39. Role Playing Game

August 30, 2006

Columbine High School — Littleton, Colorado

Principal Frank DeAngelis was ready to start the 2006-2007 school year. He had been out making the rounds at Columbine all that morning, checking that everything was right with the school before Littleton’s annual population of students returned to fill its halls, and he had just gone back to his office to do some last-minute paperwork, when he noticed it: a new email in his inbox, from someone he did not know.

He had been Columbine’s principal in 1999, too, back when it all happened. And with every year that passed, the pain faded a bit more — but it never really went away. Sometimes, it flared:

Dear Principal. In a few hours you will probably hear about a school shooting in North Carolina. I am responsible for it. I remember Columbine. It is time the world remembered it. I am sorry. Goodbye.

DeAngelis immediately called 9-1-1. Jeffco scrambled to figure out a way to trace the email, back to wherever in North Carolina it was sent from — but it was already too late to stop the Orange High School shooting from happening.

Orange High School — Hillsborough, North Carolina

Students in the commons saw a black minivan pull into the parking lot. The driver hopped out: a heavy-set 19-year old male wearing a black trenchcoat over a white t-shirt, black cargo pants, and black combat boots. He had a sawed-off shotgun in a sling over his shoulder, and a 9mm Hi-Point carbine in his hand — the same weapons, and costume, that the Right shooter had brought to Columbine seven years before.

A lit smoke bomb billowed from his other hand as he approached the school. He set the smoke bomb on top of a car, fired the rifle into the air, and then took aim, right where some students were milling around outside the lunchroom. They all ran, or took cover, as the shots rang out — and none of them were hit.

One bullet did shatter a window, though, causing a boy who had taken cover underneath to suffer a minor abrasion to his shoulder from the falling glass — a wound that would require a Band-Aid. Then, the 9mm bullet, having lost nearly all of its momentum, bounced off a student’s chest; it inflicting a bruise that would leave a small scar, and cause her to have a cough for a few weeks after.

The school’s Resource Officer came running at the sound of the gunfire, and saw the gunman still in the parking lot, trying to clear a jam in his rifle. The officer drew his pistol, and commanded the shooter to drop his weapon. Then, as the policeman drew closer, he recognized the gunman: the young man had graduated from Orange High School one year before. He also saw the messages written on the gunman’s headband in black marker: “SHOOT ME” and “COLUMBINE.” On the front of his t-shirt he had written “NATURAL SELECTION.”

The shooter recognized the officer approaching him with his pistol drawn, and urged him to pull the trigger: “Kill me. Shoot me. You’ll like it. You’ll like it!”

The officer again told him to drop the gun, and to lay down on his stomach — finally, the shooter obeyed, and the officer had him in handcuffs just as the haze from the smoke bomb was beginning to lift from the parking lot.

Police backup arrived, and as they wrestled the handcuffed shooter into a patrol car, the wild-eyed young man shouted, “Remember Columbine! Remember Columbine!” He called out the names of the Columbine shooters, and then the Shangri-La shooter, saying (correctly), “It’s his birthday!”

The students in the school, standing up from cover in the commons, saw him in the backseat of the squad car as it drove away: the shooter made a “gun” sign with his hand, and put it in his mouth.

On the way to the police station, the officers heard the gunman saying “nonsensical things, talking about Columbine.” He tried to wrap the seat belt around his own neck, and again begged the officer to shoot him; the driver took a detour to a hospital instead. The shooter kept rambling from the back seat as they went, but one comment stood out: “He won’t hurt anyone else again.”

The officer asked what he meant; the shooter said he was talking about his father. “I sacrificed him. He won’t hurt anyone else again.” The officer radioed for a unit to go to the shooter’s home address, for a welfare check.

* * *

At the same time, across town, the shooter’s local newspaper, Chapel Hill News, received a package in their mail room. It contained a videotape, and a letter. They read the letter first:

To Whom it may Concern:

I am responsible for the school shooting in Orange High school, located in Hillsborough NC. The videotape enclosed is not vulgar or obscene in anyway. However, it may be disturbing. I send a videotape because I want the world to look into the mind of a depressed and traumatized individual. I sent you the tape because I do not want them locked away just like the basement tapes that [the Columbine shooters] made. The police would not release them. This will not happen again I want the world to see myself. I know I am insane. Ever since I was young. I knew there was something wrong with me.

The videotape, meanwhile, contained exactly what the police already en route to the shooter’s home would find when they broke the door down: the shooter’s father, with a bed sheet draped over him, motionless on the living room couch, right in the spot where he was ambushed by his son earlier that morning. In the footage, the shooter stands videotaping himself standing next to his father’s body. “Four times,” he says, staring into the camera’s lens. “I shot him four times. He’s dead. I did it. I killed my father. I sacrificed him. He’s with the Lord now… and now it’s time to get this done.”

The shooter had told the officer in the front seat that he also left behind some “entertainment” for the cops; searching his bedroom, the investigators found it laid out on the bed, a thick notebook with a hand-written title across the cover: “MASS MURDERERS AND SCHOOL SHOOTINGS OF THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES.”

* * *

Later that evening, back in Littleton, parents of Columbine students received an email from Principal DeAngelis, showing support for Orange High School. “Our hearts go out to the Hillsborough community and particularly the students who will be deeply affected by this event,” the principal wrote. Turning his attention to the people in his hometown, he also acknowledged that they all felt a reciprocal pain, whenever the tragedy replicated. “I regret any unwanted memories this brings up. We are all deeply affected by this unfortunate event.”