There were a lot of things Melissa Sowder didn't like about Columbine High School. The bullies, for instance. They were football players, mostly. They shoved her friends in the halls and threw snowballs or bottles at them on the way home. Sometimes they shoved her, too. Who needed it?
"Teachers would see them push someone into a locker, and they'd just ignore it," she says. "I think they were afraid of the students. They didn't stop half the fights in that school."
But Columbine wasn't all bad, Sowder insists. She liked most of her teachers. And there were nice students, too--guys she met in the commons area, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and talking about what was wrong with Columbine. Guys like Eric Harris.
"I used to talk to Eric once in a while," Sowder says. "He was like the sweetest guy I ever knew. He'd do pretty much anything for people he liked. We'd talk mostly about how we got picked on, how the school was not caring what the students did. And how some people could get away with anything."
Sowder was near the bottom of the intricate social hierarchy at Columbine last fall. She was a freshman and a special-education student, struggling to get the services and classes she needed. She liked to dress in black, and most of her friends were kids who thought of themselves as outcasts--punks and goths and skaters.
Eric Harris was a senior and a very confident student. He, too, dressed in black. He had a juvenile conviction for theft and had been reported to the police for making death threats against another student on the Internet. His personal Web page crackled with fantasies of murder and revenge, and he liked to show off his extensive knowledge of guns and explosives.
Before the world that was Columbine blew up last spring, guess which one of the two attracted more scrutiny from school officials?
Right up until April 20, 1999--the day he and his buddy Dylan Klebold stormed the school, tossing pipe bombs and shooting helpless classmates, killing thirteen and injuring 23 before taking their own lives--Eric Harris was just another scowling face in the crowd. One of the most baffling aspects of the worst school massacre the country has ever seen is how Harris and Klebold's deadly plan went undetected by friends, teachers, administrators--and, apparently, their own parents--until the killings began.
The question becomes even more troubling when you consider how school authorities have dealt with Melissa Sowder, who knew Klebold and Harris only slightly. In her first few weeks at Columbine, Sowder ditched class several times, resulting in a parent conference and restrictions imposed on her ability to leave campus during the day. But when she tried to complain to teachers about harassment by jocks, she was told, "Deal with it," she says.
One day last fall, Sowder was called to the dean's office after she was late to one class. "He asked me what I think about all day at school," Sowder says, "so I told him I thought about blowing up the school. The school made me that angry. He told me I was suspended for a day and called my mom."
Diana Sowder says she spoke to her daughter about speaking and acting responsibly. But she also believes that the school "overreacted" to Melissa's remark, which officials described as a threat. Over the next few months, Melissa Sowder's movements were closely monitored by school staffers, who followed her in the halls and quizzed her if she showed up at school early or stayed late.
Sowder was in the cafeteria when Klebold and Harris began their rampage last April. She escaped unharmed, fleeing with a group of students. When classes for Columbine students resumed at Chatfield High two weeks later, she was summoned to the principal's office and informed that she might prefer home-schooling.
"I think they had kind of classified me as a troublemaker," she says. "I told them I felt okay about going back to school."
Columbine officials didn't feel okay about it, though. A counselor in a security officer's uniform followed Sowder from room to room, actually sitting through each class and observing her behavior. On her third day at Chatfield, she made a remark about the shootings to another student. According to Sowder, she'd been greeted warmly for the first time by athletes who'd formerly harassed her, so she said that maybe something positive would come out of the tragedy "because now the jocks will treat us better."
That isn't the way the school's spy system heard it. Relying on a version of the remark passed on by two students to a teacher and then administrators, a school counselor contacted Diana Sowder that day and informed her that her daughter was not to come back to Chatfield. Melissa was being removed from school because she allegedly said that "the kids who died at Columbine deserved it." Melissa denies she said any such thing, and another student who says she was present during the conversation supports her story. Steve and Diana Sowder say that they were given no chance to meet with school officials and that their daughter had no hearing--no opportunity to respond to the accusation or appeal the decision--before she was summarily booted out of school.
"We take any such comments, whether they were made in jest or not, very seriously," Kaufman says, "and will do so again this fall. It's no different than someone walking through an airport and saying, 'I'm carrying a bomb.'"
Melissa Sowder says she wants to return to Columbine when classes begin August 16, but she has no idea if she will be allowed to do so. Frustrated with school officials' reluctance to meet with them, Steve and Diana Sowder have hired an attorney and are considering a lawsuit against the district over what they regard as the trampling of their daughter's rights. (Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Sowders' attorney is related to writer Alan Prendergast, who has no personal or financial interest in their case.) Yet their situation is hardly unique. Melissa says that several of her friends have been encouraged not to return to Columbine this fall, too. "I think it's because they're outcasts," she says.
Last week, district officials told Melissa Sowder's attorney that she could enroll for her sophomore year, but didn't say whether she will be allowed back at Columbine, said her father, Steve Sowder.
Melissa was among 18 students asked not to return to school after the shootings
One of the trench coat gang-Pat
police that five of the seven named above were indeed inside the school with
guns, in addition he named five more trench coaters-Eric Ault, John
Charles Phillips, and Eric Jackson- as being involved in the planning or
bomb-building. And at least two of the female trench coat associates-Melissa
Marsh- told other students that they had advance foreknowledge of the attack.
Site administrators are believed to have now erased the Harris page.
Another message posted on AOL claiming to be from the group said: "Trench Coat Mafia in da House', preparin' for the big April 20!!''
Trench Coat Mafia
On April 20, 1999, eyewitnesses to the shooting at
Columbine High School
tentatively identified Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as two of the gunmen.
There were also unconfirmed
reports of a third, and possibly more, shooters involved.
The identities of Harris and Klebold were later confirmed
after their bodies were found in the
Columbine High School library. Both died of
apparent self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Early intelligence information gathered at the crime scene from witnesses referred to Harris and Klebold’s involvement, or membership, in a group at Columbine High School commonly known as the Trench Coat Mafia (TCM). A number of Columbine students and faculty were interviewed as the events at the school unfolded on April 20 and many claimed to be familiar with the TCM and its members.
The Associates Team, led by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Don Estep and FBI Special Agent Mark Holstlaw, had the responsibility of identifying all associates of Harris and Klebold. Included in the identification were any members, past or present, of the TCM.
Once identified, all
members and associates
were to be interviewed and investigated by the associates team. The goal was to
determine if any other person may have participated or conspired with Harris and
Klebold in the preparation or carrying out of the events of April 20 or any
related crime. The team was also assigned to identify anyone who had any prior
knowledge that Harris and Klebold were planning the shootings.
Twenty-one individuals were initially identified as TCM members. These initial 21 provided pertinent information regarding the origin and membership of the Trench Coat Mafia and their associates. Some of these individuals also provided specific information about Harris and Klebold and how they related to the other members in their social circle.
From these interviews,
additional individuals were identified as associates of Harris and Klebold,
and several others were identified as acquaintances. In addition, the associates
team identified any friends or co-workers of Harris and Klebold in order to
obtain background information on the activities of the two.
After conducting numerous interviews, the
associates team determined each identified person’s relationship to Harris
and/or Klebold. Some appeared to have had only a peripheral or minimal
relationship with the shooters. Close associates of Harris and Klebold and the
Trench Coat Mafia
primarily consisted of friends within
Columbine High School. Others were initially
associated with the group only because they were friends of an alleged TCM
member. Several individuals were identified as associates because they worked
at Blackjack Pizza with Harris and Klebold or socialized with them outside of
Although the investigation identified Harris and Klebold as being “members” of the TCM, it appears that the Trench Coat Mafia was a loose, social affiliation of former and current Columbine High School students with no formal organizational structure, leadership or purpose such as that typically found in traditional juvenile street gangs. Contrary to reports following the Columbine shootings, there is no evidence of affiliated Trench Coat Mafia groups nationwide.
The origination of the title “Trench Coat Mafia” is not clear. It appears that some of the early group members had begun wearing black trench coats or dusters to school. A common characteristic used by Columbine students to initially identify TCM members was the black trench coats. That type of dress, combined with members being viewed within the school population as “outcasts,” led to the creation of the name, either by the members themselves or by someone outside the group.
the TCM members
also participated in playing video games, such as Doom, and producing videos
together for school projects.
A number of those interviewed related that members of the TCM (individually and as a group) were often harassed by student athletes (“jocks”). Jonathan Greene
The TCM appears to have had cliques or small
subgroups, not much different than most other social groups in a high school
setting. Harris and Klebold had a few close associates in the TCM, but overall
were not described as having any particular influence or leadership roles within
the Trench Coat Mafia.
Their friends and associates described them as often wearing the same black
dusters which they wore during the shootings on April 20.
Photographs appearing in the high school’s 1998 yearbook were obtained, identifying those in a group photo as TCM members. Additionally, the 1999 senior class photo (taken in March 1999) reflected several of the same members posing as if they were pointing weapons at the camera. Neither Klebold or Harris appear in the ’98 TCM photograph, but they are a part of the senior class photo in which they are pretending to be firing weapons.
Associates of Klebold and Harris
Close to 100 individuals had some connection to Harris or Klebold and were included in the investigation. A few had only a passing acquaintance with Harris or Klebold or simply had a mutual friend but did not associate with Harris or Klebold personally.
The associate team ultimately identified 22 of these individuals as those most familiar with Harris and Klebold, their background and their activities.
Those determined to be close associates of Klebold or Harris were asked to give background information on the TCM and the two gunmen. Where appropriate, the individual may have had property searched, either because of a court-ordered search warrant or a consensual search.
Thirteen computers belonging to these associates were searched and evaluated for evidence of prior knowledge; however, no such evidence was found. Only two of the 13 searches required warrants; the remaining searches were done by the consent and cooperation of the individual.
associates requested to submit to polygraph examinations regarding prior
knowledge or assistance in the actual crime, only three refused.
Two of those refused on the advice of their attorneys. Although three of the
main associates retained attorneys, all three continued to cooperate with
investigators. In fact, most of the 22 individuals identified by the associate
team were cooperative and agreed to additional interviews to clarify
inconsistencies in their previous statements. These 22 were interviewed a total
of 71 times.
Some individuals knew of Klebolds' and Harris’ interest in building pipe bombs and had actually seen a few pipe bombs or CO2 cartridge devices they made. However, all denied recognizing any indications from either Klebold or Harris that they were planning the Columbine murders. Nor were comments indicative of Klebold’s and Harris’ intentions reported.
Shalom From Sinai
Reform Jewish Leader Denounces
Saperstein: “How sad that a religious leader would rather spew out senseless rhetoric by attempting to concoct a connection between a soldier’s level of religious observance and his or her fate on the battlefield.”
Contact Sean Thibault or Debra Eichenbaum