21. Basement Tapes

December 20, 1999

Community Center near Littleton, Colorado

A middle-aged man stood calmly onstage, holding a microphone, as the press gathered below him, to hear what he brought to share. He was the same grieving father who had told Congress about the void in the heart, where the shooters came from, and for months he had been saying that the attacks were happening because American culture had taken God out of its public schools. Now, as he promised the New York Post, he had evidence.

What would become known as the “basement tapes” were recovered from the Columbine shooters’ homes in the aftermath of their attack, but the footage had been kept a secret until just the day before the father’s press conference, when word leaked that TIME magazine was going to publish a story on the tapes. Even the victims’ families were blindsided.

There was an immediate backlash against Jefferson County’s sheriff, who then hastily arranged for family members of victims to view the footage before the story’s release, if they wished. The father onstage had smuggled a cassette recorder into the viewing room, and now was summoning the press there because, in his view, “It’s inevitable, now, that the world is going to find out,” and he “wanted to be the first person to say to the world what was on the videotapes.”

Onstage, he lowered his microphone, and waited.

The muffled hiss of an audio cassette came over the community center’s PA system. Two voices on it began to speak, and they sounded angry. The audience shifted in their chairs, as the realization sank in: that they were hearing the Columbine killers taunt their classmates, from beyond the grave:

RIGHT: …and those two girls sitting next to you, they probably want you to shut the fuck up, too! Jesus!

LEFT: I don’t like you stuck up little bitches, you’re fucking little.. Christian, Godly little whores!

RIGHT: Yeah.. ‘I love Jesus! I love Jesus!’ — shut the fuck up!

LEFT: What would Jesus do? What the fuck would I do!? [makes gunshot sound/gesture]

RIGHT: I would shoot you in the motherfucking head! Go Romans! Thank God they crucified that asshole.

And the static demon voices went on, cheering the Romans at Golgotha, as the tape wound to a stop.

While the outside world had spent the last eight months debating the motives and inspirations behind Columbine — Marilyn Manson, DOOM, or the Trench Coat Mafia — behind the scenes in Jefferson County, the sheriff was hearing the real answers, from the shooters themselves.

When Jeffco first revealed the existence of the tapes, in December of 1999, they were planning to show them solely to TIME magazine. After the public relations debacle, the sheriff would insist that not only had the reporters agreed not take pictures, or make any copies of the tapes, they weren’t supposed to make any direct reference to them at all in their article. So when Jeffco saw the cover headline “THE COLUMBINE TAPES,” they said the magazine had broken their agreement.

But it was too late. Although the tapes themselves would remain sealed in an evidence room, to smooth things over with TIME’s competitors in the press, Jeffco agreed to allow more journalists to view them in the weeks after. Collectively, the news stories that followed would paint a detailed picture of just what the tapes actually contained.

* * *

The scene is set up like a talk show, with the shooters seated on a couch and recliner in Right’s basement family room. They give the date — which, assuming it’s accurate, places the filming less than five weeks before their attack — and make the purpose of their message clear: they want full credit for everything they are going to do. Furthermore, that it was just the two of them who earned it, not the prom date or the work friend who had unwittingly provided them with guns. “We used them. They had no clue… don’t blame them. And don’t fucking arrest them,” they tell the police, in between sips of whiskey and mouthfuls of candy. “Don’t arrest anyone, because they didn’t have a fucking clue. If it hadn’t been them, it would’ve been someone else over twenty-one.”

They leave no doubt that bullying and revenge were factors. Left says he’s felt hated in school ever since the “stuck up kids” at his daycare, and he hated them right back. “Being shy didn’t help. I’m going to kill you all. You’ve been giving us shit for years.”

Repeatedly, they explain it as, “We’re going to prove ourselves.” The shooters get excited thinking about it. At several points, Left even has to calm Right down, and remind him not to wake his own parents, who are in bed upstairs.

Right turns the energy back at his partner, getting him wound up and egging him on — “More rage, keep building it!” — and Left indeed seems to feed off of his energy, becoming more animated. “I know we’re gonna have followers because we’re so fucking God-like,” he says, stroking his shotgun. “We’re not exactly human — we have human bodies but we’ve evolved into one step above you, fucking human shit. We actually have fucking self-awareness.”

On another tape, they give the viewer a tour of their arsenal. They say, “We are, but we aren’t psycho,” as Left tries on his trenchcoat, a halo of ammo and pipe bombs scattered on the floor around him. Several of the magazines seen are for Right’s 9mm Hi-Point carbine rifle; behind the camera, Right narrates that he has “100 bullets and 10 loaded clips.” He flips the camera around to say directly into the lens: “You guys are lucky it doesn’t hold more ammo.”

Back in the basement, the shooters share a belief: that “World peace is an impossible thing,” in part because anyone can look on the internet and find recipes for “bombs, poison, napalm,” and “how to buy guns if you’re underage.” They then laugh at the gun control legislation that they expect to follow in their wake: “Go ahead and change gun laws — how do you think we got ours?”

Throughout the tapes, the shooters address an audience that would never truly exist: those reacting to the bombing at Columbine High School, with the shooting being just the aftermath. In the shooters’ eyes, looking to the future, there flickered a high school in flames. “The most deaths in U.S. history,” predicts Left.

Right lifts his shotgun and gives the barrel a kiss. “Hopefully.”

“We’re hoping. We’re hoping. I hope we kill 250 of you,” Left adds. “It will be the most nerve-wracking 15 minutes of my life, after the bombs are set and we’re waiting to charge through the school.”

Right — who elsewhere on the tapes apologizes to any friends he might hurt — says “I hope people have flashbacks. Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve? We don’t give a shit because we’re going to die doing it.” Indeed, as grand as their vision for “NBK” was, the two shooters hoped that it would only be the beginning; they left the tapes behind because they wanted their darkness to linger, long after their fires had gone out. “We’re going to kick-start a revolution,” the shooters call out from the abyss. “A revolution of the dispossessed.”

March 22, 2000

Newtown High School

On a quiet Wednesday morning, the fear engulfed Newtown High School. Students arriving for class were met by two Newtown Police cruisers, parked prominently outside the senior lot. And when class started, many of the desks were empty anyway; rumors of some sort of “plot” had spread through the village the previous evening, and as a result, no less than 130 students stayed home from school that day. As NHS’s principal told the Newtown Bee, “There was a rumor heard by some kids that there was going to be a shooting.”

It had all started with a dream: one student was telling a friend about a nightmare he had, involving a shooter. Another group of students, passing by in the packed halls, apparently misheard the conversation, and brought the “rumor” home to their parents. “A year ago, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought,” one parent said — but now, she ended up telling her daughter to skip. “With the climate in our society, I thought it better to err on the safer side.”

In response to the threat, the resource officer for Newtown School District canceled her shift over at the middle school, and she and the high school’s principal spent the whole day patrolling the halls of NHS, while an extra Newtown PD patrol officer was stationed in the cafeteria, keeping an eye out for any Columbine-wannabes.

Thankfully, nothing happened. They discovered the source of the rumor soon after, and realized it was a false alarm. Relieved, the school’s principal saw a silver lining in the clouds, and commended the students who had reported the tip, regarding it as a sign that they had crossed over to the vigilant, post-Columbine world. “That is what we want them to do.”

Fall 2000

Sandy Hook Elementary School

Y2K came and went. Nancy needn’t have worried about the air control radar going offline, or the planes falling from the sky. Everything was fine.

Adam went back to Sandy Hook Elementary for third grade, in the fall of 2000. In class, his articulation continued to improve, though records show that he “needed to be drawn out in discussion.”

Midway through the school year, a new progress report noted that he was making a “concerted effort to volunteer answers,” but would still not ask many questions. And he would never communicate spontaneously. But beyond these concerns, they viewed him to be a normal, healthy kid. His work was “neat and thoughtful” and he was a “good citizen.” He would follow rules, help others, and accept responsibility.

* * *

Later that school year, Adam turned nine years old. By then, Nancy had expressed to the Planning and Placement Team that she was unhappy with how the third grade was going for him; his grades were still fine, and there were no reports of him acting out, but whatever the intangible gap was between he and his classmates, it was just get wider, no matter what she did.

Adam was learning to write. In his class journal for the third grade (pages of which would later be obtained and published by the Hartford Courant), he wrote that he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up, and in one homework assignment, he wrote for several pages to tell the story of a recent trip that he and his family had made, to a beach in New Hampshire:

It was good to be in the water. I went out as far as I could until I could not go anymore. I was calm and was looking for my dad. When I turned back around a two foot wave was coming. I tried to swim away but my feet were too close to the ground. I had to go as fast as I could run. I was close to the shore when it swallowed me.

In his telling of the story, he soon makes it safely to shore, if a bit muddy. The next morning, he is thrilled when Peter tells the boys, “Let’s go to the arcade,” and they spend thousands of tickets to earn Adam a plush Pikachu doll.

Later that year, at home, he would write a thank-you letter to Santa, just two weeks after Christmas, saying “I like the Pokemon cards you sent me and I would like it if you sent me more this year,” then clarifying “can they be first addition [sic]?” Adam was also careful to note that it was okay if Santa sent the cards now; it wasn’t necessary to wait until next Christmas.

* * *

Even though these writings seem cheerful enough, Nancy was still worried. Her son’s IEP would show that he was “shy” and “frequently ill” that school year — she had started keeping him home a lot. And since he never voluntarily spoke, and had no close friends, she was really the only person who could say how he was doing, or what he was feeling.

In May, with the end of the third grade approaching, Nancy sent an email to Sandy Hook Elementary’s staff. She confirmed that the team there had gone to great lengths in order to accommodate her son, but she wanted to change things up again, starting next year:

Adam is a quiet, considerate child with a tendency to withdraw. He has made tremendous strides in your school system and has benefited from speech therapy. He does, however, tend to ‘over focus’ on rules and can be very hard on himself as a result. This year has been a challenge due, in part, to a slight mismatch in teacher style and student style. I would like to take a moment to praise [TEACHER]’s recognition of this problem, as well as her efforts to resolve the issue. I realize the difficulty of modifying a classroom approach to accommodate an individual. [TEACHER] also has been very helpful in keeping Adam’s stress level at a minimum.

I am hoping that next year Adam will be placed in a classroom with a more casual feel to it. He responds well to a nurturing environment, and I would like his emphasis to be on learning rather than coping. He focuses on his work, enjoys structure and always adheres to the rules, but a certain level of strictness seems to bring on anxiety and depression. I have appreciated [TEACHER’S] willingness to work with me on this issue. I believe that if Adam is matched to the right environment for his particular learning style, the process could be less teacher-intensive. That would free Adam up to enjoy the learning process with a better result for everyone…

A classmate from the year before remembers seeing Adam at Sandy Hook in third grade. They weren’t in the same classroom anymore, but at recess, she would spot him all alone on the playground, while she was playing a game with her friends: “It seemed as though Adam knew and/or realized that he shouldn’t be sitting alone. Adam would move towards where we were playing the game, but never participated.”

Nancy’s email to Sandy Hook shows that she noticed her son’s behavior changing. She was still coming to the classroom after school each day, to help him fill in the gaps that his focus on “coping” left behind; however, those arrangements, along with the IEP, appear to have been the extent of the measures she took at this time, to address whatever was going on with her youngest son.