PHOTOGRAPH FOR TIME BY STEVE LISSA MOM'S LOVE: Mark Taylor's bedroom is filled with good wishes, but he's often ill at ease
For some of the families of the dead children of Columbine, the very idea of "closure" is an insult and a hoax. There can never be closure for them. "To say that we want to move on and put this behind us, that's not true," says Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was among the first to die. There is still too much pain and too many questions, and even if the answers come, their children will never come back, and nothing will be the same again.
And so, he is still burning. His rage starts with the killers. Rohrbough is the one who took down the two crosses meant to commemorate the shooters alongside the victims. But he has other culprits in his sights. "For 20 minutes the Jefferson sheriff knew absolutely where Klebold and Harris were in the building," he says. "For 20 minutes they listened to them murdering children, and they did absolutely nothing." As for the school, he charges, "jocks could get away with anything. If they wanted to punch a kid in the mouth and walk away, they could. Had I known this, my son wouldn't have been there. They did nothing to protect students from each other."
At a glance it would be easy to conclude that the Columbine community is still shattered in pieces--angry, frightened, heartbroken. On the six-month anniversary of the shooting in October, a Columbine senior threatened to "finish the job" started by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and hundreds of panicked parents kept their kids home from school. Some fired off angry letters saying that when it comes to the safety of their kids, the school is still "in denial." Two days later, Carla Hochhalter, the mother of Anne Marie, who was paralyzed in the April 20 shootings, walked into the Alpha Pawn Shop, asked to see a gun and shot herself. Michael Shoels, whose son Isaih was murdered, appeared at a rally with Al Sharpton, ranting against the killers' parents and the police. "I'm as angry as the day it happened," says Shoels. And 18 families filed notices of intent to sue the school district, the sheriff's office or both.
But beneath all the public outrage, there are signs that most of the victims of Columbine have been quietly piecing their lives back together. The victims' families have written thousands of thank-you notes, have created scholarships in the names of their children, and are trying to raise money to build a new library. Students and teachers have managed to have a relatively normal school year, and many are using April 20 as inspiration to rethink the way they treat their peers. All say they are committed to finding ways to ensure that a tragedy like this doesn't happen again, anywhere.
Even the growing pile of potential lawsuits is not what it appears. The families insist they are less interested in blame or recompense, than simply answers. A few do need money because of mounting medical bills. Expenses for Richard Castaldo, who is paralyzed from the waist down, could top $1 million. Mark Taylor, who has had four operations and faces a long, painful road to recovery, needed an $1,800 therapeutic mattress, but his HMO refused to pay for it, and the family had to find other means. "If the insurance companies aren't doing their job," asks Donna Taylor, "then what are we supposed to do but sue?"
Most families filed intents to sue simply because the sheriff's office had not yet finished its report by the time Colorado's 180-day deadline to file such intents came, and the families wanted to keep their options open in case the report fails to answer the questions that have haunted them since April. Why didn't the police or the school pick up on the killers' warning signs? Why, once the carnage began, didn't the police move in faster? "We'd love to know exactly what happened," says Darcey Ruegsegger, whose daughter Kacey is recovering from a shotgun wound in the back. "Not to blame, but just to know. If there were mistakes made, then by learning perhaps we can prevent something like this from happening again."
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, many of the victims' families gathered at St. Luke's Church for their monthly potluck dinner. Few of these families had even met before April 20, but the tragedy has brought them together. "They're my family now," says Don Fleming. "They have become our closest friends." They sit around, tell stories and support one another. After Carla Hochhalter killed herself, Ted Hochhalter was left to care for Anne Marie by himself. The parents of Corey DePooter, who was killed at Columbine, gave the Hochhalters a freezer they had received as a gift, and they--along with other families of the dead--stocked it with food.
With the pain of the six-month anniversary behind them, the families were finding joy in taking baby steps: Kacey Ruegsegger, who was a world-class quarter-horse rider before the blast shattered her right arm and shoulder, is back in the saddle again, competing even though after bone transplants and three operations she still might never have full use of her arm. Richard Castaldo, whose eight gunshot wounds left him a paraplegic, has spent four months in the hospital and suffered through seven operations, but now he's back at Columbine. Every day a special lift hoists Richard and his black wheelchair into the big yellow Bluebird school bus that can seat 72 passengers but is reserved just for him; Richard plans to graduate with his class in June.