There's a lot of specificity in there. So, already you're getting into higher risk where maybe the cops should have done something. But then, when you get to the physical evidence — they found an unexploded pipe bomb in the park near Eric's house. And there had been reports. And the investigator Mike Guerra put together a draft affidavit. And he states, "Here's this kid. He's making the threats. They're specific. He's taken this fantasy" — he didn't use these words but — "he's taken this fantasy and brought it into real life. He's actually acting on it. That's a huge hurdle. Now he's acting on it and he's demonstrated the means. He's found the equipment. He knows how to do these things."

So you've got three things going there: intent, means and actually doing it. That's the red flag they should have seen. That's the one where they should have gone to the judge. They should have exercised a search warrant at his house, and he should have been busted. But.... So, yeah, I think that is the big screw-up in law enforcement. It was that moment.

I went back and I read your September 1999 Salon opus "Everything you know about the Littleton killings is wrong." And it was striking how much you knew at that point, barely five months after. You knew the Cassie Bernall story wasn't true. And you showed so much sensitivity about telling her parents that they were wrong. But also there was sensitivity about the evangelical community and just how Christian the surrounding area was. Do you think that that influenced the pace at which the truth came out? Sensitivity about not wanting to take this martyr away from the community?

Yes. I mention in the book where her minister — when the truth came out — her youth minister, Dave McPherson, said something like, "You'll never change the story. The church, you know, we've got our story and we're sticking to it." That wasn't universal. I got messages, e-mails from a lot of evangelicals that said, "What, just let us have the truth." But I think I felt a real sensitivity to Misty Bernall, Cassie's mom, who wrote the book and — you know, by God, she meant every word of it when she wrote it, and she did not mean to mislead anyone. She thought that's what happened. Also, it was a really great book. It was a wonderful memoir.

You and I talked a lot about it, of breaking the story. Word leaked out through multiple sources. I was talking to a lot of different investigators. It began sort of as cracks people would make. I was talking to them constantly about the myths and debunking the myths, and they were so frustrated by all this misinformation that was out there. And they would refer, offhandedly, to "myths, like about Marilyn Manson and the Christian martyr." And I remember the first time, I'm like, "Wait. What was that one? What do you mean?" And then they would be like, "Oh, I can't talk about that. I didn't say anything." So I started sort of feeling other people out, many people.

I finally went to one person and said, "Look, I know what's going on here, and you need to tell me the whole story. I'm going to report this." And that person said to me, "OK, I will give you the full story, and I'll tell you what we all inside the investigation think, under one condition. And that is that you consider not running it." And I said, "OK. I'll hear you out." And we talked about it [including], "What is this going to do to Misty Bernall? What's going to happen to her? What's going to happen to her life?" I said I had agreed to talk to my editor. And, if you remember, I went to you and said, "Look, I made an agreement that I would seriously consider [ not running this]." Not just, you know, "Say, 'Oh yeah'..."

Right. Uh huh. Nod nod wink wink. Sure, we considered it.

I really talked to you about it. And I remember you said, "We've got like 10 major myths in this story. Can we really face our readers and reveal nine of them and say, 'Here are the myths, but we're actually holding on to one of them still'? How is that ethical?" Of course. So we talked about it and there was no way we could — you know, we essentially would have been covering it up. But it forced me to really think about Misty Bernall and what was going to happen to her.

The timing was horrible. And it was completely coincidence. But her book had just come out. It was on the New York Times list. She had just done "Good Morning America," "Larry King." And like three days later this came out. It had to be humiliating. I'm sure she felt like she was being called a liar. And, all along, I've felt guilt about that. I feel like I did the right thing, I did what I had to do. But the right thing, sometimes, often comes with a price. I mean, I got lots of nasty mail to me saying, "Oh, I'm so glad you exposed those big frauds the Bernalls who are trying to profit off their daughter. And that horrible Misty Bernall." And I'd write back and say, "I did not say that."

Certainly in the book she comes off as a really sympathetic person. You don't treat her like a Christian-right stooge or somebody who is trying to put something over on us. It's pretty clear that she genuinely believed this.

Well, I know through mutual friends that Misty Bernall has always personally blamed me. And I think I felt some of my personal responsibility because I knew that she felt that way. I had been going to Bible study at her church because we did this story on evangelicals before that. They knew I was a journalist. I did a piece. I had met the Bernalls on several different occasions and spent like two or three hours at this one potluck dinner at the same table with them. So I'd seen them sort of off-line and sort of knew — they're really kind of humble and nice people. A lot of people already during the summer were trying to make them heroic, before her book came out, and Misty was having none of it. Just like, you know, "Don't be silly." She wasn't milking it for fame. Even in her own community, she wouldn't let them put her on a pedestal. I think there were some feelings hurt in that church, that they felt that I had sort of betrayed them.

Didn't the Denver Post run with something a few days after you did? Because they had the story too.

That was the Rocky Mountain News. Yeah. Dan Luzadder, a really great investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. I was always wondering if somebody was out there. And little did I know somebody was. There was a huge degree of overlap where he had done a really thorough investigation. He talked to almost everyone who had been in the library. And he had mapped it all out. They were holding on to it because the JeffCo Sheriffs Department was supposed to be issuing this final report and it was like something like six to eight weeks away, or maybe a month or two away, for almost a year.

It was just perpetually a month and a half away. And everyone was believing that, for a while. And the Rocky Mountain News, I believe, felt like that would be the news peg, when this comes out. We'll all reveal it. And I think that also started out with good, or OK intentions. But what happened is it got pushed back far enough that Misty Bernall's book came out. And so they reviewed Misty's book. They did two stories; they did a book review and a news story on the book coming out where they didn't disclose that they knew that it wasn't true. And that was a big problem. And Dan Luzadder had nothing to do with it.

I'm sure he was quite upset that they were knowingly colluding in something they knew wasn't true.

Yup. And he really wanted it to come out. Then he was scooped. He read [Salon] and was horrified. The next day they gave him 20, 30 column inches: whatever you have, dump it out and do it now. Meanwhile, we were under fire, we had some people saying, "How do you know this about Cassie Bernall?" There was a bit of a firestorm for about a day. Then [Dan] came out with — he had interviewed Emily Wyant, the little girl under the table with Cassie. She had not wanted to come out — she didn't want to be the fall guy, saying "This never happened." She didn't want it all on her shoulders. But she felt that since it was out now and since then the Sheriff Department's spokespeople were being forced to acknowledge, "Yes, it didn't ever happen," she agreed to allow her testimony to be printed.

I had read a lot of this, obviously, back in Salon. And sadly, we all know how it ended. But I was amazed by the pacing of the book, and your ability to step back from the story and help us see it with new eyes.

The pacing and the structure was probably my biggest single challenge and literally I spent years trying to figure that out and get that right. I knew when I was first putting it together that I wanted [to map] nine different story lines. I knew that that was going to be difficult juggling between those, that it would be hard for the reader to keep track, but also hard to keep the right emotional pacing. You know, have we had too much intensity? Has there been too much pain? Do we need a lighter moment?

I joked with you when I was reading it that there were a couple of nights where I was like, "I shouldn't be reading this before I go to bed. It's really depressing." Particularly being the mom of a teenager; reliving it was very painful. In general, I thought you did a good job of leavening it with the detective story, the story of people who were doing their jobs. You balance the extreme tragedy and horror with the daily-ness of how people pursued getting to the truth, and then the moments of heroism.

Yeah, I looked for those. And, yeah, I mean, thank God there were people like Patrick Ireland, too, the...


Yeah. The reader has to have this vested interest [in] wanting to know something. And with the survivors, I felt like the story line was: How did they get through this, from this horrible place where their lives were shattered, to, hopefully, someplace that worked out. How did they get there? Hopefully, with all the different stories in the book, there is one of those story lines pulling you through and making you want to read from page to page. So that even if there was something that was -- a scene or a chapter that was difficult to take, the curious part of your mind was like, "Well, OK, fine. But I still want to know what, how the story works out."

The other thing I wanted to ask you about is your decision to keep yourself, basically, out of it. I was reading along and would get to these places where you would talk about, "Well, a reporter had exploded those myths already" and I'd be like, "Hey, that's Dave!" But you didn't even acknowledge that it was your reporting that broke the story sometimes. Why did you keep yourself out of the book as a character?

Well, I gradually wrote myself out of it. I remember my agent Betsy Lerner saying, "Don't be afraid to use the word 'I' and include yourself in the things that are really important. Like the Cassie Bernall thing and some of the fault that came with that. And also when I had the first leaked passages from Eric Harris' diary, and there was some controversy about that. In the first draft I was in there. And then I sort of made a conscious effort of like, "OK, reduce this: as little of me as possible." I'm already telling the story. I'm already the narrator. I don't need to be in there.

By Joan Walsh

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