Teen Shooter's Life Paints Antisocial Portrait

Washington Post | April 29, 1999; Page A1
By Joel Achenbach and Dale Russakoff

LITTLETON, Colo., April 28 Eric Harris thought about war, fantasized about war and wrote about war. He was thrilled when he heard, one morning in philosophy class, that the United States was on the verge of bombing Yugoslavia. Rebecca Heins, who sat next to him, remembers Harris saying, "I hope we do go to war, I'll be the first one there." He wanted to be in the front lines, he said. He wanted, as he put it, to "shoot everyone," Heins recalls.

Harris said that morning that he hoped he would get drafted. But then he took direct action to improve his chances of becoming a real warrior: He tried to enlist in the Marines. He seemed a good candidate, physically trim and extremely smart. But he was not destined to storm a beach or parachute behind enemy lines in the uniform of his nation.

On a visit to his home April 15, Marine recruiters learned from Harris's parents that their son took a powerful antidepressant called Luvox.

Harris had explicitly stated on his application that he did not take any prescription drugs, so the Marines rejected him.

Five days later, Harris and his buddy Dylan Klebold staged their own private war at Columbine High School, killing 13 people before they finally killed themselves.

In hindsight there were many clues, many peculiar signs, that Harris, who has emerged as the leader of the rampage, and Klebold, the follower, were actively dangerous, that they weren't just rebels, or juvenile delinquents, or "Goths" who liked to wear black and listen to German rock bands. There is now a trail of evidence that the two telegraphed their actions.

But they also operated under the general camouflage of teenage life, when dark moods and obsessive thoughts and sudden changes in clothing and beliefs are not all that strange. The Columbine case shows how difficult it is to separate the rebels and individualists and creative people from the serious menaces to society until something horrible happens.

In a childhood memoir he composed for a creative writing class one day in early April, Harris re-created a world in which he and his older brother, Kevin, were young boys, sons of an Air Force pilot, playing a war game in his back yard in small-town Plattsburgh, N.Y.

But the war game wasn't just a game. In the memoir, the boys were Rambo-like heroes, caught in a genuine battle for survival. Armed with M-16s, Eric and his brother were fending off an entire army of assailants.

"It sounded like they were in Vietnam," says classmate Domonic Duran. "They were running away from the enemy, diving under logs, hiding from helicopters, throwing pine cones that were like grenades. It was shocking because it was so good."

So good, in fact, that when it was read aloud to the class by a friend Harris declined the honor the students snapped their fingers vigorously, the class sign of approval. No one could have known that the high school literary triumph prefigured the horror to come, with Klebold cast as the brother and all of Columbine High as the emeny.

Not only friends were fooled by Harris and Klebold. So were law enforcement authorities and counselors who dealt with the two after they were arrested for burglarizing a car. When a judge asked Eric Harris what kind of grades he got, Harris answered, "A's and B's, your honor" which was true. When a neighbor heard a racket at the Harris house the day before the shootings, he investigated and saw the teenagers banging pipes and breaking glass. It was material for their pipe bombs. The boys looked at the neighbor, smiled, and gave two thumbs up.

Also fooled, apparently, were their parents.

"You can't imagine how confused they are," said Randy Brown, a friend of Thomas and Susan Klebold. He was one of six people, other than the parents and a minister, who attended Dylan Klebold's funeral.

"If you knew this kid and you knew what he was like other than the fact that he was associated with Eric you would never believe this was possible. . . . They're having trouble coming to grips with this situation. It's so unbelievable. With Eric, there were signs, there were red flags everywhere, that were ignored. With Dylan, there was not one sign. Not one," Brown said.

The Browns knew that Eric Harris had the potential for violence because Harris threatened their son, Brooks, in electronic messages and on Harris's Web site. They turned the material over to police, who did nothing, according to the Browns. Police did not notify the juvenile court magistrate supervising the burglary case of Harris and Klebold.

The material from the Browns is on Web pages written by "rebdoomer" and "rebdomine," screen names linked to Harris. America Online removed the material from its public sites soon after the shooting.

One typical passage states, "I live in Denver and god damnit I would like to kill almost all of its residents. [Expletive] people with their rich snobby attitude thinkin they are all high and mighty and can just come up and tell me what to do and then people I see in the streets lying their [expletive] asses off about themselves."

That was included under the label "Society." Under "Philosophy" he wrote: "My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, and if you don't like it, you die. If I don't like you or I don't like what you want me to do, you die. . . . I'll just go to some downtown area in some big ass city and blow up and shoot everything I can. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame."

Harris also listed the wide range of things that he said he hated. He hated R-rated movies on cable television ("My DOG can do a better damn editing job than those [expletive].") He hated people who think they can forecast the weather. He hated people who think that wrestling is real. He hated it when people blocked his path in the hallway. What he loved: When a kid blows his hand off playing with firecrackers.

"Eric was evil," said Randy Brown.

District Attorney Dave Thomas said he had reviewed some of the pages of the journal found in Harris's house, presumably written by Harris, detailing the year-long plans for the killings, which the teenagers hoped would result in 500 people dead and end with them hijacking a plane and crashing into New York City.

"What I read was disjointed. I found it rambling. There were words that I don't know what they mean. I'm going to have to do some research," he said. He said he didn't detect a philosophy other than a serious dislike of other people.

What's clear is that they liked war, war as a game, war as entertainment. Like many kids, they played "Doom" and "Duke Nukem," computer games where the object, more or less, is to shoot and kill as many people as possible.

In creative writing class, they did nothing to conceal their dark interests.

Terra Oglesbee, who sat in front of Harris and next to Klebold, said, "It was good writing, but it was very gory." And littered with profanity, she said. The teacher of the class, identified by students as Judy Kelly, could not be reached for comment.

Oglesbee, Heins and Duran said that nothing about Harris and Klebold indicated a propensity toward real violence. They wore Army boots and fatigues and trench coats, but so did a lot of students. Heins said that the report that Harris took antidepressants doesn't mean much, because a lot of kids do, even her sometimes, she said.

Luvox is licensed by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is characterized by persistent and distressing thoughts, or compulsive behaviors, such as hand-washing. It is in the same family as Prozac and functions as an antidepressant, and it is often prescribed to people who are both depressed and have obsessive thoughts.

Oglesbee, who is black, said neither Harris nor Klebold showed signs of being racist an element that came into focus during the shootings, when one of the gunmen reportedly used a racial epithet before shooting a black student in the face.

"They were great. I thought they were cool. I thought they were nice guys," said Heins, who has been in all-black clothing since 8th grade, when she shared a class with Harris and Klebold. They were "preppie" back then and called her "devil child," she said. Only in the last year or so, students said, did their attire turn toward the dark, Gothic fashions.

Before he started dressing that way, Oglesbee said, Harris was not only normal-looking but rather attractive "hot," she said.

The signal that the two were planning something violent was cloaked in abundant noise. For example, last fall, Klebold and Harris made a video for a government and economics class in which they showed themselves as hit men, a protection ring of sorts, who could be hired out to wreak justice on jocks who picked on other students. The video was violent and ended with the two bludgeoning the head of a dummy amid much fake blood.

"Everyone thought the end was a little freaky," said one classmate, who wouldn't give her name because, like some students, she fears there might still be an accomplice or accomplices on the loose.

But she noted that many of the videos were violent and that her own contained sexual scenes. "Everybody's video involved fighting," she said.