Portrait Of A Deadly Bond


    REMEMBERING: The father of a victim destroyed the memorials for the two killers last weekend

    "You're not going to believe who's turning out to be a nice guy at school," Brooks Brown told his parents one evening in mid-April. They were at the dinner table in their ranch-style house in Columbine Knolls, a modest subdivision in Littleton, Colo., and the tall, angular 18-year-old knew the comment would stir up some dust. His mother and father, Judy and Randy Brown, leaned forward and asked, "Who?"

    "Eric Harris."

    Randy almost choked on his fork. "I can't believe you're even talking to him after what he did." Judy put a hand to her heart. "You could say any other name at that high school and it would be O.K.," she said. "But not that one."

    Last year, Eric Harris had thrown a chunk of ice at Brooks' car, cracking its windshield. Soon after, the Browns had discovered the spewings on Harris' website, geysers of hate like the one saying Harris longed to "blow up and shoot everything I can. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame...I don't care if I live or die in the shootout, all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you [expletive] as I can, especially a few people. Like Brooks Brown." Harris claimed to have the weaponry to carry out his threat against Brown.

    His website offered bomb-building instructions and boasted that he and a friend, code-named "VoDka," had made four pipe bombs and detonated one ("Flipping thing was heart-pounding gut-wrenching brain-twitching ground-moving insanely cool!"). And if all that weren't enough, Brooks knew that "VoDka" was his old best friend, Dylan Klebold, who had become Harris' new best friend but had tipped Brooks to the hateful website. Terrified, the Browns searched their property for bombs and filed complaints with the sheriff's department and America Online, which was host of the site. They say they got no response from either. (The sheriff's department says it didn't pursue Harris because no crime had been committed and the Browns wished to remain anonymous.) But in April 1998, Harris took his site offline, and life in the neighborhood seemed to quiet down.

    Now, a year later, Brown was sitting at dinner telling his mother and father that Harris was a good guy after all. Brown was taking philosophy and creative-writing classes with Harris and Klebold, and the three hung out together--bright, maladjusted kids united in their intelligence and disdain for the jock culture of Columbine High. "At dinner I made a big case for Eric," Brown told TIME last week. "I said he had grown up. He was a real scary kid last year; everyone was afraid of him. But six months ago we buried the hatchet, and I really thought he had changed. I thought he was a new Eric."

    Brown says he realized how wrong he was five days later, when Harris and Klebold launched the Columbine massacre, murdering 13 and wounding 23 before killing themselves in circumstances (Double suicide? Murder-suicide?) that the authorities have not yet clarified. Brown had been spending a good deal of time with these deadly friends, and he understands them as well as anyone now alive. But he insists he never had a clue to what they were up to. And though his association with Harris and Klebold has drawn suspicion--"I don't know what he is," says District Attorney Dave Thomas, "and we are not ruling anyone out"--the friendship may also have saved his life. Brown chanced upon Harris in the school parking lot just minutes before the shooting began. Harris was pulling a duffel bag of materiel from his car; Brown says he didn't know what was in it. He mentioned a philosophy test Harris had missed that morning. "Doesn't matter anymore," said Harris. Brown says he didn't know what that meant--nor what Harris was planning when he told Brown to get away from the school, saying, "Brooks, I like you. Now get out of here. Go home." Others who know Harris believe sentiment had nothing to do with Harris' decision to spare Brown. They think Brown was simply too far away from the cafeteria for Harris to kill, because doing so would have given those inside a chance to get away, spoiling his carefully polished game plan. Says Brown: "I hate what they did, but they were my friends. Not many people will say that about them. Not many people really know them."

    Littleton buried its young last week, and the sky had the good sense to cry. When 5,000 gathered to celebrate the short life of Isaiah Shoels, a warm-hearted young man slain because he was African American, Columbine survivors walking in the rain to the Heritage Christian Center didn't bother to open their umbrellas; if they could feel the rain on their faces, they must be alive. Inside the vast modern sanctuary, the explanations tended to be straightforward: Satan had taken control of Harris and Klebold.

    Throughout the week, police searched for accomplices (no arrests were made, but authorities at week's end said they still had 10 to 15 potential suspects) and responded to accusations that they failed to heed warning signs of the plot. Many students were searching for secular explanations as well. They got together in houses to talk and weep and speculate; sometimes the boys fantasized about what commando tactics they might have used to halt the killing spree--the next logical but sad step for a tragedy fueled from the start by violent, cartoonish fantasies. And like so many other people across the country, they groped for answers that would not come.

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