The Columbine Tapes

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PHOTOGRAPH FOR TIME BY STEVE LISS

SWAT TEAM: The marksmen are being criticized for not going after the killers more aggressively

KEVIN HIGLEY--AP
One Bloody Day: Students evacuating Columbine's campus after Harris and Klebold's rampage last April

The natural born killers waited until the parents were asleep upstairs before heading down to the basement to put on their show. The first videotape is almost unbearable to watch.

Dylan Klebold sits in the tan La-Z-Boy, chewing on a toothpick. Eric Harris adjusts his video camera a few feet away, then settles into his chair with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a sawed-off shotgun in his lap. He calls it Arlene, after a favorite character in the gory Doom video games and books that he likes so much. He takes a small swig. The whiskey stings, but he tries to hide it, like a small child playing grownup. These videos, they predict, will be shown all around the world one day--once they have produced their masterpiece and everyone wants to know how, and why.

Above all, they want to be seen as originals. "Do not think we're trying to copy anyone," Harris warns, recalling the school shootings in Oregon and Kentucky. They had the idea long ago, "before the first one ever happened."

And their plan is better, "not like those f____s in Kentucky with camouflage and .22s. Those kids were only trying to be accepted by others."

Harris and Klebold have an inventory of their ecumenical hatred: all "niggers, spics, Jews, gays, f___ing whites," the enemies who abused them and the friends who didn't do enough to defend them. But it will all be over soon. "I hope we kill 250 of you," Klebold says. He thinks it will be the most "nerve-racking 15 minutes of my life, after the bombs are set and we're waiting to charge through the school. Seconds will be like hours. I can't wait. I'll be shaking like a leaf."

"It's going to be like f___ing Doom," Harris says. "Tick, tick, tick, tick... Haa! That f___ing shotgun is straight out of Doom!"

How easy it has been to fool everyone, as they staged their dress rehearsals, gathered their props--the shotguns in their gym bags, the pipe bombs in the closet. Klebold recounts for the camera the time his parents walked in on him when he was trying on his black leather trench coat, with his sawed-off shotgun hidden underneath: "They didn't even know it was there." Once, Harris recalls, his mother saw him carrying a gym bags with a gun handle sticking out of the zipper. She assumed it was his BB gun. Every day Klebold and Harris went to school, sat in class, had lunch with their schoolmates, worked with their teachers and plotted their slaughter. People fell for every lie. "I could convince them that I'm going to climb Mount Everest, or I have a twin brother growing out of my back," says Harris. "I can make you believe anything."

Even when it is over, they promise, it will not be over. In memory and nightmares, they hope to live forever. "We're going to kick-start a revolution," Harris says--a revolution of the dispossessed. They talk about being ghosts who will haunt the survivors--"create flashbacks from what we do," Harris promises, "and drive them insane."

It is getting late now. Harris looks at his watch. He says the time is 1:28 a.m. March 15. Klebold says people will note the date and time when watching it. And he knows what his parents will be thinking. "If only we could have reached them sooner or found this tape," he predicts they will say. "If only we would have searched their room," says Harris. "If only we would have asked the right questions."

Since then, we've never stopped asking, of course, in our aching effort to get back on our feet, slowly, carefully, only to be pushed back down again. And what if the answers turn out to be different from what we've heard all along? A six-week TIME investigation of the Columbine case tracked the efforts of the police and FBI, who are still sorting through some 10,000 pieces of evidence, 5,000 leads, the boys' journals and websites and the five secret home videos they made in the weeks before the massacre. Within the next few weeks, the investigators are expected to issue their report, and their findings are bound to surprise a town, and a country, that has heard all about the culture of cruelty, the bullying jocks, and has concluded that two ugly, angry boys just snapped, and fired back.

It turns out there is much more to the story than that.

Why, if their motive was rage at the athletes who taunted them, didn't they take their guns and bombs to the locker room? Because retaliation against specific people was not the point. Because this may have been about celebrity as much as cruelty. "They wanted to be famous," concludes FBI agent Mark Holstlaw. "And they are. They're infamous." It used to be said that living well is the best revenge; for these two, it was to kill and die in spectacular fashion.

This is not to say the humiliation Harris and Klebold felt was not a cause. Because they were steeped in violence and drained of mercy, they could accomplish everything at once: payback to those who hurt them, and glory, the creation of a cult, for all those who have suffered and been cast out. They wanted movies made of their story, which they had carefully laced with "a lot of foreshadowing and dramatic irony," as Harris put it. There was that poem he wrote, imagining himself as a bullet. "Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold said--and the boys chewed over which could be trusted with the script: Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino. "You have two individuals who wanted to immortalize themselves," says Holstlaw. "They wanted to be martyrs and to document everything they were doing."

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