February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

Around Littleton, Colo., the people have been through all this before: the impromptu memorials, the hand-lettered signs, the knots of students praying in the halls of the high school. And so, on Feb. 14, the scene was all too familiar as grief counselors and extra security guards were deployed once again at Columbine High to help students shaken by another episode of deadly violence make it through the day.

The latest tragedy was discovered just before 1 a.m. on Valentine’s Day when, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, an employee of a Subway sandwich shop near the school, driving by the store after hours, noticed lights inside and stopped to investigate. Behind the counter she found the bodies of fellow employee Nicholas Kunselman, 15, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Hart, 16. The victims, both Columbine sophomores, had been shot, say investigators, who quickly ruled out murder-suicide.

At Columbine later that day, students wondered aloud whether their suburban Denver community is living under some kind of curse. “There’s no such thing as a normal day at school,” says junior Nicole Nowlen, 17, who was wounded last April 20 when Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives. Since then, the mother of a student seriously injured in the school shootings has committed suicide, and the strangled body of an 11-year-old boy from a nearby town was found in a Dumpster about a mile from the school on Feb. 1.

“There were tons of people in the halls, hugging and crying,” says Nowlen, describing student reaction to the latest deaths. “What’s next? I don’t even want to know.”

Friends say the couple who died in the Subway shooting were easygoing and friendly. Kunselman, a skateboarder and avid Frisbee-golf player, “had this amazing ability to always make me smile,” says Scott Gratson, 32, a director of The Place, a community-sponsored coffee shop where both youngsters often hung out. “Stephanie had a strong gift for self-reflection.” Hart, who sketched and wrote constantly in her journal, was known for jumping up when music came on and dancing like Elaine, the character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld. “She used to make us laugh,” says Gratson.

Kunselman had begun working a night shifts at Subway, another teen hangout, about a month ago. Hart, who had been dating him since last summer, often visited just before’ closing time. “Usually there are two people in the shop until 8 p.m., and then the ‘closer’ is there by himself between 8 and 10,” says fellow employee J.J. Hodack, 22. “Obviously our boss trusted Nick.” Says Rick Ritter, 18, a Subway regular: “He wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever start trouble with anybody, and neither was Stephanie.”

Almost inevitably, given its proximity to the high school, the Subway store had a connection of sorts to the previous killings. One D of the victims in the April massacre, I Rachel Scott, 17, had been an employee at the shop at the time of her death, and Kunselman, who knew her, had drawn a picture of Rachel and given it to her family as a sign of his sympathy.

Police hunting for the latest killer hoped to speak to a man in his 20s who was spotted near the Subway shop by the employee who discovered the bodies. But whether or not the shooter is. captured, Tom Mauser, whose only son, Daniel, 15, was killed in the April shootings, says these latest murders have opened a wound for the families of the first Columbine victims. “I knew I was going to have to drive home past that Subway shop,” says Mauser, 47. “It’s just painful.” The killings only strengthen his conviction that all this suffering must bring some kind of change. “We lose 13 kids in this country every day to gunshots,” says Mauser, now director of political affairs for the antigun lobbying group SAFE Colorado. “There is a Columbine every day.”

Patrick Rogers

Vickie Bane in Jefferson County

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