Columbine killers are honored on web sites, mimicked by teens who are outcasts
March 7, 2001
It’s been nearly two years since the tragedy at Columbine High, and yet the presence of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold can still be felt.
Their reach stretches from the grave to a cultlike status on the Internet to a spate of teen-age copycats, including a 15-year-old boy accused of opening fire Monday morning in a San Diego-area high school, killing two classmates and sending 13 people to hospitals.
Admirers have used cyberspace as a forum for memorial tributes to two of the most notorious mass murderers in American history. One even proposes a ’‘ribbon campaign” to honor the Columbine killers.
The following is no surprise to those with expertise in the mind-set of criminals.
“You have to understand there’s a lot of people out there whose lives are kind of empty,” said Ron Walker, a former FBI agent and expert in criminal profiling who lives in the Denver area.
Ted Bundy killed dozens - maybe even hundreds - of unsuspecting young women in a coast-to-coast rampage and still got marriage proposals as he sat on death row.
So it stands to reason, Walker said, that some people would identify with Harris and Klebold, the two Columbine seniors who felt picked on at school and hatched a plan to rain death on their classmates.
That adulation can take several forms.
On the Internet, it’s easy to find Web sites dedicated to Harris and Klebold.
One urges visitors to support the “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ribbon campaign.” It idolizes the two as “our fallen heroes” willing to risk their own lives “for the sake of proving a point.”
Another Web site includes a gallery of pictures of the two killers and urges visitors to “imagine being tormented every day when you go to school.”
Still another urges people to remember that Harris and Klebold were “people, too.”
And then there are the recent copycat Columbine plans:
* In early February, authorities in Hoyt, Kan., charged three high school students - ages 16, 17 and 18 - with plotting a Columbine-like attack on Royal Valley High School.
Police officers searching homes on Feb. 5 found three black trench coats like those worn by Harris and Klebold in the Columbine assault. They also found bomb-making materials, a modified assault rifle, ammunition, white supremacist drawings and floor plans for their school in northeastern Kansas.
* Two days later, the school in the news was Preston Junior High in Fort Collins.
There, three ninth-graders were accused of plotting a Columbine-style attack on their school. They had access to guns and had drawn crude plans of the school that appeared to show the best places to shoot.
Among the weapons turned up in a search of one of the boy’s homes was a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol, like one of the weapons used in the Columbine attack.
* Then, on Valentine’s Day, police officers in Elmira, N.Y., arrested an 18-year-old senior at Southside High after he came to school lugging a duffel bag full of explosives, a loaded handgun and the parts to a shotgun. Investigators eventually found more than 20 crude bombs, some at school, some at the boy’s home.
The boy was caught after he allegedly carried his cache of bombs and weapons into the school’s cafeteria and then wrote a note to a classmate about them. That student told a member of the faculty, who called police.
“There are a lot of sick people out there who may identify with what these people have done,” Walker said. “There are a lot of people out there who may identify with the motive of these two guys - people who may have been picked on, people who were kindred spirits.”
They may also look at the attention Harris and Klebold got, even in death, and crave that, as well. After all, their pictures were plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the country, across the covers of major magazines, and around the Internet.
“It becomes a way to sort of enhance their own identity,” said John Nicoletti, a police psychologist who works with Denver-area departments. “Especially if you have someone whose life is not really going that well, anyway.
’'This is the chance to take control. This is the chance to be in the spotlight. This is the chance to be an avenger.”
An attorney for one of the Fort Collins boys has argued that the teens there had no serious intent to carry out their plot, that they did not think of Harris and Klebold as heroes.
In some cases, kids may be genuinely planning something. In others, they may merely be fantasizing.
But Nicoletti said there’s no way to know for sure: “I guess my reaction to the attorneys and the others who say, 'Well, they didn’t mean it,’ is 'How many more signals do you need? What else short of drawing blood was missing in Fort Collins?’ ”
All of this comes as April 20 approaches, the anniversary of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, at Columbine.
For police officers across the country, that means there’s no longer any such thing as innocent talk about blowing up a school and gunning down students.
“This isn’t like it was when I was in high school,” said Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman, who graduated in 1973. “It just isn’t the same. And you can see that in some of the threats we actually do hear about.
’'They seem to be more frequent and they go across all lines - econonomic, social, sexual. You can’t pin them down. That’s why you have to take them all seriously.”
That, however, doesn’t always happen.
Just last weekend, the 15-year-old boy accused in Monday’s California shooting talked about taking a gun to school and shooting people. The talk came as the suspect spent the night at a friend’s home, according to a man who is dating the other boy’s mother.
“I even mentioned Columbine to him,” Chris Reynolds told The Associated Press. “I said I don’t want a Columbine here at Santana. But he said, 'No, nothing will happen. I’m just joking.”’
That the boy had bragged beforehand fit a pattern seen in other copycat crimes.
“When we work with schools and companies on workplace violence, we always say the same thing: 'They always tell you before they do it. There’s no surprises,”’ Nicoletti said.
And this week’s incident probably was not the end of people trying to emulate Harris and Klebold.
“Probably,” said Walker, the former FBI agent, “somewhere in this country there is someone sitting down as the date approaches thinking at some point that he might engage in an act that outdoes Harris and Klebold.
’'Whether he’s really thinking about doing something like that or whether they’re just fantasizing, you can’t say.”