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Tragedy in Colorado

Armed Youths Kill Up to 23 in 4-Hour Siege at High School

Crime: Tragedy terrifies community near Denver and ends in two suspects' apparent suicide. Pair used shotguns, handguns, pipe bombs, witnesses say.

April 21, 1999|JULIE CART and ERIC SLATER and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LITTLETON, Colo. — Laughing as they killed, two youths clad in dark ski masks and long black coats fired handguns at will and blithely tossed pipe bombs into a crowd of their terrified classmates Tuesday inside a suburban high school southwest of Denver, littering halls with as many as 23 bodies and wounding at least 25 others. The gunmen, embittered youths reportedly fascinated with paramilitary culture, kept police sharpshooters at a distance for more than four hours before they apparently used their guns on themselves.

The day's horror mounted with unrelieved dread, a grim cascade that began with the startling clap of explosions and ended with a schoolhouse transformed into a tomb. No American high school has seen so much violent death at the hands of its own children--and late into the night, the day's reckoning was not yet done.

Teams of police SWAT officers fanned slowly through Columbine High School into the evening, combing the sprawling school grounds for the last of the living and the dead--a search that left officials still uncertain of the exact count of those killed. The first police SWAT officers to reach the eastern edge of the campus reported sighting as many as 25 bodies. Among them, officers radioed back, were the corpses of the two suspects, found lying in the school's library, the scene of the carnage.

Police did not disclose the names of the killers, but classmates and some local media identified them as seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Police had pursued reports that a third suspect joined the two heavily-armed assailants as they burst into the school building shortly after 11:30 a.m. and lobbed several explosive devices. But police later said the youth was not being sought as an accomplice, but was being questioned about the motives of the two dead suspects, whose weakness for dark fatigues and black clothes led many students to deride them as the "Trench Coat Mafia."

"It appears to be a suicide mission," said a haggard John Stone, the Jefferson County sheriff. Stone said officers had come upon a scene of "craziness," a tableau of young bodies stacked on stairwells, in the library and on tables in the school's cafeteria--and accompanied ominously in several places with what appeared to be live pipe bombs. Bomb-defusing teams were called in to dispose of the suspected munitions even as a squad of homicide detectives entered the cordoned-off school building to identify the dead.

Some students emerged with chilling tales of chance encounters and random survival. "We were all running and we didn't know where we were going and who was waiting for us," said Jacob Bauer, 16, a sophomore who ran blindly up a stairwell with hundreds of other panicked students after a volley of shots sent them fleeing. "It was total fear."

One girl watched fellow students gunned down around her in the library, one after another. The gunman laughed as he fired, killing a girl next to the girl and then dispatching a boy nearby before aiming his gun at her.

"I begged him not to shoot me and he just put the gun in my face and he started waving it and said it was all because someone was mean to him last year," said the survivor, identified only as "Judy" in a televised interview.

Authorities were reluctant to disclose a possible motive for the school invasion, but one official, sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis, said investigators were intrigued by the possibility that the carnage was timed "in conjunction with the [April 20] birthday of Adolf Hitler."

That line of pursuit would dovetail with statements from dozens of students who described the tiny "Trench Coat Mafia" clique as a group of social misfits who talked lovingly of death, played out war game fantasies and, according to some witnesses, singled out black students and campus athletes Tuesday in lethal payback for old taunts and prejudices.

'They Got Picked on All the Time'

"The Trench Coat Mafia, they're people who don't like to be bothered,' said Columbine senior Denee Taylor, 17, who said she knew the youths and flirted with one of the suspects. "They got picked on all the time by the jocks and other people, saying things like 'Why do you wear black? Can't you change your clothes?' I heard [one suspect] shot a black guy right in the face, and that they went after other jocks."

Although some youths in the group wore black clothes but otherwise wore their hair short like others on campus, a few of the "Trench Coat" group affected the familiar black fingernail paint and pallid white facial makeup affected by "Goths"--teenagers who obsess on death and Satanism, dress to shock and feint with high school athletes and prayer club Christian youths.

"They seemed like they couldn't get along with anybody," said Joe Dreaden, 16, a junior.

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