April 20

This Day in History

Crime

Apr 20, 1999:

A massacre at Columbine High School

Two teenage gunmen kill 13 people in a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. At about 11:20 a.m., Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, dressed in long trench coats, began shooting students outside the school before moving inside to continue their rampage. By the time SWAT team officers finally entered the school at about 3:00 p.m., Klebold and Harris had killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, and had wounded another 23 people. Then, around noon, they turned their guns on themselves and committed suicide.

The awful crime captured the nation's attention, prompting an unprecedented search--much of it based on false information--for a scapegoat on whom to pin the blame. In the days immediately following the shootings, many claimed that Klebold and Harris purposely chose jocks, blacks, and Christians as their victims. In one particular instance, student Cassie Bernall was allegedly asked by one of the gunmen if she believed in God. When Bernall said, "Yes," she was shot to death. Her parents later wrote a book entitled "She Said Yes," and toured the country, honoring their martyred daughter.

Apparently, however, the question was never actually posed to Bernall. In fact, it was asked of another student who had already been wounded by a gunshot. When that victim replied, "Yes," the shooter walked away. Subsequent investigations also determined that Klebold and Harris chose their victims completely at random. Their original plan was for two bombs to explode in the school's cafeteria, forcing the survivors outside and into their line of fire. When the homemade bombs didn't work, Klebold and Harris decided to go into the school to carry out their murderous rampage.

Commentators also railed against the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia" and "goths," and questioned why these groups and cliques were not monitored more closely. However, further investigation revealed that Klebold and Harris were not part of either group.

Columbine High School reopened in the fall of 1999, but the massacre left behind an unmistakable scar on the Littleton community. Mark Manes, the young man who sold a gun to Harris and bought him 100 rounds of ammunition the day before the murders, was sentenced to six years in prison. Carla Hochhalter, the mother of a student who was paralyzed in the attack, killed herself at a gun shop. Several other parents filed suit against the school and the police. Even Dylan Klebold's parents filed notice of their intent to sue, claiming that police should have stopped Harris earlier. A senior at Columbine was arrested after he threatened to "finish the job." And when a carpenter from Chicago erected 15 crosses in a local park on behalf of everyone who died on April 20, parents of the victims tore down the two in memory of Klebold and Harris.

In an effort to show the world "that life goes on," Columbine school board officials voted to replace the library where students were murdered with an atrium. The shootings at Columbine stood as the worst school shooting in U.S. history until April 16, 2007, when 32 people were shot and many others wounded by a student gunman on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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