When security guards Christina Kolk and Cameron Rust heard the first gunshot, they headed toward the north hall of Arapahoe High School. Only moments earlier, a janitor had called them on the radio, saying something about a suspicious individual at the north entrance.
Three more shots erupted in the next few seconds, while Rust screamed into the radio, summoning the armed sheriff's deputy who served as the school resource officer and calling for a general lockdown. Then he and Kolk found themselves at the entrance to the library, peering through the smoke. Fifteen feet away, pointing a shotgun at them and waiting for them to approach, was eighteen-year-old Karl Pierson.
For an instant, Kolk froze. It was a terrifying moment, her worst fears realized. Yet it wasn't entirely unexpected. If she had to name people capable of shooting up her school, Pierson -- a senior with a history of angry outbursts and other disturbing behavior -- would have been first on the list.
Three months before he launched his attack on Arapahoe, Pierson had threatened to kill Tracy Murphy, the school's head librarian and debate coach, who had demoted him on the debate team. A few weeks after that, Kolk reported to the administration that she had seen Pierson inspecting firearms websites on his computer in the school cafeteria. But school officials didn't consider him a serious threat, taking little action in response to these and other incidents -- even though Pierson had already been suspended the previous spring for "going off" on another teacher.
Kolk had been so frustrated by the administration's indifference that in early December she'd drafted an anonymous letter to the media, complaining that the school wasn't safe. "Students who threaten staff lives are looking at guns, yet when that is brought up to administration there is nothing they can do about it?" she wrote. "Even when they say the student is going to go off the deep end?... As a parent and concerned community member, I don't want to wait for something bad to happen."
On December 13, 2013, just hours after Kolk finished that letter, Pierson did go off. He walked into Arapahoe armed with a Savage Arms Stevens pump-action shotgun (recently purchased for $229.99 at Cabela's), a machete, bandoliers loaded with shotgun shells, and three Molotov cocktails. In the hallway, he shot seventeen-year-old Claire Davis, fatally wounding her, then went into the library, looking for Murphy. He fired off one of his Molotovs, setting a bookcase on fire, encountered the security guards -- who, unarmed, quickly retreated -- then shot himself in the head.
Last week, Kolk, who's currently on paid suspension from her security job for what she describes as bogus reasons, held a press conference at her attorney's office. She released documents suggesting that officials ignored the warning signs of Pierson's escalating violent behavior; that there are reasons to be skeptical of the "threat assessment" of Pierson that officials claim was done after his threat to kill Murphy; and that the school has a history of minimizing other student misconduct in reports submitted to the Colorado Department of Education. In one case Kolk described, she'd been inclined to file assault charges against a student who cursed at her and threw an apple in her direction; the incident was written up as an "abusive language" offense. In another, a student suspected of selling knives at school was caught on campus with three knives and two beers; the incident was listed as simply an alcohol violation.
Kolk's story is the latest in a series of revelations over the past few weeks about the Arapahoe High shooting and Pierson's troubled history. Many questions remain, but two points have become stunningly clear. First, Pierson studied the 1999 attack on Columbine High School intensely and, to an eerie degree, found inspiration in that much-imitated template. Second, the failure to heed Pierson's threats, bullying and boasting of his plans indicates that the people running Arapahoe High and Littleton Public Schools have learned almost none of the lessons of Columbine, other than how to stonewall and obfuscate after tragedy has already struck.
Over the past fifteen years, many school shooters have exhibited a fascination with Columbine -- notably, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui, who left a video manifesto similar to the basement tapes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But Pierson was truly obsessed with the Columbine killers, particularly Harris. He kept pictures of Columbine on his computer and a copy of Jeff Kass's book on the massacre under his mattress. He aped his role model in numerous ways, from mocking his classmates and declaring his superiority ("grand exalted leader" was the user profile on his laptop) to extolling the music of the industrial band KMFDM and the general excellence of "NBK," shorthand for the film Natural Born Killers -- which was also Harris's code word for the day of reckoning. Pierson even went bowling the morning of the attack -- an odd thing to do, unless you happened to believe the inaccurate assertion in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine that Harris and Klebold did that, too.
Continue for more about the shooting at Arapahoe High School. Like Harris, Pierson counted down on a calendar the days until the attack. (Handwritten notation for December 13: "Get pumped.") Like Harris, he kept a journal, outlining his plans and salivating over the destruction to come. "I am a psychopath with a superiority complex," he chortled. And then, quoting Harris almost verbatim: "I am filled with hate. I love it."
And, like Harris, he made frequent references to a constantly expanding "hit list," the creation of an arsenal and his own impending demise: "I feel like a bomb...I feel like an aneurism [sic] could happen at any second."
Other students heard about Pierson's hit list and his desire to kill Murphy. In the days leading up to the shooting, he even showed off pictures of the machete and his newly purchased shotgun. He told one girl that he "becomes a monster" when he's mad. Another girl told investigators that lots of people at school knew that Karl had "anger issues" and "was going to snap one day," but she never dreamed it "would be of this magnitude."
Plenty of adults knew about Pierson's anger issues, too. After his outburst about killing Murphy, Pierson's mother decided to keep him home for several days. But Pierson was never formally suspended, and an administrator told Murphy the boy would not be removed from Arapahoe High because he was "a senior and near the end of his school career." A school psychologist decided that Pierson posed little risk to others. Another therapist told his mother that he wasn't a threat to himself or others. But such assessments depend in part on the subject's candor, and this is how Pierson viewed the process: "I had an interesting day today. In first hour, I thought about shooting up the asylum or whatever the fuck it was that my mother took me [to] for that psych evaluation. Let the records show I lied through my teeth through the test."
Adults are easy to fool. Harris knew that, too. But sometimes they work hard to keep themselves in denial. According to Kolk, Pierson's history of angry episodes at Arapahoe is more extensive than his file indicates. "We were told to watch out for this student," she says, "but we were also told not to put things in writing." Both she and Rust claim to have been retaliated against for speaking out about Arapahoe's security policy, which seems to have little in common with the "zero tolerance" approach that swept the country after Columbine.
Indeed, the only lesson of Columbine that seems to have stuck at Arapahoe is the way that law enforcement now responds immediately to an active-shooter threat rather than waiting for SWAT to arrive. Pierson knew he had only minutes to carry out his plan, and he abandoned it entirely after failing to find Murphy. By the time the first armed deputy made it to the source of the shooting, it was all over.
As with Klebold and Harris, they found his body in the library.
Have a tip? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.