Back to School

The bullet in the backpack and other Columbine mysteries.

Leaked to Time and then screened for local media on only one occasion, the basement tapes are only part of the goodbye-cruel-world messages the gunmen left for the cops. Harris's journal and other writings and recordings -- including an audiotape found at Harris's house featuring the voices of the killers talking about the "day that will be remembered forever" -- have never been released.

The day before the shootings, three students from the video production class were filming in a hallway at Columbine. They came across Harris, who was sitting outside the west doors -- the same spot where the killing would begin 26 hours later. He was writing or drawing something on white sheets of paper. They asked him what he was doing.

"Planning for tomorrow," he said.

Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.
Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.


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One of the video crew laughed. "Well," he said, "if the school blows up, we'll know who did it."

Eric Harris? Never Heard of Him

Excerpt from Critical Incident Team interview of Deputy Neil Gardner, school resource officer, by Arvada police detective Russ Boat-right, April 20, 1999, 5:35 p.m.:

RB: Okay. The suspect that you saw that you exchanged gunfire with, was he Dylan?

NG: I believed him to be Dylan...He was more in stature of Dylan 'cause Dylan's a lot taller than Eric Harris.

RB: But you wouldn't know Eric Harris, correct?

NG: I didn't know till I saw a picture of him.

RB: Okay. Did you recognize him from the photo, then?

NG: No.

RB: Okay, so you really don't know this kid at all.

NG: I had never dealt with Eric Harris.

Oh, Wait. That Eric Harris...

Excerpt from a press release issued by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, April 30, 1999, regarding actions taken by the agency in response to the 1998 report of Eric Harris's death threats and bomb-making activities:

"School Resource Officer Deputy Neil Gardner was briefed as to the information [in the Brown complaint] by Investigator Mike Guerra. Deputy Gardner with this knowledge occasionally engaged Harris and Klebold, along with several of their friends and associates, in light conversation. Deputy Gardner made no observations of inappropriate behavior and has stated that both Harris and Klebold treated him with appropriate respect."


In the aftermath of the attack, investigators promised to assemble a "minute-by-minute" account of the massacre and the police response. They reviewed 911 and dispatch tapes, fire alarm data, the cafeteria surveillance video and other electronic sources and compared them with the recollections of hundreds of witnesses.

The official timeline, presented in the sheriff's report a year later, has been disputed by several Columbine families. They charge that the timeline leaves out important events, including the arrival of three Denver SWAT officers on the west side of the school in time to engage one of the shooters in a brief gun battle. They also point out that the timeline is contradicted by material in the dispatch tapes, accounts of responding officers and other evidence, such as a computerized log of purchases recorded by the cafeteria cash register. (According to the register's receipts, adjusted ten minutes by investigators to reflect the "real" time, student Rachel Scott bought her lunch three minutes after the timeline says she was shot and killed by the gunmen outside. Jefferson County officials say the cash register readout was never properly synchronized with the dispatch time.)

Even if you accept the official timeline as gospel, the picture that emerges of law enforcement in action that day is a dismal one. Match up the timeline with the reports of officers arriving on scene, and the picture grows ever blacker:

11:19 a.m. Attack on Columbine begins. Reports of shooting outside the school and an explosion in a field nearby. Two students are killed in the first few minutes of the attack and seven others wounded. Number of police officers on scene: 0.

11:26 a.m. Deputy Gardner pulls into the south parking lot and reports shooting in the building. Number of officers on scene: 1.

11:29 a.m. After exchanging shots with Gardner outside, Harris retreats into the building. He and Klebold head for the library, where teacher Patty Nielson, wounded at the west doors, is already on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Number of officers on scene: 7.

11:37 a.m. Klebold and Harris exit the library, leaving behind ten dead and twelve wounded, and start shooting up the halls. Number of officers on scene: 20.

11:45 a.m. A fire breaks out in the cafeteria as the gunmen attempt to set off their propane bombs. Hundreds of students and teachers are still trapped in the building. The number of officers on scene is now at least 50.

12:01 p.m. From the windows of the library, the gunmen fire on police and rescue workers outside. Police return fire. There are now more than 75 officers on scene.

12:08 p.m. Harris and Klebold kill themselves in the library, moments after the first SWAT team enters the opposite side of the school. Police will not discover the killers' bodies for more than three hours.

1:09 p.m. A second SWAT team enters on the west side of the school.

2:38 p.m. Wounded student Patrick Ireland crawls out a library window and is caught by SWAT officers on top of an armored car.

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