Prejudices Drove Killers, Witnesses Say
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 23, 1999; Page A1
LITTLETON, Colo., April 22 – At lunchtime Tuesday, the Columbine High School library was filled with students working quietly when the doors to the room swung open. A few caught the eye of the killers.
There was Cassie Bernall, a studious and outgoing girl known for carrying a Bible to school every day. And John Tomlin, who loved sports and never left home without jamming a baseball cap over his eyes. Isaiah Shoels, signing onto a computer terminal to research an assigned paper, stood out for a different reason.
"There's that little nigger son of a bitch right there," classmates who were in the library at the time recall one of the gun-wielding assailants screaming when he saw Shoels. "Let's get him." And they did.
While investigators here continued today to sift through the aftermath of the rampage for clues to the shooters' motive, relatives and friends of several of the slain students said that they believe some victims were targeted because they represented all that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold disdained.
There is no evidence that the murderous pair moved through the corridors with a hit list of names. But it was widely known among Columbine students that the tiny subculture to which Harris and Klebold belonged had little tolerance for devout Christians, or for athletes who favored caps, or for the handful of minority students who attended the school.
And so, as the Jefferson County coroner's office gave 13 grieving families official word of the dead today, some of the deaths seemed random. Others seemed more deliberate.
"This was a hate crime," Michael Shoels said of the death of his son, who longed to follow his father into the music recording business. "There was too much hate in those kids' hearts."
Not all the victims seemed chosen purposefully. Richard Castaldo, a 17-year-old junior who now lies in a local hospital recuperating from a half-dozen bullet wounds, was sitting on the school lawn eating lunch when he heard what sounded like firecrackers. He felt numb and fell to the ground with his eyes closed, hoping the shooting would stop if tried to appear dead.
"He is shy, and he is in the marching band," his father, who shares the same name, said in an interview today. The younger Castaldo didn't know the killers. "It was totally random," said his father, who lives in Northern Virginia.
But some students said they were not surprised to learn that Tomlin, 16, a junior, was among those killed in the attack. Tomlin was the kind of teenager at Columbine the shooters apparently loved to hate: He liked lifting weights at school, adored the old and unreliable Chevy pickup truck that he had saved to buy, and constantly wore caps.
"He had a good ole boy veneer – a Chevy man, always in his caps," said Boyd Evans, a minister at a Baptist church in suburban Denver where Tomlin came twice a week to participate in a youth ministry. "He did not have a dark side, he was just a kid who was definitely high on life."
Tomlin moved to Littleton with his family four years ago from Wisconsin. They attended church together every Sunday. Last year, he and his father, also named John, traveled to a small town in Mexico as part of a church ministry. They helped build a house for a poor family who had been living in a shack.
"He was a hard worker, and was never the type to give people trouble," said Jacob Youngblood, a teenager who worked with him at a plant nursery and spent free time playing laser tag and hitting golf balls.
Bernall, a Columbine junior who liked poetry, may have been slain in the attack because of her devout religious faith.
When the gunmen burst into library, Bernall was there studying, as usual. Soon, eyewitnesses said, she came face-to-face with one of the gunmen, who asked her a fateful question: "Do you believe in God?"
Bernall, who friends said belonged to her church's youth group, answered "Yes." And then she was shot.
"The gunman shot her because she is a Christian," said Kevin Koeniger, a Columbine junior and one of Bernall's close friends. "It is just so hard to understand."
Ironically, Koeniger said, several years ago Bernall had taken an interest in witchcraft and suicide – which, for a while, alarmed her parents. The suspected gunmen in the case are said to have been obsessed with death.
But that interest faded in recent years as Bernall drew closer to her Christian faith and became a fixture in the youth group at West Bowles Community Church. "She was a teenager who has done some different things," said Kim Bernall, Cassie's aunt, who was huddled in grief with other family members today. "But it wasn't like she dressed in the Gothic style or anything. She was a very quiet, very respectful, very loving person."
Rachel Scott, another student among the dead, also was known to many at Columbine as a passionate Christian. Her pastor, the Rev. Barry Palfer, is convinced that her unshakable faith cost Scott her life.
She, too, was shot to death in the library. "When those guys walked into that room, they were hunting for three types: Christians, athletes and people of a different color," said Palfer, senior associate pastor at Orchard Road Christian Center. "I believe that. Some people died because they got in the way, but these guys seemed to be carrying out a vendetta."
Scott had told many people that her ambition was to be a missionary, perhaps in Africa. "I think she thought of Africa because there was so much suffering there," said Rob Salyer, a former boyfriend who worked with Scott at a sandwich shop not far from Columbine. "She wanted to help relieve the suffering."
Scott was in church at least three nights a week, Salyer said.
Since Tuesday's shooting, small clusters of young people paused, often arm-in-arm and weeping, around Scott's maroon Acura Legend, which remains in the school parking lot. The car has been transformed into a shrine, and today it was blanketed with flowers and balloons left in her honor.
Matt Kechter, 16, a defensive tackle on the junior varsity football team, also died in the library. Craig Scott, who at the time did not realize that his sister, Rachel, was also in the large room, said the killers apparently targeted Kechter because he was an athlete. When the shooting started, Kechter was wearing a baseball cap, favored by many athletes, as well as a football jersey.
Scott said he trembled in fear as the shooters made their way through the library terrorizing and shooting students. "They said get any f-ing jock," Scott said on NBC's "Today" show. "Get anybody with a white hat on, 'cause that's – a lot of jocks wear white hats."
With that, Scott, who had taken refuge under a desk with Kechter and Shoels, tore his white cap off and stuffed it under his shirt. The gunmen then came over, picked Kechter and Shoels and shot them.
In shooting Shoels, Harris and Klebold singled out a young man – indeed, a family – with whom the clique dubbed the Trenchcoat Mafia had tangled for more than a year. Just 4-feet-11 and 120 pounds, Shoels was "a warrior," his father said today, who had conquered a congenital heart defect and defied doctors' predictions that he would never play sports. He made Columbine's football, wresting and weight-lifting teams.
Shoels's father said that Isaiah, who was to graduate this spring, and two younger siblings who also attended Columbine, Cheryl and Anthony, had had run-ins with the clique. Several months ago, one of the trench-coat crowd had picked a fight with Isaiah, who friends remember as cheerful and sweet-tempered. "They went to blows," his father said. Both students were suspended. Soon after that, Cheryl Shoels had complained to a school employee that she was being harassed racially by girls she believed to have been dating boys who wore trench coats.
At midday today, the family's house was filled with bouquets, its front door decorated with a large blue and silver ribbon – the school colors – as Michael Shoels spoke of his anger and his guilt.
"My heart is burning right now," he said. When Isaiah had confided to him that he was the brunt of "some racial situations," he had counseled his son to stay focused on "the big picture," to look beyond the harassment and the petty taunts.
Recalling their conversation, Shoels now wonders whether he gave his son poor advice. "Maybe my son would be alive today," he said.
Staff researcher Margot Williams in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company