In what was then the deadliest school shooting in modern American history, Columbine High School seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalked through their campus on April 20, 1999 — murdering 13 people and wounding another 23 before killing themselves.
Looking back five years later, survivors talk to PEOPLE about the nightmares, pain and hope — and the killers’ parents quietly build new lives.
One of the first students shot, he taught himself to walk again with grit and the support of people around the world
For three years he had been waiting for this moment. Sitting nervously in his wheelchair at the May 2002 graduation ceremony of his class at Columbine High, Sean Graves heard his name called. With hardly a wobble, he arose from his wheelchair and walked to the podium for his diploma — as his classmates and hundreds of spectators came to their feet in a roaring ovation. It was the first time he had walked in public since the day the 15-year-old freshman was hit by a bullet fired by Eric Harris that grazed his spine and partially paralyzed him. “I wanted to make sure these people knew I didn’t do it for myself,” says Graves. “I did it to show that things are possible with prayer and hard work.”
Graves acknowledges that in the aftermath of the tragedy he “despised” the killers. But slowly he started to realize that the road to a more normal life would start with letting go. “Why should I spend so much time and energy hating two people who aren’t even in this world anymore?” he says. “I just focused all my attention on recovering.” He has undergone eight surgical procedures and spent hundreds of hours in physical therapy.
He still uses a cane to get around, but plans to finish up soon at Red Rocks Community College and get a job rebuilding computers. Even now Graves talks often about how grateful he is for the support he received from people around the world, as evidenced by the eight duffel bags of mail he has in his basement. One message he especially treasures is a note he received from Christopher Reeve, whom he met at two spinal-research fundraisers the actor hosted in Vail and whose courage helped give him strength. Wrote Reeve of hearing about Graves’s steps on the stage: “I was your inspiration, and now you are mine.”
Years after coming face-to-face with the killers, she could not shake a sense of dread
“I knew who shot me,” says Kacey Ruegsegger of the moment when Harris confronted her in the school library, as she huddled fearfully under a table. “I remember looking straight down the barrel.” In the next instant the shotgun blast blew a hole in her right shoulder and her hand. “I made a moaning noise, I guess,” recalls Ruegsegger. “The gunman told me, ‘Quit your bitching.’ I thought he was going to shoot me again, so I pretended to be dead.” Adds Ruegsegger: “I was the only one out of the first six shot in the library who survived.”
The physical injuries she suffered that day were bad enough, but the lasting psychological scars have proved just as debilitating. “I used to have panic attacks all the time, the first three or four years,” says Ruegsegger, 22. “If somebody walked into a restaurant with a suspicious bag, I would be gone.” There were times when she had difficulty calming herself. “I’d be shaking and have this overwhelming sense of doom,” she says. “It was like somebody else just comes inside me and takes over — it was the worst feeling.” Until recently she could not bring herself to enter any library, for any reason, even after she enrolled at Colorado State University.
In 2001 she had an epiphany — she wanted to be a nurse. As her mother, Darcy, explains, it is a way for Kacey to “give back” for having her own life spared. There has been other progress as well. In February she steeled herself and went into a library for the first time. “I called my mom,” says Kacey, who expects to finish her nursing studies at Arapahoe Community College this December. “I was so excited.” But she doesn’t fool herself into thinking that the shadow over her has been entirely lifted. “I have my faith, and I look like I’m doing great,” she says. “But there are days, I’m sure for all of us, that it’s not okay.”
The Mauser family
In memory of their son, a crusade for gun control; at home, a new child brings joy and hope
You don’t get over it,” says Tom Mauser, whose 15-year-old son Daniel was killed in the library at Columbine. “But you have to be honest with yourself that your child would not want you to be in deep grief and anger for the rest of your life.” And yet those two emotions have continued to influence his life in profound ways. Almost from the first days after the tragedy, Mauser, 52, emerged as a passionate advocate of stricter gun-control measures, visiting the White House and lobbying the state legislature. His efforts paid off in November 2000, when Colorado voted to become, along with Oregon, one of the first states in the country to close the so-called gun-show loophole, which had allowed the purchase of firearms at such events without background checks.
Mauser received much credit for getting the initiative passed — but he also became the target of death threats from opponents. Meanwhile wife Linda, 52, began urging that the couple, who also have a daughter, Christine, 18, adopt a baby. In October 2000 they picked up their new daughter, Madeline, now 4, in China. “We recognized that she was not a replacement for Daniel,” says Tom, “but still we had room for her in our hearts.” And indeed the newest member of the family has proved a true blessing. “She’s amazing,” says Tom. “She’s given me something to look forward to.” Tom doesn’t speak as much in public these days, but when he does, he always stumbles over the part where he tells the audience, “My son died.” Says Tom, his eyes filling with tears: “Those words are still hard to say.”
A movie role, a band and a budding business help ease what has been a difficult path
He can sound remarkably matter-of-fact. “There’s not too much that bothers me now physically, it just takes a lot longer to do stuff,” says Richard Castaldo, 22, who suffered a bullet wound to the spine that left him in a wheelchair. “I’m about as adjusted to it as I’m going to get.” And in some ways that is quite well adjusted indeed. Passionate about music, he plays bass guitar in a rock band, Danger Girl. With money from a fund set up in his name, he was able to purchase an apartment building in South Denver as well as a house for himself nearby. A featured role in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine proved another plus. “It was cool, because after that it was more like ‘Hey you’re from that movie,’ rather than ‘You’re from the school-shooting thing,’ ” he says.
But Castaldo also feels a private anguish. “I think the anger has started to seep into Richard,” says his mother, Connie Birdsell-Michalik, 48. “It upsets him that he wasn’t doing anything. He was just eating lunch, and now his whole life has changed.” Still, the one thing Richard insists he doesn’t allow himself to do anymore is wonder, “What if?” “I used to a little bit, but then I realized it’s just stupid,” he says. “You’ll drive yourself insane trying to think about that.”
Anne Marie Hochhalter
On an ‘evil’ day that left her with grievous wounds, she was saved by a couple of timely miracles
Anne Marie Hochhalter had just gone outside to soak up some of the warm midday sun when she heard a popping noise behind her. Then something struck her in the back. It hurt, but she thought it was from a paintball gun. As a friend helped her, another bullet hit, this time tearing a critical vein. “I was bleeding to death,” recalls Hochhalter, 22. “It didn’t look bad on the outside, but inside it felt wrong — it felt wet.”
The way Hochhalter sees it, even though the attack left her paralyzed and wheelchair bound, she was nonetheless quite lucky. “If the ambulance had come two minutes later — even two minutes — I would have died,” says Hochhalter. Her good fortune continued when she got to the hospital, where surgeons, prepped to start operating on a heart patient, took her instead. “A lot of evil happened that day,” says Hochhalter, “but a lot of things went so right.”
In the months after, though, it was a different story. Her mother, Carla, soon started showing serious signs of bipolar disorder. In October she committed suicide. “I don’t think she knew what she was doing,” says Hochhalter. “Which is kind of like Eric and Dylan — I don’t think they knew what they were doing.” Now living in her own townhouse and taking business courses at the University of Colorado-Denver Center, Hochhalter draws comfort from her involvement in a local church and a close relationship she has developed with Sue Town-send, 55, whose stepdaughter Lauren, 18, was one of those killed at Columbine. “When I look at Anne Marie,” says Townsend, “I feel Lauren smiling on me.”
Once known as the tragic ‘boy in the window,’ he now looks ahead to a bright future
He remembers when the shooters came into the library. “They said, ‘Everybody with white hats [which were customarily worn by many of the school’s athletes], stand up. This is for all the s— you’ve put us through for the past four years.’ ” Then the carnage started. Pat Ireland, now 22, was shot three times, including twice in the head, which knocked him out for roughly three hours. Somehow, despite being paralyzed on his entire right side, when he came to, he was able to crawl 50 feet to the window. A photo of him desperately plunging through the shattered glass of the second-story library onto the roof of a waiting rescue vehicle became one of the most indelible images of the tragedy.
Five years later one of the bullets is still lodged in Ireland’s head, but memories of the horror seem amazingly far from his mind. “You can think about it and dwell on it for a limited amount of time,” says Ireland, who spent months in rehab after the attack and still has trouble gripping with his right hand and walks with a slight limp. “But then you’ve just got to kind of accept it and start living your life the best you can.” Toward that end he has earned a 3.9 GPA as a finance major at Colorado State University, is looking forward to entering graduate school and has a girlfriend, Kacie Lancaster, who is an aspiring model. And he often goes back to visit Columbine High. “I love that school,” he says. “It’s my school.”
For the Killing Parents, Unending Questions
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Dylan Klebold’s parents, Tom and Sue, fled their comfortable home in Deer Creek Canyon to seek privacy in their grief. Already, though, a sign reading “Sue & Tom We [Love]You. We’re Here for You. Call Us” and bearing the signatures of many of their neighbors had been placed on one of their fences. The couple soon returned home but didn’t seem inclined to reach out to many of those who offered them support. “My sense is they’ve kind of withdrawn from social contact,” says one neighbor, who has occasionally seen them walking on nearby trails.
Tom, 57, still operates his mortgage-and-property company from a home office, and Sue, 55, has kept her position as a college job-placement official for those with disabilities, where she has earned the respect of many coworkers. “I have never seen anybody as strong,” says one colleague. “She read every letter that she received — supportive and non-supportive. She has tried to understand what happened head-on.” In much the same way Eric Harris’s parents, Wayne and Kathy, have also stayed in the Columbine area. Wayne, 55, continues to work developing pilot-training programs, and Kathy, 54, a caterer, recently helped plan her son Kevin’s wedding. They, too, have a very tight circle of friends. “They are getting back to some semblance of a normal life, and I’m putting quotes around normal,” says longtime friend Carl Payne, who lives in Plattsburgh, New York. “What they’ve gone through I would call a nightmare.” And most painful, it is a nightmare foretold by the two killers, who made a three-hour tape before their rampage that practically boasted of what lay in store for the parents they professed to love. “They’re going to go through hell once we’re finished,” said Eric Harris on the tape. “They’re never going to see the end of it.”
• Reporting by VICKIE BANE and JASON BANE in Colorado