Hiding in Plain Sight

Are Columbine's remaining secrets too dangerous for the public to know -- or too embarrassing for officials to reveal?

Cradling a sawed-off shotgun in his lap, Eric Harris glares into the video camera. He takes a pull from a bottle of Jack Daniel's and winces. Then he talks smack about the pathetic losers involved in school shootings in Oregon and Kentucky.

"Do not think we're trying to copy anyone," he tells some future, unseen audience. "We had the idea before the first one ever happened. Our plan is better, not like those fucks in Kentucky with camouflage and .22s. Those kids were only trying to be accepted by others."

With his parents asleep upstairs and Dylan Klebold manning the camera, Harris takes his viewers on a tour of his bedroom arsenal. On the floor, he's laid out numerous pipe bombs, a shotgun and carbine with spare clips, boxes of bullets and homemade grenades. He models his cargo pants and the slings he's devised to hold weapons. He brandishes a knife and points out a swastika carved in its sheath. He shows off a fifty-foot coil of bomb fuse hanging on the wall.

"Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold says. "I know we're gonna have followers because we're so fucking godlike. We're not exactly human. We have human bodies, but we've evolved one step above you fucking human shit. We actually have fucking self-awareness."

Welcome, once more, to the basement tapes -- nearly four hours of posing, boasting and bitching by the obnoxious gods of self-awareness, two teenage killers-to-be named Harris and Klebold. The footage was shot in the last weeks of their short lives, the final segment just a few hours before the rampage at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, that left fifteen dead and seriously injured two dozen more. Seized by Jefferson County investigators right after the shootings, the tapes have been sitting in an evidence vault for the past seven years, seen by almost no one -- except, of course, a small army of cops, attorneys, reporters, victims' families, expert witnesses and assorted hangers-on.

That could change soon. Following a surprising decision by the Colorado Supreme Court last fall, which held that the tapes are part of the "records" generated by the Columbine investigation, Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink has been wrestling with the biggest quandary of his law-enforcement career. Should he refuse to release the basement tapes on the grounds that their dissemination is still (in the words of the state's Criminal Justice Records Act) "contrary to the public interest" -- and thus prolong a five-year court battle with the Denver Post? Or should he make the hate-filled rants, along with other long-suppressed writings and recordings taken from the killers' homes, available to the world at last?

Mink has postponed announcing his decision until after the seventh anniversary of the massacre next week -- out of respect, his office says, for the victims' families, some of whom have pushed for the release of the materials while others have opposed it. But if history is any guide, he will oppose the release, sending the whole controversy back to court. County officials have treated the killers' writings and tapes as an anthrax-like deadly contagion that must not, under any circumstances, be inflicted on an unsuspecting populace.

"The Sheriff's Office is fearful that release of this information would not help the public but could potentially cause another one of these attacks," Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler said in a hearing before District Judge Brooke Jackson in 2002. (Oeffler, the county's point person in keeping Columbine's secrets, is now a district judge herself.) The county's position mirrors that of the parents of Harris and Klebold, whose attorneys have maintained that the tapes are private property and that their release would have a disastrous "copycat effect," inspiring more school shootings.

"Mr. and Mrs. Harris do not want the angry and vitriolic rantings of their son to be made public," Harris attorney Michael Montgomery wrote to Mink recently, "but their overriding concern is to avoid the risk that these tapes and writings might influence others to commit similar acts."


Noble sentiments, to be sure. But the lofty case for suppression has been undercut by the actions of Mink's predecessor, John Stone, who didn't seem to have a problem infecting the public with the gunmen's vitriol when it served his own purposes. Like Poe's purloined letter, like the bomb fuse Eric Harris kept on his wall and that his parents viewed as an innocent decoration, many of Columbine's remaining secrets aren't all that hidden. They have trickled out over time -- largely through the leaks, blunders and self-serving half-truths produced by the Columbine investigation itself.

Copycats and Natural Born Killers

In his official report on the massacre, Sheriff Stone used excerpts from the writings of Harris and Klebold to suggest that no one but the gunmen could be blamed for the shootings -- no one at the sheriff's office, anyway, which had failed to investigate several previous complaints about Harris. This kind of selective editing was anticipated by the killers; in one of their videos, they discuss how the cops will censor their work and "just show the public what they want."

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