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Tragedy in Colorado

Suspects Talked of Blowing Up School

Shootings: The group, known as the 'Trench Coat Mafia,' were like others in recent campus violence. But they were more militant, more angry.

April 21, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "Trench Coat Mafia," as the suspects in Tuesday's shooting rampage were called by schoolmates, stood out like sore thumbs. They always wore ankle-length black trench coats, dark sunglasses and black berets. They numbered between five and 15, a collection of current students and former, always hovering on the fringes of the 1,800-student campus. They talked openly about blowing up the school, and showed off their expertise with homemade bombs.

Also, one student noted, they were particularly dirty.

In many ways, the suspects were just like students involved in the recent spate of high school shootings throughout the nation. In other ways, they were chillingly different.

The two male students suspected in the "suicide mission" at a Colorado high school Tuesday--along with four of their friends, whom police held for questioning--were described by dozens of people as outcasts, loners, social misfits shunned by most of their classmates. Meaning, they neatly fit the profiles of suspects in shooting sprees from West Paducah, Ky., to Jonesboro, Ark., to Pearl, Miss.:

Disaffected boys, out to avenge social slights.

But the Colorado suspects were unique too: More militant, more visibly angry, they may have been quiet outcasts, but they were noticeable ones. They may have been unpopular, but they were well known to almost every schoolmate because they were so violent, so mean, so armed, so "weird," as many put it.

Which raises the question: Why didn't teachers, administrators and local police notice them, too?

"We don't know whether it's a new group or we're just now experiencing them," said Jane Hammond, superintendent of the Jefferson County school district, which includes Columbine High School in Littleton, scene of Tuesday's tragedy.

But students at Columbine knew the group, and for quite some time.

Because of their appearance and demeanor, the Trench Coat Mafia came in for lots of ribbing from other students, as did the teen suspects in other school slayings, which only seemed to inflame their alienation.

"Yeah, people taunted them," said Ben Grams, a 17-year-old student at Columbine. "They hated anyone and everyone. They were just mad at the world. Mad because they weren't popular."

Student Alejandra Marsh, who said she knew one of the suspects, told a Denver TV station, "Their motive is, basically, because they hate the school and the administration. . . . They've always really talked about just coming and blowing up the school."

One group member reportedly even had his own Internet site, listing the people he hated, glorifying violence. A parent of a Columbine student reported the Web site to local police, who, she said, did nothing.

And one of the suspects had a member profile on AOL listing his Personal Quote as, "Kill em AALLLL!!!!"

Steve Dreaden, 14, took gym class last year with a member of the Trench Coat Mafia, a boy who never removed his sunglasses.

"He'd more or less hunt kids down playing dodge ball, then hit them as hard as he could," Dreaden recalled. We called him Spider-Man because he had really long arms. The guy is weird, but we didn't think he'd do anything like this."

Student Mary Barnes said her brother used to hang out with the Trench Coat Mafia.

"They came over to my mom's house," she said. "I knew, like, two of them. They were really, like, quiet when I first met them. They were social outcasts, kind of what my brother was. They played these little games, like war games, like BattleTech. But they would take them to the extreme. It's like they were role-playing."

"There were only about four or five members," said 16-year-old Joe Dreaden, Steve's brother. "Most of them supposedly graduated with seniors last year."

In fact, police confirmed that the suspects' friends, now in custody, were former students, while the suspects themselves were current students. How the friends and suspects may have been connected, and if they conspired to plan the shooting, wasn't clear.

Some said the suspects targeted minorities and athletes. Tensions between athletes and gangs has been all too common at Columbine. Last fall, county commissioners heard testimony from sheriff's officers about rising tension between athletes and other groups.

Many students acknowledged that Columbine is sharply divided, with teens squaring off into rigid cliques: The jocks, the skateboarders, the "goths," the rich kids, the brains--and the Trench Coat Mafia.

Joe Dreaden said a friend of a friend was in the library when the shooting began. The friend said the shooter talked about "this being revenge about something."

Revenge for what, Dreaden didn't know.

*

Times researchers Lianne Hart and Edith Stanley contributed to this story.

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