The Columbine tragedy has assumed national dimensions in part because it happened in such an archetypal suburb – with all the same superstores, franchise restaurants, office parks, curving streets, swing sets, privacy fences and factory-sized public schools found in metropolitan areas all over America. The ranchlands southwest of Denver have been converted to subdivisions and malls with an apparently unwavering obeisance to the corporate blueprints. No deviations allowed.
Like so many suburbs, almost everyone here is a transplant. Conoco moved Tom Klebold, a 36-year-old geophysicist, and his family here from Oklahoma City in 1980. Wayne Harris retired from the Army at age 46 in 1993, moving here so he could work for a defense contractor.
The families chose the Littleton mailing address for the reason everyone did – it had represented the good life since at least 1858, when gold was discovered just 2½ miles to the north. There aren’t many echoes of the frontier these days. Littleton is now Everyburb, garnished with a view of the Rockies.
South Reed Street is a fishhook-shaped strip of two-story homes with two-car garages, ending in a cul-de-sac. There are no edges here. The houses are linked by identical six-foot cedar privacy fences, so that, from the center of the cul-de-sac, the outside world has been sealed off. The worst thing that anyone can remember happening here was the occasional house getting toilet-papered by pranksters.
So maybe Eric Harris, unlike his older brother, didn’t come out to the cul-de-sac to play basketball with Matt Good, who lived two doors over. So maybe Eric’s pal Dylan Klebold would drive a hair too fast in his black BMW as he rounded the curve. Certainly no one ever saw any violence here, and residents say they don’t remember ever seeing a police car – until the day the SWAT teams showed up, men in black with guns drawn, creeping up to the Harris house from either side. The whole street was evacuated while the cops searched for bombs.
Bobbi Taylor has a mental picture: It’s springtime, a generic sunny day. On the back deck of the house behind her, Wayne Harris talks with his son, Eric. Or maybe they are mowing the yard. Or maybe Kathy Harris is tending to her garden, planting, weeding. “As soon as the sun would come out, she’d go turn her dirt,” Taylor says.
Today, no one can ask Kathy Harris how her garden grows. The neighbors don’t expect to see the Harrises ever again. There are four bags of compost sitting around the yard, one of them partly opened.
Gawkers come through day and night, slowly turning around in the cul-de-sac. What they see is hardly an artifact of evil: a tidy house of brick and blue vinyl siding, indistinguishable from all the others except for its colors.
That’s precisely what scares Kipp Smallwood.
"I turn on the news and I see their house, and I think, ‘That’s my house!’ " said Smallwood, 33, who lives on the other side of the street. "It’s the exact same house, the same windows, same driveway, same trim, everything except the color. I lie in bed thinking: 200 feet from my bedroom is where this guy conceived this idea to destroy everything we thought we had. Everything you thought you knew about your neighborhood, your schools, your churches – all just shattered. Vaporized. We feel like we’re at ground zero."
Every night, as he goes to bed, he looks out at the Harris home, to a window on the second floor – possibly Eric’s room, he thinks – and he sees that the lights are still on, a ceaseless, creepy beacon shining across the neighborhood.
"When I found out he lived right behind us, I was just shaking," says Charlene Conner, expecting a baby in June. Her husband, Kerry, said they only knew the people who lived on either side of them, not the people over the back fence.
Residents wonder what else they don’t see, what other virus may be hiding under the manicured surface. Life cannot return to normal. Normal is now suspicious.
"Today I was thinking, was my son involved? What’s he got in his backpack?" says Steve Cohn.
Cohn was being rhetorical, because he knows his son, Aaron, wasn’t involved. He was making the point that he now has to question his assumptions about his relationship with the boy. Does he really know him?
"I thought I did, until this."
Aaron, he said, has been acting numb since the massacre. “He’s just not the same as he was before the shooting.” To be shellshocked is understandable, given that Aaron Cohn barely escaped with his life, a survivor of the library – “the library” being a supremely chilling phrase for those who know what happened at Columbine on April 20. Cohn was studying at a desk when something exploded in the doorway. He dove to the ground. His friends were getting shot. He sensed someone putting a gun to his head. The killers were playing God, laughing.
Cohn heard one of the killers go up to a girl who was hiding under a desk. The gunman said “Peek-a-boo!” Then he killed her.
He escaped when Klebold and Harris left, briefly, to retrieve ammunition. What makes this story all the more eerie is that when Aaron Cohn came home that night, still spattered in blood, he discovered that Eric Harris lived right behind him, that Eric’s was that blue-gray house looming over his backyard. That one. Right there.
That was the night everyone learned who their neighbors were.
So far the information about the Harris and Klebold families that is coming to light is all pretty much the same: These were the kind of folks you’d want next door.
"Wonderful family. All the positives you can imagine," says a friend of the Klebolds, who says she can’t give her name because she may be called as a character witness in a legal proceeding.
Vicki DeHoff says of the Klebolds, “Tom and Sue did not cause that behavior by their parenting.” She views the case through her Christian faith. “The source of the evil, I believe, was Satan himself.”
Randy Brown, a family friend who went to the funeral for Dylan Klebold, said: “They loved their kids. They cared for their kids. They talked to their kids.”
So, too, are the Harrises well remembered. Wayne and Kathy married young, in 1970, and a few years later Wayne entered the Air Force. After that the family never stayed anywhere long. Eric was born in Wichita, Kansas, where his father was stationed as a pilot. Then came Dayton, Ohio, and then Oscoda, Mich.
By that time his father was an aircraft commander and instructor at Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Eric’s fifth-grade teacher, Bonnie Leach, says, “He was the perfect little fifth-grader.” He was an A-student, small for his age. “Adorable,” she says.
She remembers being impressed that both of Eric’s parents attended parent-teacher conferences. His mother helped out when the class made special shirts for Halloween. “She was just a helpful mom,” Leach says. “If I ever called, she was willing to come.”
Wayne Harris, meanwhile, was a scout leader and helped coach sports teams. He won election to the Lakewood Shores Property Owners Association. When he ran for the position he wrote that he “desires to become more deeply involved in our community.” But then the air base closed. The Harrises moved again, this time to Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Kris Otten became Eric’s best friend. He remembers the sleepovers at the Harris home. “It was a real comforting house. Everything was neat and organized,” Otten says. Both parents usually were home. Eric’s mother was always ready with sandwiches for the boys. They’d play computer games, dive off the couches and pillows in the family’s basement, build snow forts.
"The Eric Harris in Colorado that did these things was not the kid I knew in New York," Otten says.
Terry Condo drafted Harris for one of his dozen Little League teams in Plattsburgh in April 1993. The coach thought Harris had some talent. “The bonus with Eric was, he had great parents.” Wayne and Kathy Harris attended both games and practices.
But then Wayne Harris retired from the Air Force. The family moved to Colorado. In middle school, Eric Harris became best friends with Dylan Klebold.
It appears that, sometime in his maturation, Eric Harris developed a psychiatric problem. He began taking an antidepressant called Luvox. Whether he took it for depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder or some other ailment, or even whether he was correctly diagnosed, is unknown. What’s certain is that when he applied to enlist in the Marine Corps in early April, he said he didn’t take any prescription drugs. When the recruiters learned the truth, they rejected him.
The vivid evidence of his mental state was posted on his Web site on America Online for anyone to see. It’s no wonder his neighbors didn’t detect the killer among them: Harris was holed up in his room, expressing himself in the electronic world. He wrote as though all the normal teenage hormones were channeled into the single emotion of rage.
From his Web page:
"I will rig up explosives all over a town and detonate each one of them at will after I mow down a whole [expletive] area full of you snotty ass rich [expletive] high strung godlike attitude having worthless pieces of [expletive] whores."
He did not rage against his parents. He hated life itself, society, people.
"You all better [expletive] hide in your houses because im comin for EVERYONE soon, and i WILL be armed to the [expletive] teeth and i WILL shoot to kill and i WILL [expletive] KILL EVERYTHING!"
The hatred spewed along the telephone wires, out into the community, across the planet.
But no one saw or heard a thing on South Reed Street.