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Apr 20th, 2009

Ten years ago this week, I received an urgent phone call from Joannie Schrof, an editor at US News & World Report. I was on sabbatical leave in Rochester, N.Y. Schrof was coordinating US News’ coverage of the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colo., and her team of reporters had ferreted out Eric Harris’s terroristic screeds on an AOL website on the Internet. Schrof wanted me the profile Harris, and she wanted the profile within 24 hours, because she was working on deadline.

Here’s a link to the profile I prepared in those frantic first days after Columbine for US News & World Report:

Eric Harris: Personality Profile

Snippets from the report prepared for Schrof were published in the May 2, 1999 issue of US News. Thus started my bit-part, tangential connection to Columbine.

Five years later, in the summer of 2004, I received a call from Jeff Kass of the Rocky Mountain News. He had found my name in a Columbine-related court settlement and wanted to know if I would collaborate with him on developing psychological profiles of the Columbine shooters for a book he was writing. Thus started an intermittent working relationship with Kass, including the development of a psychological profile for Dylan Klebold, based on materials provided by Kass. (I had been unable to profile Klebold at the time of the shooting, because of insufficient data.)

Here’s the profile I prepared for Kass in the summer of 2004:

Dylan Klebold: Personality Profile

Both profiles are discussed in Kass’ book, Columbine: A True Crime Story, published this month to mark the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

Columbine: A True Crime Story - by Jeff Kass

More information about the book, Columbine, and other shootings and mass murders is posted elsewhere on this site. Here’s the link:

Columbine: The Real Story


Related report

After 10 Years, Books Explore Columbine

Image: Eric Harris (L) and Dylan Klebold
Eric Harris (L) and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

March 24, 2009

At least three new books seeking to understand the Columbine school shooting in Colorado are coming out in time for next month’s 10th anniversary.

Two are written by journalists who covered the rampage and then spent a decade looking into the killers’ backgrounds, the government investigation and survivors’ recovery. The third is written by a psychologist who has worked extensively with children in crisis.

Seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher in less than 20 minutes on April 20, 1999. Millions watched on television as SWAT teams spent hours clearing Columbine High School and emergency workers evacuated two dozen others who were injured.

Freelance writer Dave Cullen initially covered the attack for the online magazine Salon. His book, “Columbine,” weaves three story lines reconstructing the attack, the killers’ development and the aftermath into a compelling nonfiction narrative.

Image: Book cover

Jeff Kass, a longtime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, focuses primarily on the killers’ development and the battle to get government records related to the shooting released. The paperback “Columbine: A True Crime Story” contains excerpts from hard-won copies of Klebold’s college admissions essays and a deposition from the diversion counselor who supervised the boys after they were arrested for breaking into a van.

A third book, “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters” by Pennsylvania psychologist Peter Langman, looks more broadly at school shootings. Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, are among the killers he profiles.

The Cullen and Kass books hold some surprises for those who remember Columbine largely from the first few days’ television coverage. The lingering impression is of two Goth outcasts who targeted jocks, minorities and others who bullied them. But later reporting proved much of that wrong:

  • Harris and Klebold planned the attack as a terrorist bombing and began shooting when the bombs failed to go off.
  • They were not Goths or members of the Trench Coat Mafia, a small group of students who had taken to wearing dusters the year before. They wore trench coats to the massacre in part to hide weapons.
  • The boys did not target jocks or minorities. They aimed to killed as many people as possible. Some victims happened to be athletes and minorities.

There is also the shocker: The killing lasted only 17.5 minutes. The boys got bored, stopped, wandered the high school for about a half hour and then shot themselves.

Correcting the myths

Most people believe the attack went on for as long as they watched telecasts of officers sweeping the school.

“Everyone thinks in a way, ‘I was an eye witness. I know it went on for four hours because I remember being there that day,'” said Cullen, 47, of Denver.

His book spends considerable time revisiting the myths of Columbine in an effort to correct them.

For example, many people remember that junior Cassie Bernall professed her faith in God before she died. That didn’t happen. A witness initially confused Bernall with survivor Valeen Schnurr, who told Klebold she believed in God after he shot her. Bernall had no time to speak before Harris shot her in the head.

While the Columbine books largely agree on what happened, Cullen and Kass portray the boys very differently. Cullen discounts the idea that Harris and Klebold were outcasts or bullied. They had three close, mutual friends and regularly hung out with a group of 10 to 15 others, he said.

“They had an extremely active social life,” he said in an interview. “Eric had a date to homecoming freshman year.”

Kass describes the boys’ circle as “probably the lowest rung of the social ladder.” Also, the boys complain in their journals about being left out and feeling alienated and alone.

“Even if you look at their circle of friends and say they had a normal circle of friends, Eric and Dylan were blinded by their mental illnesses to the friends they had,” said Kass, 40, of Denver.

Both authors agree that Klebold had severe depression. (Langman, the psychologist, diagnoses him as psychotic, suffering from paranoia, delusions and disorganized thinking.)

Cullen, like Langman, accepts the common diagnosis of Harris as a psychopath lacking in conscience. Kass is more skeptical, pointing out that most psychopaths are not violent. Also, Harris shows an attention to detail not common among psychopaths in his planning of the attack and success at an after-school job, he said.

Why did they kill?

Ultimately, both authors come to a conclusion about why the attack happened. But they differ on that, too.

“I think Columbine and other school shootings are an outgrowth of the South and West of the United States, and suburbs and small towns,” Kass said. “In suburbs and small towns, if you’re an outcast in high school, you feel like a loser through-and-through because there are no alternative outlets to find your self-esteem. … And in the South and the West, there is a mentality that if you feel your honor has been injured, you take it upon yourself to retaliate.”

Columbine might not have happened if the boys lived elsewhere, he said. But Cullen believes Harris would have killed regardless of where he lived.

“The reason Eric did it is because he was a sadistic psychopath with no conscience and nothing to stop him from hurting anyone,” Cullen said. “He did it for enjoyment and self-aggrandizement.”

Klebold, he said, was intent on suicide but might not have killed if he hadn’t befriended Harris.

“Dylan got tired of hating himself,” Cullen said, “And Eric helped him turn the anger outward and even the score on the way out.”


Destined As a Psychopath? Experts Seek Clues

By Jacqueline Stenson
MSNBC contributor

April 20, 2009


… Some mental health professionals believe that Columbine killer Eric Harris showed signs of being what’s termed a fledgling or budding psychopath. Harris was one of the two teenage killers who 10 years ago today went on a school-shooting spree that left 12 students and a teacher dead and about two dozen more injured before they both committed suicide. The term psychopath, however, is generally reserved for adults, whose personalities are more firmly fixed. Harris had turned 18 only days before the massacre.

One psychiatrist linking Harris with possible psychopathy is Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatry professor at Michigan State University who was involved in an FBI school-shooting symposium held shortly after Columbine and who also made trips to Littleton, Colo., for more than a year after the incident “to help Columbine heal,” he says. Ochberg believes that the two killers, Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, were a “deadly duo” who probably wouldn’t have done what they did without the other. Whereas Klebold was depressive and hot-headed, Ochberg says, Harris was “cool, cold and calculating,” glib, showed little reaction to discipline and was easily able “to read people” and ingratiate himself to others.

“I do believe Harris was well on his way to being what we would call a psychopath,” he says. “He showed very little conscience.”

Lack of conscience is the hallmark of psychopathy, which is estimated to occur in about 1 percent of the adult population, says psychopathy expert Robert Hare, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.” Unlike psychosis, in which a person is out of touch with reality and experiencing delusions or hallucinations, for example, psychopaths know what they are doing. They just don’t care — and can’t really comprehend — how their actions hurt others. Psychopaths lack empathy, guilt and remorse, explains Hare.

But its only a small minority of psychopaths — albeit a very dangerous, mostly male, minority — who become mass murderers, serial killers and rapists, and torturers. And, some experts say, if a budding psychopath can be identified young enough, perhaps it might be possible to change what otherwise might be their destiny. …

The road to psychopathy

Adult psychopaths commonly have a long history of significant behavior problems in youth and juvenile delinquency (although most delinquents will not become psychopaths). Studies show that a significant portion of children who show psychopathic traits — often referred to among researchers as “callous-unemotional (CU) traits,” which include not being concerned about others’ feelings and not feeling bad or guilty — as early as the preschool years have the same traits when they are teens. And adolescence is a time when they are more likely than other kids to exhibit extreme behavior problems, aggression and delinquency. These teens with significant CU traits are then more likely to become psychopathic adults. …

Red flags include frequent bullying and fighting, vandalizing, fire-setting and hurting animals. …

Like other troubled youth, those with CU traits may be given the diagnosis of “conduct disorder” but they are more likely to become delinquents in adolescence and to become adults often diagnosed officially with the broader “antisocial personality disorder.” The psychiatric fields Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include a separate entry for psychopathy, though Hare is lobbying for one in the next edition.

“The majority of criminals would meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder but only 10 to 15 percent meet the criteria for psychopathy,” says Hare, who developed widely used psychopathy checklists for determining whether adults and juveniles as young as age 12 show psychopathic tendencies. Gang members, for instance, who kill or steal for their group might be viewed as people with antisocial personality disorder, or sociopaths. But unlike psychopaths, they may truly love — and would never hurt — their own families, and they also may feel guilt or remorse about their crimes. …

“You’re not born a psychopath but the foundation is there,” Hare says. “We’re all born with temperaments that can be shaped by the environment.”

Furthermore, most psychopaths aren’t violent offenders. Those raised in deprived environments may grow up to be street criminals, for instance, whereas those raised in privileged homes may become corporate criminals, says Hare. Others won’t be criminals at all.

Psychopaths may be influenced by a bad home environment but they also can come from seemingly happy, loving homes, where “no matter how much love mommy gives, the child just doesn’t connect,” says Hare.

Brain differences

Ochberg believes that genetics plays a strong role in the development of psychopathy, and that environmental influences are much less important. “I believe the building blocks of psychopathy are largely inherited,” he says, “and by 5 or 6 you either put together a normal conscience, a superego, or you don’t.”

Harris appears to be a case in point, says Ochberg. “I don’t think early life exposure contributed to his lack of conscience,” he says, nothing that Harris had a “conventionally good older brother.”

“My opinion is the die was probably cast by age 6 for psychopathy through no fault of his parents,” Ochberg says. “They seem, from what I was able to learn, perfectly capable of raising a normal child.” …

Averting destiny

Adult psychopathy is generally viewed as difficult or even impossible to treat, particularly for repeat violent offenders. Medications and talk therapy don’t work, according to Hare and others. Inmates may very convincingly say what they think counselors want to hear because it serves a purpose to them, such as getting paroled. And psychopaths outside of the prison system may never enter treatment. “No self-respecting psychopath is going to seek therapy in the real world because they don’t think there’s anything wrong with them,” says Hare. …

Experts agree that much more research is needed to understand why kids act out. And it’s misguided to lump them all into a single category of troubled youth and attempt to treat their problems in the same way. As Columbine showed, two kids who carry out the same act can be very different people at their core.

“There really is no profile of the school shooter,” says psychologist Mary Ellen O’Toole, who recently retired as a special agent with the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit. After Columbine, O’Toole authored an FBI report titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective.” …


10/10/09 Update

Columbine Killer’s Mom: ‘No inkling’ on Son

Mother’s anguish emerges in Oprah magazine essay on teen’s suicide

Image: Dylan Klebold
Dylan Klebold in a 1998 yearbook photo from Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo. (Photo credit: Anonymous / AP)

Oct. 10, 2009

DENVER — In the first detailed public remarks by any parent of the two Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold’s mother says she had no idea her son was suicidal until she read his journals after the 1999 high school massacre.

Susan Klebold’s essay in next month’s issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, says she is still struggling to make sense of what happened when her son and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher in the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in suburban Denver. Twenty-one people were injured before Klebold and Harris killed themselves.

“For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused,” she wrote. “I cannot look at a child in a grocery store or on the street without thinking about how my son’s schoolmates spent the last moments of their lives. Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love.”

The killers’ parents have repeatedly declined to talk about the massacre. They gave depositions in a lawsuit filed by families of the victims, but a judge in 2007 sealed them for 20 years after the lawsuit was settled out of court.

In her essay, Susan Klebold wrote that she didn’t know her son was so disturbed.

“Dylan’s participation in the massacre was impossible for me to accept until I began to connect it to his own death,” she wrote in excerpts released by the magazine ahead of Tuesday’s publication. “Once I saw his journals, it was clear to me that Dylan entered the school with the intention of dying there. And so in order to understand what he might have been thinking, I started to learn all I could about suicide.”

In a statement with the essay, Oprah Winfrey wrote that Susan Klebold has turned down repeated interview requests but finally agreed to write an essay for O. A spokeswoman for the magazine said Klebold was not paid for the essay, and there were no plans for her to appear on Winfrey’s television show.

A spokeswoman for the Klebold family said there would be no further statements.

In the essay, Klebold said her son left early for school on the day of the shootings.

“Early on April 20, I was getting dressed for work when I heard Dylan bound down the stairs and open the front door. Wondering why he was in such a hurry when he could have slept another 20 minutes, I poked my head out of the bedroom. ‘Dyl?’ All he said was ‘Bye.’ The front door slammed, and his car sped down the driveway. His voice had sounded sharp. I figured he was mad because he’d had to get up early to give someone a lift to class. I had no idea that I had just heard his voice for the last time.”

She said she had “no inkling” how sick her son was.

“From the writings Dylan left behind, criminal psychologists have concluded that he was depressed and suicidal. When I first saw copied pages of these writings, they broke my heart. I’d had no inkling of the battle Dylan was waging in his mind.”


04/27/2016 Update

Lessons from Columbine and Other Public Shootings

Opinion by Jeff Kass
Special to the Denver Post
April 18, 2014


In a 2002 study of school attacks, the U.S. Secret Service found that 93 percent of perpetrators “engaged in some behavior prior to the attack that caused others — school officials, parents, teachers, police, fellow students — to be concerned.” The Secret Service found that in 81 percent of the incidents, “at least one person had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack.” In another study of 30 adult mass murderers — defined as those who killed at least three people in one incident — approximately two-thirds telegraphed their intentions, what is known as “leakage.”

Words or actions that may be considered leakage include explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation; empathy with those committing violence; and an increase in unsolicited comments about guns, other weapons, and violent crimes, according to the Department of Homeland Security. …

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