Everyone knew of them, but no one really knew them, and that was part of their problem.
Now, it’s a problem for families and friends of their victims, and the larger community of grieving Coloradans, who find themselves grappling with the ultimate question: Who were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and what made them turn from innocuous nerds into heartless killers, able to engineer and execute the destruction of their school and the devastation of their town?
So far, it’s a question that even the teens’ parents can’t, or won’t, answer. Since the assault they have remained in seclusion.
Klebold’s mother, however, took time out this week to have her hair done at Four Star Images, a salon within sight of Columbine High School, the scene of Tuesday’s massacre. Dee Grant, the salon’s owner, said Klebold’s mother, Susan, spoke at length about the shooting.
“This was just as much a surprise to me as anyone else,” Klebold told Grant, describing how sweet Dylan was, how happy, especially after last weekend’s prom, which he and a date attended with five other couples. “There’s no way I could’ve known this would happen.”
Grant said Klebold’s mother seemed stunned, and as hungry for answers as the teachers and students gathering every day to mourn outside the school and the police investigators still searching for clues inside.
“She just didn’t seem to know where all this came from,” Grant said. “And she was sad, because she said she’ll never be able to ask Dylan.”
Susan Klebold, 50, works with the handicapped, helping train them for the work force. Her husband, Thomas, is a 52-year-old geophysicist who works in the oil and gas exploration business. Together, the couple also run a real estate firm out of their home, a $500,000 stunner built into the smooth red rocks at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
The Klebolds seemed to have given their son every material comfort he might have wanted, including a black BMW, which police found wired with bombs in the school parking lot after Tuesday’s massacre.
What Klebold saw in Harris, the kid from more modest surroundings, the Air Force brat who’d moved all over the country in his 18 years, isn’t clear. And what Harris saw in Klebold, other than perhaps a like-minded outcast with lots of pocket money for acquiring guns, may also be an eternal puzzle.
They kept to themselves, didn’t share their inner thoughts with many, and spoke their secrets to each other in German. Most students were aware of them, and wary, because they were so obviously different and sought to accentuate their differences with black trench coats, menacing poses and poems in creative writing class about death and war and blood.
But there were some who thought them nice, friendly, even sweet.
Klebold “seemed like an all right guy to me,” said Makai Hall, one of the 23 injured students, who was released from the hospital Friday. “He wasn’t what he’s been portrayed as.”
“I talked to both of them Friday,” said 16-year-old Sarah DeBoer. “They both were nice. I’ve known them since my freshman year. They were probably the nicest people you could ever meet.”
Then, Tuesday, she hardly recognized them. “I turned and saw Dylan,” she said, still incredulous, “and he shot at me.”
Though pleasant and smart, Harris and Klebold weren’t part of the “in” crowd, which deeply irked them. Nothing seemed to bring out their deep sense of inadequacy like the strut and swagger of Columbine’s many star athletes.
With 1,900 students, Columbine is not only a big school, but a mini-society. Students separate themselves into a rigid pyramid, on top of which are the beautiful people, who are precociously so, and rich to boot. The school parking lot is full of BMWs, Vipers and Humvees, all driven by the campus kings and queens.
In such an environment, competition for dates, attention and accolades is fierce. Athletes usually win. Most students concede that Columbine is a giant “jock-ocracy,” the kind of place where two skinny bowling fanatics like Harris and Klebold often came in for more than their fair share of ribbing and bullying.
Feeling feckless and small, they latched onto anything that gave them a sense of power. Violent video games. Swastikas. Movies depicting mayhem, gore and revenge on a grand scale.
They even made one such movie themselves. In their video class, the teens filmed a story in which gunmen don black trench coats and walk down a school’s corridors, calmly eviscerating athletes.
Things only got worse for the two when, grasping for some connection, or perhaps protection, they linked themselves with a loose-knit bunch of misfits, dubbed the Trench Coat Mafia by other students. Though not full-fledged members of the group, Harris and Klebold were involved enough that nearly all students lumped them together.
“They would mouth off to everybody,” said Rocky Hoffschneider, whose 16-year-old son, Dusty, stars on Columbine’s wrestling and football teams. “My other son, Rocky Jr., he drove a Humvee to school, and they cut the top off it.”
For days, rumors have circulated among Columbine students that Dusty and Rocky Hoffschneider were on a hit list kept by Harris and Klebold. But Dusty was in the cafeteria when Harris and Klebold burst in, tossing pipe bombs and firing shotguns, and he escaped unharmed.
Instead, “they shot little girls,” Rocky Sr. said.
Burglary Charges Reduced for Athletes
What began as typical tension between two rival groups became something more last April, after four athletes, including Rocky Jr., were arrested for felony burglary.
When the charges were suddenly reduced, it may have been the last straw for Harris and Klebold, who also were arrested last spring and also were charged with a felony after breaking into a car and stealing electronic equipment. Sentenced to a yearlong diversion program and community service, the two may have felt that the outside world, like the school, dealt differently with jocks and nonjocks. That may have been the moment they decided to burn down Columbine and kill as many students as they could.
How they kept such a plan from their parents is what has so many people here outraged. Why didn’t the Harrises and Klebolds notice something fishy going on, when so many of their neighbors did?
On the cul-de-sac where Harris lived, neighbors last weekend heard the teens making an ominous racket. The two were holed up in Harris’ garage, the door down, most likely making final preparations.
Karen Good, who lives two doors down from the Harrises, said her son Matt walked by the Harris house several times and thought the noises very odd.
“He heard sounds like breaking glass and power tools,” she said. “He thought to himself, ‘Gee, I wonder if they’re working on a school project.’ ”
Another neighbor, she said, saw Harris and Klebold in the backyard smashing things with a pipe. He thought, fleetingly, of calling the police, or at least alerting the Harrises. Then, Good said, he decided to mind his own business.
The Harrises ‘Were Such Nice People’
Good said she met Eric Harris once and spoke to him no more than a handful of times. He was always “clean cut,” she said, and fresh-faced. One day, when her puppy ran away, he found it and brought it back to her.
“They were such nice people,” she said of the Harrises. “They were very quiet, kept to themselves. Once they were inside the house, you wouldn’t hear a sound, not a peep. You wouldn’t even see them walking past the windows.”
But her son rebuffed all suggestions that he seek out the Harris boy, maybe ask him for a ride to school. He simply thought Harris too weird.
Harris’ father, Wayne, is a retired Air Force pilot. His mother, Katherine, works for a Littleton catering service, and his older brother, Kevin, is a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where Klebold had been accepted. Some Columbine students remember Harris’ older brother as a jock.
A friend of Harris told a TV show that Harris was devastated when he didn’t gain acceptance to any of the colleges he’d applied to, despite a solid grade point average. Like his sidekick, Harris seemed exceptionally bright and did well in school, when he applied himself, which he often did not.
Only computers, baseball and hatred seemed to hold his interest.
Such a portrait clashes sharply with the memories of those who knew Harris well six years ago, when he lived in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“He always had nice things to say to everyone,” said Curtis Bingel, who was Harris’ best friend while he lived in Plattsburgh.
“He was incredibly average,” said Terry Condo, who coached the Little League team on which Harris was a so-so outfielder. “No different from any other kid. Maybe a little quieter.”
Condo said the Harrises came to all their son’s games but never shouted at him or seemed unduly stressed about the outcome. Like many in Plattsburgh, he wonders if Harris wasn’t overwhelmed in 1993, when he left a little town where he fit in so well and came to Littleton, where not all outsiders were warmly welcomed.
“It seems to me the kids out there gave him a hard time,” Condo said. “A lot of the kids here have expressed the thought that if he’d stayed here, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Certainly, he wouldn’t have met Klebold, and many think the combination of the two was toxic. They seemed to fuel each other’s paranoia and make each other meaner.
Grant, the hairdresser, said Klebold’s mother noticed many times that Harris was capable of sudden anger, whereas Good said it was Klebold who had the inner rage. “All he would do is give you a look,” she said, “and you knew he didn’t like you.”
Particularly hurtful to Klebold’s mother, Grant recalled, was the pair’s worship of Nazi Germany. While bowling, they’d often shout, “Heil, Hitler,” whenever one of them scored a strike.
Susan Klebold may not have raised her son Jewish, but she is the daughter of Leo Yassenhoff, a prominent Jewish philanthropist in Ohio, for whom a Jewish community center there is named.
“We never talked prejudice in our house,” Klebold told Grant. “Could he have been such a good actor that I didn’t see this other side?”
After spending 90 minutes with the mother, Grant wonders the same thing herself.
But she also remembered something about the mother.
The day of Susan Klebold’s original appointment, Grant said, was Tuesday. But when the news broke that her son was dead, and that he’d taken part in a bloody rampage at the high school, the mother calmly called the salon to cancel.