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02.24.10

The Last Columbine Mystery

As another school shooting rocks Littleton, Colorado, Dave Cullen reveals the secret meeting of Eric Harris' parents with his victims' kin—offering a rare glimpse into how they saw their son.

It’s been nearly 11 years since the Columbine tragedy rocked the nation, and the largest remaining questions center on the killers’ parents: Did they see it coming? Why do they think it happened? How did the tragedy affect them? Do they feel remorse? Have they expressed it to the victims?

Sue Klebold finally addressed those questions last October in an essay in O Magazine. But her son Dylan was the junior partner in the attack. Eric Harris was the mastermind, and his parents have never spoken publicly. But it turns out they secretly met with two victims’ families, who quietly but diligently pursued contact for years. The existence of those meetings—one of which is recounted in detail here—has never before been reported.

Tom and Linda Mauser’s son Daniel was shot to death by Eric in the Columbine library. Last summer, the couple finally met Eric’s parents. The meeting took years to arrange. It began in 2007, with an angry letter from Tom Mauser. He and Linda had chosen not to take part in lawsuits many of their peers leveled against the Harrises and Klebolds. But they were just as hungry for answers. Eventually, Tom's frustration boiled over. All those years and he still didn’t know how the boys got away with it. And resentment had set in: Why hadn’t the parents reached out more? So he set down some pointed questions. That approach failed. The Harrises declined to meet, though their attorney provided some answers.

So then Tom Mauser wrote to Sue Klebold, who met with him. Sue was very apologetic, but had no surprises. He didn't push too hard. Linda stayed home. What an emotional undertaking. Looking those people in the eye—was she ready for that? Would she offer forgiveness? Withhold it? Linda wasn’t prepared to wrestle with all that, especially with the wrong family. “It wasn’t her kid that killed my son,” she says. “It was Eric.”

Linda had been struggling with grief since Daniel’s murder, but recently made a breakthrough in therapy: She began telling people what she really thought. She channeled that new expressiveness toward a solution: writing a followup to the Harrises in early 2009. She wrote warmly: no demands, just how she felt. Honestly, she felt conflicted. She wasn’t sure what Wayne and Kathy had done. But she was decided on Eric. She forgave him.

Wayne and Kathy accepted that Eric was a psychopath. Where that came from, they didn’t know. But he fooled them, utterly.
book-cover---columbine
‘Columbine’ by Dave Cullen. 464 p. Twelve. $15.99. ()

Word came back slowly from the attorney: Would they like to meet? Yes.

Approximately 10 years and four months after Eric Harris murdered their child, Linda and Tom drove into Denver to greet his parents. The Harrises declined to comment on the meeting. These are Linda’s impressions.

They met at the Quaker Meeting House, where their attorney was a member. It was a sunny room with wooden floors and benches. The Harrises greeted them with a basket of flowers. Wayne spoke first. “Nice to meet you.” He smiled and reached for Linda’s hand. “Thanks for coming,” she said. They sat down in a quiet alcove.

Wayne did most of the talking. He is a retired Air Force major and sounded like one, careful and precise in his language. He was tall, but slight and avuncular, like a friendly neighbor.

Wayne was mystified by his son. Wayne and Kathy accepted that Eric was a psychopath. Where that came from, they didn’t know. But he fooled them, utterly.

He’d also fooled a slew of professionals. Wayne and Kathy clearly felt misled by the psychologist they sent him to. The doctor had brushed off Eric’s trademark duster as “only a coat.” He saw Eric’s problems as rather routine. At least that’s the impression he gave Wayne and Kathy.

They shared that perception with the Mausers. Other than the van break-in, Eric had never been in serious trouble, they said. He and Dylan were arrested in January 1998 and charged with three felonies. They eventually entered a juvenile diversion program, which involved close monitoring and various forms of restitution.

Eric rarely seemed angry, his parents said. There was one odd incident where he slammed his fist into a brick wall and scraped his knuckles. That was startling, but kids do weird things. It seemed like an aberration, not a pattern to be worried about.

Wayne and Kathy knew Eric had a Web site, but that didn’t seem odd. They never went online to look at it. “I found them kind of incurious,” Linda said.

From time to time, she wondered whether the Harrises were lying, or exaggerating. Her instincts said no. They did not strike her as calculating or devious; maybe a bit hapless. And Wayne was somewhat inscrutable. Honest, but not revealing. Linda believed them, but wondered whether the couple second-guessed themselves enough. “Honestly, if it were me this happened to, I think I’d still be questioning myself,” Linda said. “They did not seem to doubt themselves.”

Kathy was shy, but forthcoming once she got going. She wore her brown hair in a bob, coordinating a black-and-white outfit with black sandals. Linda noticed the red toenail polish. Kathy shared lots of loving stories about Eric. She described supervising him closely, particularly with the community-service work he was assigned in the juvenile diversion program. Eric got behind and nearly missed a deadline, until he charmed a supervisor into signing him in for hours he hadn’t actually worked. His parents found out and made him go back, put the time in.

Wayne defended Kathy as “a good mother.” Kathy worked, but said she was always “available” for Eric. She insisted on meals together, as a family. Shortly before the murders, Kathy had picked out Eric’s graduation cake: yellow, with chocolate frosting.

Senior year, Kathy was distressed about Eric’s lack of college or career plans. To Linda’s ear, Kathy seemed oddly unsure about whether Eric had taken entrance exams like the SATs. Kathy thought he might end up at a community college, so maybe that explained things.

Linda found Eric’s mother sincere and convincing. And haunted. Wayne and Kathy seemed involved in Eric’s life, at least as much as an average parent. Linda asked about guns. Was Eric unusually fascinated with weaponry? Not really, they said. He was into Doom, obviously, and subscribed to a gun magazine, but those two fit together. Eric spent hours and hours on the videogame, taking enormous pride in the new levels he created. There were weapons in Doom; he said the magazine helped. Wayne and Kathy said they never discovered a hint of Eric’s arsenal.

Eric didn’t seem interested in joining a lot of clubs, or pursuing a wide circle of friends. But he dated and all that seemed normal enough. They had him in professional counseling, and taking antidepressants. The situation seemed under control.

The Mausers tried to keep things conversational and steer clear of interrogation mode. But the topic of child abuse came up. No, they had never beaten Eric, the Harrises said, or been cruel to him.

Wayne spoke proudly about their older boy, Kevin. He was doing well now—“successful.” He had graduated college and gotten married. Kathy asked about Linda’s favorite memory of Daniel, and the progress of their daughter Christie, who was deeply traumatized by her brother's murder and had been borderline suicidal. Kathy cried several times and repeated how sorry she was this all happened. She turned to Linda at one point and confessed how scared she had been to come. Wayne watched silently when she wept. Linda thought he seemed very detached.

The Mausers’ decision not to participate in the lawsuits proved fortuitous. The Harrises mentioned that they were interested in talking to parents who had not sued them.

Wayne answered all their questions, but it began to feel futile. He had no revelations. Tom got frustrated. So there was nothing to learn from this? he asked. No mistakes? Not really.

The conversation wound down after an hour. Linda told them she forgave Eric. That was important, she said later—“making some sort of tangible gesture to his parents.” She wanted to unleash some of the weight bearing down on them. “I didn’t want them to go on torturing themselves.” It felt good to cut it loose. She cut it free of herself at the same time.

Wayne and Kathy seemed pleased, but less effusive than Linda expected. She was hoping for a little more gratitude.

The couple told the Mausers they never planned to talk to the media; they didn’t think they could endure it.

Linda doesn’t care who they talk to, as long as they fully divulge to someone qualified to listen. She wants rigorous questioning, either from reporters or experts who have studied the case. “What I’m looking for, from both families, is transparency,” she says.

Linda has decided to forgive Wayne and Kathy. But she chose not to say so at the Quaker hall. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t commit the murder, and Linda felt conflicted about them.

She still does. But it helped tremendously to meet them. They were not monstrous. It was hard to conceive of them as individuals before, as ordinary human beings. Now she has no choice.

Dave Cullen is the author of the award-winning Columbine, the New York Times bestseller. This piece was adapted from a new Afterword on forgiveness, to be published in the expanded paperback edition March 3. Cullen is an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.