Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office — Golden, Colorado
Seven years had passed since Columbine. During that time, the county sheriff had been steadily releasing evidence to the public piece-by-piece, in response to various “Open Records Act” requests: documents from the diversion programs Left and Right were in, or print-outs of their AOL pages. Nothing that significant. But every time they issued a release, the list of exhibits that remained locked up in Jeffco’s vault got shorter and shorter, until finally there were only two major pieces of evidence left undisclosed — the infamous “basement tapes,” along with the shooters’ journals.
The Denver Post had been suing for access to both since 2001, but since the tapes and the journals were seized directly from the shooters’ homes on the afternoon of the attack, the parents of the shooters — as owners of the searched residences — argued that releasing them was their decision to make. And they wanted the items to stay sealed.
The sheriff had sided with Left and Right’s families: the basement tapes were private property. But the Post pushed back. Eventually, the state’s Supreme Court had to settle the debate:
Referred to as ‘the basement tapes,’ these recordings include video and audio tapes evidencing the plotting for and preparation of the murders. […] They are criminal justice records under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act and are subject to the Sheriff’s exercise of sound discretion to allow the requested inspection or not, utilizing a balancing test taking into account the relevant public and private interests.
With that, the sheriff had a decision to make: would it truly be “in the public’s interest” to release the tapes and other documents? Even if it was, would that outweigh the private interests of the four parents — people who had never been convicted of, or even charged with, any crime at all?
The sheriff found the “balancing test” to be even more difficult than it sounded. He had seen the basement tapes himself, and knew how inflammatory they would be. The written documents seemed harder to assess, but the decision to release any of it, once made, was not something they could ever take back.
The sheriff turned to the community in Littleton to tell him what he should do. He asked the victims families, and — as he would tell the Post — the responses he received “ran the gamut”; one father had complained that “things keep coming out in bits and pieces,” while he had been demanding the files for years. “We need every single thing they have out now and be done with it. Release it all.” But another victim’s mother took the opposite view, telling the Post “I feel like too much information would not be helpful to society.” And half the families didn’t respond to the sheriff at all. No matter what he decided, he knew it would be controversial.
The sheriff went to the FBI. He knew their Behavioral Analysis Unit had looked at the tapes and the journals back in 1999, for the official Columbine report, and their Leesburg Symposium had incorporated Columbine into their study that same year. The bureau was intimately familiar with the impact that Columbine had on the shooters that followed, as well, having helped the tribal police in their investigation of the Red Lake High School shooting.
The FBI’s agents told Jeffco that whatever they did, they should never release the basement tapes — the footage could be “a call to arms” that would “provide their audience with blueprints for this lethal school shooting.”
That summer, the sheriff announced his decision: Jeffco would not release the basement tapes, after all. “I can guarantee that there is nothing to be learned from the tapes,” he said — assuring that they were not the “key” to Columbine. He said that “the tapes are very, very disturbing,” and so he had decided that keeping them locked away was “the right thing to do.” (And he would keep his word: the tapes never have been released. The 30 seconds one father secretly recorded would be all that anyone outside of that screening room would ever hear from the basement tapes.)
At the same time as they were locking away the tapes, the sheriff had determined that nearly everything else, including the journals, could be released. These exhibits amounted to another 936 pages, on top of what was already an 11,000+ page compilation of the official Columbine investigation file — what was commonly referred to online, by then, as “the 11k.”
The difference between the journals and the basement tapes, the sheriff determined, came down to two things: form, and content. First, because the journals were written documents, they fundamentally did not have the same emotional impact that the basement tapes carried, where the homicidal anger just seemed to seep through the screen. Second (perhaps because the journals were solo performances, unlike the basement tapes, where the shooters played off of each other for an audience) the writings were comparatively restrained, only containing “snippets” of anything approaching the level of rage recorded on the tapes. “Hopefully, this will be useful to mental-health professionals who can look at the writings and get some insight into where they were at and where they were going,” the sheriff said.
He then opened the pages to the world, and in that moment, and forever after, anyone with an internet connection could read the Columbine journals. As the years passed, more and more would do just that.
* * *
The pages in the file are xeroxed, off-center in scratchy black-and-white. Together, the two journals confirm some long-suspected details about the reasons for the Columbine attack: for one, they remove any remaining doubt that both teenagers were responsible. Until then, some observers of the Columbine case had still maintained hope in the theory that Right had, somehow, been behind it all — he had brainwashed Left into participating, or otherwise compelled his cooperation, and Left’s performance on the basement tapes had been just that.
But Left’s journal clearly showed the truth, just as the ballistics had in 1999: he was a full participant in the plot. In fact, he couldn’t wait to do it.
At points, Left’s journal indeed shows hints of why so many people found it hard to believe that that he could kill. Depression had always, overwhelmingly, seemed his guiding star — not “Wrath,” no matter what his t-shirt said. His journal starts two years before the Columbine attack, when he was fifteen; but the voice in his “Book of Existences” frequently evokes a disembodied consciousness, one that is struggling to convey metaphysical concepts: “This is a weird time, weird life, weird existence. As I sit here (partially drunk with a screwdriver) I think a lot. Think… think… that’s all my life is, just shitloads of thinking… all the time… my mind never stops…”
He believed that his level of thinking made him different from humans; as a “ponderer,” he could imagine other worlds, and visit them, his favorite being just “miles & miles of never ending grass, like a wheat farm.” But inevitably, the reality of his physical form would wrench him back to Colorado. He was not in paradise, he was in his sophomore year at Columbine High School. “The world is the greatest punishment: Life.”
Left thought of his role in civilization. “The framework of society stands above and below me,” he wrote. “The hardest thing to destroy, yet the weakest thing that exists. I know that I am different, yet I am afraid to tell the society. The possible abandonment, persecution is not something I want to face, yet it is so primitive to me.”
His lowest times were when he regretted ever being a “ponderer.” He spurned the gift, and in fact, actually envied the “zombies” — “I see jocks having fun, friends, women, LIVEZ.” The jocks “don’t know beyond this world,” they way he did, but that meant they were not obsessed with mortality, the way he was. So in a way, the “jocks” and “zombies” and all the other conformists really were superior. And Left and Right really were the freaks, after all: “Awareness signs the warrant for suffering.” He envied his enemies, loathed himself for it, and wanted to die.
Right felt no such conflict. His disdain was overwhelmingly directed outward. He wanted to kill.
His journal shows that he, too, was viewing himself and the world around him from a philosophical perspective, but Right had somewhat different interpretations:
I hate the fucking world, too much god damn fuckers in it. Too many thoughts and different societies all wrapped up together in this fucking place called AMERICA. Everyone has their own god damn opinions on every god damn thing and you may be saying “well what makes you so different?” Because I have something only me and [Left] have, SELF AWARENESS. Call it ‘existentialism’ or whatever the fuck you want. We know what we are to this world and what everyone else is. […] GOD everything is so corrupt and so filled with opinions and points of view and people’s own little agendas and schedules. This isn’t a world anymore. It’s Hell on Earth and no one knows it.
Introspection fit him awkwardly. Right seemed incapable of communicating anything at all about himself beyond his motives and his fantasies. He looked inside and saw only his hatred for the world reflecting back at him. And while he suffered under the weight of the “system” just as Left had, Right never wanted to escape. He wanted to win. There was no other point to existence. Though he would repeatedly blame his impending actions on bullying, and the jocks, he always abandoned the notion midway through, attributing their treatment of him to the same factors that drove his own, far more transgressive sins: “I’ll get revenge soon enough.. Fuckers shouldn’t have ripped on me so much huh! Ha! Then again it’s human nature to do what you did… so I guess I am also attacking the human race. I can’t take it, it’s not right… true… correct… perfect. I fucking hate the human equation.”
He returns to the phrase several times over the course of his writings: “the human equation.” Here, the shooter’s thoughts appear to have been informed by his study of the 17th-century philosopher Hobbes, who famously wrote, of the natural and primitive state of humanity, “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.”
A consequence of such a societal collapse, Hobbes continued, would be that each man’s reach was reduced to that of the individual, essentially starting civilization over for himself:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
* * *
Right anticipated the moral confusion that would ripple through civilization after he attacked it, as the column of smoke rose from Columbine High School. “When I go NBK,” he wrote, “and people say things like, ‘oh, it was so tragic,’ or ‘oh he is crazy!’ or ‘It was so bloody.’ I think, so the fuck what, you think that’s a bad thing? Just because your mumsy and dadsy told you blood and violence is bad, you think it’s a fucking law of nature? Wrong. Only science and math are true, everything, and I mean every-fucking-thing else is Man made.”
Viewed from this position, his fascination with Hitler and the Nazis seems more like nihilistic fandom than any genuine far-right political allegiance; overall, he sounded much more like the Unabomber (whose infamous witness sketch he had dressed up as for Halloween one year) — or at least like the Green Anarchy newsletters Kaczynski had sent to Timothy McVeigh on death row. Right continued:
Society tries to make everyone act the same by burying all human nature and instincts. That’s what schools, laws, jobs, and parents do, if they realize it or not… If humans were left to live how we would naturally, it would be chaos and anarchy and the human race wouldn’t probably last that long, but hey guess what, that’s how it’s supposed to be!!! Societies and government are only created to have order and calmness, which is exactly the opposite of pure human nature.
Rather than imagining other worlds, Right fantasized about other rampages he could commit, right here on Earth. If he just had access to more powerful weaponry, he might never stop killing. “Hmm, just thinking if I want all humans dead or maybe just the quote-unquote ‘civilized, developed, and known-of’ places on Earth,” he wrote. “Maybe leave little tribes of natives in the rain forest or something.”
As he had on the basement tapes, Right tried to communicate his motives for “Judgment Day” explicitly:
Someone’s bound to say ‘what were they thinking?’ when we go NBK or when we were planning it, so this is what I am thinking: ‘I have a goal to destroy as much as possible so I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy, mercy, or any of that, so I will force myself to believe that everyone is just another monster from Doom, [so] it’s either me or them. I have to turn off my feelings.’ …Keep this in mind. I want to burn the world, I want to kill everyone except about 5 people, [so] if you are reading this you are lucky you escaped my rampage because I wanted to kill you.
On his calendar, in the slot for April 20th, he sketched a diagram of how he was going to set up his gear for the attack; on the next page, under Mother’s Day, he left a quote from Shakespeare: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”
* * *
When the seal on the Columbine journals was broken in the summer of 2006, and the pages finally came online, they would emerge into a much different environment than they would have if the shooters had uploaded them to AOL back in 1999. In that relatively short time, while the tapes were gathering dust in an evidence locker in Golden, a billion more people were connected to the internet (a tenfold increase over the 1999 version), and a whole generation had participated in the evolution of its user interfaces and culture. Mobile devices were becoming common, social networks were steadily taking over more and more aspects of human communication, and now a modern, digital society was emerging, more connected than ever before.
June 16, 2006
Clement Park — Littleton, Colorado
Former President Clinton drove a shovel blade into the earth, and turned it over. Located right next door to Columbine High School’s football fields, Clement Park had already played host to a makeshift memorial in the years since the attack, one that drew controversy: it had primarily consisted of a row of wooden crosses, each representing a victim at Columbine. The controversy fell over just two of the crosses — those for the shooters.
Turning over the shovel in Clement park, the president marked the end of the debate, and the groundbreaking of a permanent memorial — one that would not make any mention of the shooters at all. The groundbreaking was itself to be a moment of healing, coming full circle from what Clinton said was “one of the darkest days” his family saw during their time in the White House.
“You have kept faith with what I challenged you to do,” he said later that day from a stage in the park, as a lightning storm cracked across the sky overhead, and ribbons of construction tape fluttered loudly in the heavy winds. He called back to the last time he had visited Littleton, just one month after the tragedy, when he had told the townspeople how much he admired the endurance of their faith, and he now challenged them to lead the way in envisioning a brighter future: “You remind us that even in the midst of tragedy, we see the very best. The very best there is to see about our nation, and about human nature.”
“I am here today because millions of Americans were changed by Columbine,” the president continued, a crash of thunder punctuating his memories. “This was a momentous event in the history of the country. And every parent left feeling helpless — even the president. Because more than anything else, we think the natural order of things entitles every child to a safe home, a safe neighborhood… and a safe school.” The president went on to share a story about his colleague and friend, the same senator who had been seriously wounded in Vietnam, and who was so vocal about closing the gun show loophole after Columbine. Clinton said that one of the man’s favorite quotes came from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone. And afterward, many are stronger at the broken places.”
Thunder rumbled over the hills, as the president looked up to the crowd of Columbine survivors. “Every day, from now on, the world will break someone,” he said. “These magnificent families, in memory of their children, and their teacher, can help them always to be strong.”