Excerpts from Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers by Jeff Kass
Reprinted with express permission of the author
In 1995 Eric and Dylan, as freshmen, entered a new Columbine High. The school had undergone its first major renovation, tagged $13.4 million and a ceremony welcomed the special students.
In their first year at Columbine Eric and Dylan were as nondescript as the building. They were fourteen-years-old: shy, slightly built, and clean-cut.
Nick Baumgart was friends with them. He was in the same Cub Scout troop with Dylan, and had hung out with him, off and on, since third grade. But Baumgart says ninth grade was also the time he started to drift away from Dylan. There was no falling out, but like magnets, Dylan started forming a bond with Eric.
Dylan, tall and gangly, had not grown into himself. More emotional and less contained, his personality mirrored his awkward body. But he was funnier, more lighthearted, and more likeable than Eric. People wanted to hang out with Dylan.
Eric seemed like more of a leader because he was quieter and more serious. But he was sour.
Personal computers and the Internet were yet to infuse every corner of life, but Columbine High teacher Rich Long was ahead of the curve. He was giving computer classes in a warehouse - the former welding shop - where tables and chairs were hard to come by. Among his students were Eric and Dylan, who he described as, "wide-eyed freshmen anxious to take computer courses." The start-up conditions didn't bother Eric and Dylan, and they came in before, and after, school to get their projects done. They were "enjoyable to teach," Long said, because they were eager to learn and were "very skilled for that point in time."
Eric and Dylan enrolled in Long's "Computers A to Z," which covered technology, and "Structured Basic," for programming. Their budding mastery over computers provided them with a power they did not have within the general student body. But Long believes both saw the good they could do with technology, as Eric handled the Web pages for Columbine's physics and science departments.
Eric and Dylan were also attracted to computers, wrote Brooks Brown, because they provided "definite rules" and "logical simplicity." "For a young man in a world like ours, it was a godsend," he explained. "In the real world, things and rules change constantly-and you could be in trouble at a moment's notice."
Another explanation for what attracted Eric and Dylan to computers was found in Dylan's house after Columbine. It is a reprint of a famous, 1986 manifesto "The Conscience of a Hacker," and it is easy to imagine Eric and Dylan speaking the very same words. Parts of the manifesto include: "Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me... Damn underachiever. They're all alike. I'm in junior high or high school. I've listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. ‘No, Mrs. Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head...' Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike. I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn't like me... Or feels threatened by me... Or thinks I'm a smart ass... Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here... Damn kid. All he does is play games. They're all alike. And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through my phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day to day incompetencies is sought... a board is found. ‘This is it... this is where I belong...' I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all."
Eric and Dylan would also embed themselves in violent video games. Eric came to enjoy Postal, named for the act of "going postal." As the Wall Street Journal wrote in a front page story, the game "comes in a box riddled with fake bullet holes and features a gun toting character who goes berserk. It invites players to ‘spray protesters, mow down marching bands and char broil whole towns.' As children writhe on the ground, bleeding and screaming for mercy, the assailant must pick off police and other ‘hostile' attackers. To quit the game, the lead character must put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger."
But Eric and Dylan's favorite game was Doom. The main player is a "space Marine" who grapples with demons, "cyber organic mongrels," and "undead Marines." "Take down the hell scum with an array of weapons," is one official description. Eric wrote his own description for a class paper: "Picture an Earth that has been obliterated by nuclear war and alien attacks leaving cities and military forces in ruins with only a lone marine as humanity's last fighting force. Picture holographic walls, crushing ceilings, oceans of blood and lava, strange ancient artifacts, and horrible sour lemon and rotten meat stenches in the air. Imagine being trapped on an abandoned cold steel base floating in space for eternity, a leathery skinned monster roaming under a strobe light waiting for a fight, and astonishing weaponry designed to your special needs. All these places and ideas have been created and recreated many times by yours truly."
Eric said that if he could live anywhere it would be Phobos, one of the Mars moons mentioned in Doom. As to whether he believed in aliens he wrote on his AOL profile, "you bet your probbed ass I do."
"To most people it may be just another silly computer game, but to me it is an outlet for my thoughts and dreams," Eric wrote in his class paper. "I have mastered changing anything that is possible to change in that game, such as the speed of weapons, the strength and mass of monsters, the textures and colors used on the floors and walls, and greatest of all, the actual levels that are used. Several times I have dreamed of a place or area one night, then thought about it for days and days. Then, I would recreate it in Doom using everything from places in outer space with burned-out floor lights and dusty computers to the darkest depths of the infernal regions with minotaurs and demons running at me from every dark and threatening corner. I have also created settings such as eras of ancient abandoned military installations deep in monster-infested forests with blood stained trees and unidentifiable mangled bodies covered with dead vines and others that portray to futuristic military bases on Mars overrun with zombies that lurk in every corner. These places may seem a bit on the violent side and, I assure you, some of them are. However, many times I have made levels with absolutely no monsters or guns in them. I have created worlds with beautiful, breath taking scenery that looks like something out of a science fiction movie, a fantasy movie, or even some ‘eldritch' from H.P. Lovecraft."
The Browns say they were told that Eric used their own neighborhood as a Doom setting, and their house as the target. And a couple weeks after Columbine the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center examined Harris' games as part of its mission to monitor hate crimes. The center suggested that Harris had made a version of Doom that turned the game from a shooting competition into a massacre because the player was invincible. Wiesenthal researchers said it was called "God mode," and dying characters would yell out, "Lord, why is this happening to me?" Investigators figure Harris spent 100 hours to create the configuration, and in one version, he thanked Klebold for his help.
Eric claimed his interest in the game was intellectual. "Even though one might think it [Doom] is just a game, I believe it is one of the best ways to show my creativity and intelligence," he wrote.
Video games may have given Eric and Dylan paths for their anger: Postal had details that previewed Columbine, and Doom's philosophy of the lone Marine against the rest of hell helped inform Eric and Dylan's us against them mentality. The game's tough as nails descriptions also seeped into their brains and influenced Eric's writings. Staring at the computer screen would keep Eric and Dylan from developing the social skills to merge with the rest of the world they so desperately wanted to connect with.
But Eric and Dylan were not the only ones exposed to the joysticks: In one week in 1997, sales of Postal hit 15,000 copies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The video games did not cause their anger. That came from elsewhere.
Eric the high school freshman was also writing poems. "I am a nice guy who hates when people open their pop can just a little," he wrote in one. "I wonder what my soccer team will be like in the Spring. I hear myself turning on the ignition of an F-15. I see myself flying above everyone else. I want to fly. I am a nice guy who hates when people open their pop can just a little."
When Eric was a freshman his older brother Kevin was a senior who kicked and played tight end for the Columbine Rebels football team. Kevin has been widely praised as a good athlete, and a good guy. Eric called him a great brother. Eric and Dylan attended Columbine High football games and Eric wrote a poem about the team that began:
The big game has finally come tonight.
The Columbine Rebels versus the Chatfield Chargers in football.
The Chargers are filled with fright,
For the Rebels will beat them like a rag-doll.
It does not appear that Eric ever played on any high school teams, but he considered himself a Renaissance man for the sports he did participate in: football, mountain biking, and baseball (outfield and second base). His favorite was soccer (offense and defense) which he played for a club soccer team not affiliated with the school, the Columbine Rush.
Eric acknowledged in a freshman school essay that he was already the type who got angry easily. He said he was kind to people and animals and tried to settle matters "in a mature, non-violent manner" but, "I usually punish people in unusual ways who steal or make me angry." He did not elaborate on the "unusual ways."
Eric liked power, control and creating new things, he wrote. "I am always asking questions or double-checking myself to be sure I completely understand something so I am in control." But Eric didn't have much power, or control, over much of anything.
In the school essay, about the similarities between him and the Greek god Zeus, Eric wrote that they both liked to lead "large groups of people" and "I usually turn out to be a great leader." But if Eric was leading anyone, it was a rag tag band of friends who could summarily be called computer nerds.
Among the first cracks in Eric's psyche was when he took Tiffany Typher to homecoming. She didn't want to go on any more dates after that, so one day he lay on the ground outside his house and covered his head and neck with fake blood. He put a "bloody" rock in his hand as if he had bashed in his own skull, and screamed as Brooks Brown and Tiffany walked by. After a few seconds, Eric burst out laughing. Brooks did too, and saw it as nothing more than a prank.
"I knew it wasn't real, I could tell it was fake blood,'' Typher told The Denver Post a couple days after Columbine. "I yelled, ‘You guys are stupid!' and started running to a friend's house and crying, because it shook me up. He was doing that so maybe I'd come back to him and say I'm sorry.''
Still, Eric - and Dylan - were ready to be accepted; to be part of team Columbine. But they weren't. And never would be.
Their computer skills were sharp, but could not vault them over the ruthless world of high school social popularity contests. They didn't have the right good looks, money or athletic prowess. Their social skills were hopeless.