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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Detective Kate Battan still sees it in her sleep--still sees what she saw that first day in April, when she was chosen to lead the task force that would investigate the massacre. Bullet holes in the banks of blue lockers. Ceiling tiles ajar where kids had scampered to hide in the crawl space. Shoes left behind by kids who literally ran out of them. Dead bodies in the library, where students cowered beneath tables. One boy died clenching his eyeglasses, and another gripped a pencil as he drew his last breath. Was he writing a goodbye note? Or was he so scared that he forgot he held it? "It was like you walked in and time stopped," says Battan. "These are kids. You can't help but think about what their last few minutes were like."

Long after the bodies had been identified, Battan kept the Polaroids of them in her briefcase. Every morning when starting work, she'd look at them to remind herself whom she was working for.

On the Columbine task force, Battan was known as the Whip. As the lead investigator, she kept 80-plus detectives on track. The task force broke into teams: the pre-bomb team, which took the outside of the school; the library team; the cafeteria team; and the associates team, which investigated Harris' and Klebold's friends, including the so-called Trench Coat Mafia, as possible accomplices.

Rich Price is an FBI special agent assigned to the domestic terrorism squad in Denver, a veteran of Oklahoma City and the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. He was in the North Carolina mountains searching for suspected bomber Eric Rudolph on April 20 when he heard about the rampage at Columbine. In TV news footage that afternoon, he saw his Denver-based colleagues on the scene and called his office. He was told to return to Denver ASAP--suddenly two teenage boys had become the target of a domestic-terrorism probe.

Price became head of the cafeteria team, re-creating the morning that hell broke loose. The investigators have talked to the survivors, the teachers, the school authorities; they have reviewed the videotapes from four security cameras placed in the cafeteria, as well as the videos the killers made. And they have walked the school, step by step, trying to re-create 46 minutes that left behind 15 dead bodies and a thousand questions.

Battan is very clear about her responsibilities. "I work for the victims. When they don't have any more questions, then I feel I've done my job."

It quickly became obvious to the investigators that the assault did not go as the killers had planned. They had wanted to bomb first, then shoot. So they planted three sets of bombs: one set a few miles away, timed to go off first and lure police away from the school; a second set in the cafeteria, to flush terrified students out into the parking lot, where Harris and Klebold would be waiting with their guns to mow them down; and then a third set in their cars, timed to go off once the ambulances and rescue workers descended, to kill them as well. What actually happened instead was mainly an improvisation.

Just before 11 a.m. they hauled two duffel bags containing propane-tank bombs into the cafeteria. Then they returned to their cars, strapped on their weapons and ammunition, pulled on their black trench coats and settled in to wait.

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