The Columbine Tapes

In five secret videos they recorded before the massacre, the killers reveal their hatreds--and their lust for fame

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Dec. 20, 1999 TIME Cover: The Columbine Tapes

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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."

These boys had read their Shakespeare: "Good wombs hath borne bad sons," Harris quoted from The Tempest, as he reflected on how his rampage would ruin his parents' lives. The boys knew that once they staged their final act, the audience would be desperate for meaning. And so they provided their own poisonous chorus, about why they hated so many people so much. In the weeks before what they called their Judgment Day, they sat in their basement and made their haunting videos--detailing their plans, their motives, even their regrets--which Harris left in his bedroom for the police and his parents to find when it was all over.

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