More About the Author
Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers is the first book of investigative journalism to tell the complete story of that day, the far-reaching consequences, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country.
Jeff Kass was one of the first reporters on the scene and has continued to cover the story as a staff writer for Denver's Rocky Mountain News.
He has broken national stories on the shootings such as leaked crime scene photos, and the sealed diversion files of the killers. He has also reported the story extensively for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report.
The persistence needed to write this book began when I was nine years old and started taking karate lessons. I was humming along until I got to the test for the mid-level green belt. I failed. The problem was the kata, or form, which was a pattern of about 20 blocks and punches, up and down, right and left, eventually ending up in the same position you started. The katas got more complicated the higher you progressed, and I just couldn't get it. My mom figured I would quit karate. But I kept trying - and failing - seven times, until I passed. I went on to get my black belt, teach karate, and win a junior international championship, fighting on stage at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Around the same time I was again rebuffed when I wanted to be in the audience of "Fight Back! With David Horowitz," one of the early consumer advocate shows. I loved the way journalists could bring out the truth and squash the bad guys. But the show did not allow young kids in the audience. I fought back myself and wrote a letter to show saying I thought the policy was unfair. Horowitz then invited me and my family on as special guests, and we got to sit on stage, and meet him afterward.
After graduating high school in Los Angeles I got a bachelor's in political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara and worked on the college paper, the Daily Nexus. I moved to Madrid for a year and a half where I learned Spanish, taught English, and traveled from Morocco to Bulgaria. It wasn't easy breaking into another culture, but it's a life changing experience, and I recommend it to everyone.
I also got into a dicey journalism situation in Madrid when I tried to cover fascists marching on the birthday of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. (I can't write that without recalling the famous line that goes something like, "General Franco is dead: Long Live Franco.") Things got a little out of hand and the Guardia Civil troops - a cross between a soldier and street cop - were tossing marchers into police vans. I walked up a side street and snapped some photos. One of the soldiers then tossed me into the van, and I pleaded with him that I was just a journalist. It was the early 1990's and Spain still had one foot in the conservative Franco era. Freedom of the press wasn't exactly a guiding light. The soldier finally came up with a compromise: He ripped open my camera - this is before digital - and tossed me and my film out of the van.
After Madrid I got a master's in International Relations from New York University. After grad school I had some job clips and knew I could be a good journalist but again, not everyone agreed with me. I must have applied to nearly 100 newspapers before I got hired at a start-up weekly called the Ventura Sun about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. From there I jumped to the Los Angeles Times where I covered everything from local government to the OJ Simpson custody case as OJ tried to get his children back after being acquitted in the criminal case.
In 1998 my editor from the Ventura Sun, Curtis Robinson, launched a weekly paper in Denver that would be a cross between the Village Voice and TIME magazine. He planned to take the concept national, and I moved to Colorado for the launch. The paper went out of business after a few months, and I contacted every major publication I could think of without a Denver bureau - Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report. I eventually started free-lancing for all of them: Eco-terrorism in Vail, Miss Colorado having her crown taken away, and the Matthew Shepard murder case in Wyoming. I also got a job at the Rocky Mountain News, where I still work and have covered some of the state's biggest stories.
The Rocky also allowed me to mix my love of travel and journalism. While in Cambodia, I hung out with an obscure U.S. military unit (JPAC) that searches for the remains of missing servicemembers. JPAC typically hires locals to help search through vast areas, and I figured it would be interesting to interview a couple Cambodian workers. "How does it feel to work with the U.S. military to find the remains of one of the servicemen who once tried to kill your people?" The problem was, no one told me the locals were not allowed to be interviewed without a Cambodian police official present. The ranking police official there was not happy when he found out, and said there would be no interviews at all with locals. Good thing I tried that on my last day on the story.
For a couple stories on donations and business between Colorado and Cuba, I entered Cuba on a tourist visa because the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC never got back to me. I then walked into the Cuban press office in Havana and told them I needed a journalism visa. I expected to be kicked out of the country, but got the visa. The only catch was they had to rearrange my passport, so I traveled in Cuba for two weeks without a passport. Try that for fun.
Along the way, Curtis introduced me to Hunter S. Thompson. The first night we met I was nearly speechless. Safer, I reasoned, not to say anything rather than say something dumb. I think I read out loud from one of Thompson's books - a favorite pastime. I told Thompson one of my favorite stories, about his conservative opponent in the sheriff's race who sported a buzz cut. Thompson shaved his head so he could call the other guy "my long-haired opponent." Thompson grinned, and called me a punk reporter. It was a compliment, and I would end up covering Thompson for the last five years of his life (surely, one of the oddest beats in the history of journalism) and became the only reporter to cover both his funeral and a separate memorial service.
A copy of the first story I wrote about Thompson ended up at the Colorado Womens Correctional Facility in Canon City. Among the inmates was Lisl Auman, serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1997 felony murder of a Denver police officer. She had read Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas three years earlier but was stirred by the newspaper profile to write him. What followed was Thompson's five-year crusade - aided by a beehive of attorneys - to Free Lisl. Her conviction was overturned shortly after his suicide in 2005.
One of the constants over the past 10 years has been Columbine. The April 20, 1999 shootings touch on psychology, policing, parenting, grieving, racism, and cover-ups, to name a few. It is the ultimate cops story.