Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

Massacre Mystery

Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, were obsessed with violent videogames, says journalist Joe Conason, with a fascistic subculture, and with paramilitary techniques.   They had collected an arsenal of semiautomatic guns and homemade bombs and had plotted a crime they hoped the nation would never forget.  If everything went according to plan, they would cause a lot of death and damage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and then they might just fly off together in a hijacked place to some remote island.  Or they might die.

Members of the Trenchcoat Mafia, so dubbed for their habit of wearing black trench coats, the two boys had long been bullied by classmates.   They disliked it and bided their time until they could wreak their revenge.  They spent their frustrated energy on their plan.

One day in April 1999, they sent an e-mail to the local police declaring that they were going to do something at the school.   They blamed parents and teachers in their community for turning their children into intolerant sheep and then announced their own suicide.  It was a disturbing forewarning.

At 11:30 a.m. on April 20, 1999, the boys hid weapons and bombs beneath their long trench coats and ran through the school, yelling at teachers and students and shooting at random.  When they reached the library, they cornered and killed their largest number of victims before turning their weapons on themselves.  It all happened quickly, but with devastating impact. After police got into the building, they counted 34 casualties, many of them dead.  Fifteen people had died in the melee, including the shooters.

Then Harriss diary turned up, which confirmed the elaborate plan.   For more than a year they had worked at it, drawing maps, collecting weapons, and devising a system of silent hand signals for coordinating their moves.  Behind closed doors in their parents' homes, they had spoken of death and of their lone-wolf idea of heroism.  The portrait that initially emerged was that they were angry, bitter kids who had access to guns, who identified with twisted ideas, and who were inspired by images of grandiose violence.  They did not care how anyone judged them.

Dr. Park Dietz
Dr. Park Dietz

A couple of years later, in September 2001, five members of the Threat Assessment Group (TAG), run by prominent forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, came into Littleton, Colorado, for a week to perform a psychiatric autopsy.   They hoped to interview friends, teachers and family, and to read through relevant documents to come up with an answer as to why Harris and Klebold had done this horrible thing.  They were experts in risk management and violence prevention and had worked with many companies on workplace violence.  They hoped to use this case as a way to teach others with troubled children how to watch for the signs and how to cope.

They started by going over the scene of the crime at the school.   They went to where the boys had parked and gone in, loaded down with weapons.  They wanted to see how the school had looked to them that morning.  As Park Dietz explained, the point was to try to understand what type of person this was, what is their personality, what are their habits.

They looked at home videos that the boys had made and considered the way they had thought the entire incident was a prank, something to joke about.   They looked at the computer games that they repeatedly played and movies they had watched (Natural Born Killers, for example). Every individual selects what influences they will expose himself to, said Dietz, so we had to decide why they chose these films, these games.  They looked over the diaries and the To Do list for the massacre.  At the end of this list, after setting off the bombs, one of them had written a reminder, Have fun.

The original plan had been to set off explosions and wait outside, picking off students as they rushed out.   But when the bombs failed, they went inside.  They may have realized then that it would end only with their deaths.  Once they were inside, there would be no getting out.   Survivors said they appeared to be having a good time. 

Due to pending lawsuits, many key people did not respond to TAGs requests for interviewsnotably members of the Harris or Klebold families.   That would prove to be a serious gap in their analysis.  Yet there were more than 50 people who did agree to talk about that day or about the offenders.  One boy admitted the two teens had been roundly humiliated.

In many ways, they appeared to be typical kids growing up, without any outstanding problems.   Their families, from the appearance of the homes and from reports of friends, seemed normal.  The town was upper-middle class.

The TAG members looked over the mental health records for both boys.   They had been in trouble before in a minor way and had been ordered to go through an anger management program.  Eric was taking Luvox, an antidepressant, and changes in Dylans outlook over the two years before the incident indicated depression as well.  They were both cynical, with a lot of anger.

Although TAG heard about a recurring dream Eric had recounted to a class about shooting teachers and students, and about Erics breakup with a girl, the team was denied access to the tapes that the boys made in the basement, another major gap in a psychiatric autopsy. 

Without all the facts, TAG could only hypothesize that anger grew out of resentment and depression from sadness.    These moods were reinforced with immersion in violent imagery.  That raised the emotional tone to rage and thoughts of suicide.  They had even once made a video, Hitmen for Hire, starring themselves.  They had already rehearsed for their ultimate day of violence.  Bullying was considered insufficient to explain the level of violence displayed, but the team left Littleton with more questions than answersquestions that could not be answered without cooperation from primary sources.

Many cases end without complete psychological closure, but that doesnt mean that they havent yielded suggestive information that can advance our understanding.   Next is a case that you can consider yourself as it unfolds.

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