ROCHESTER, Minnesota, U.S.A. — In a town of 25,000 people, no one suspects the kid she sits next to in class may someday be a mass murderer.
At least Abi Tenebaum and Jessica Sapel never thought Eric Harris — now one of the infamous Columbine High shooters — would cause such terror and devastation.
Harris, who with his friend Dylan Klebold gunned down a dozen fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves in an April 20 attack at their high school in Littleton, Colo., was a former middle school classmate of Tenebaum and Sapel’s in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Tenebaum, now a 17-year-old senior at Mayo High School in Rochester, Minn. and Sapel, an 18-year-old senior in Plattsburgh, each knew Harris when his family lived on the local Air Force base.
Plattsburgh, on the western shore of Lake Champlain in the northernmost part of New York, is less than 25 miles from the Canadian border.
Tenebaum said Harris was a “normal sixth grader,” and “not one of the outcasts.”
Sapel called Harris a “good kid” and “sweet.”
He “never struck me as someone who would do this,” said Sapel.
Although there have been reports that Harris and Klebold chose the date because it was Hitler’s birthday and singled out a black student and athletes as victims for their savage attack, both teenagers said when Harris lived in Plattsburgh he never showed signs of any hatred toward those groups.
According to Tenebaum, Harris dated a Jewish girl, Sarah Davis.
Davis and Harris apparently remained friends after Harris left town, exchanging messages via e-mail.
Contacted recently in Plattsburgh, Davis didn’t want to talk about Harris. “It’s been difficult,” she said.
Sapel said she didn’t believe the news that Harris had targeted a black student. She said Harris’ two best friends in Plattsburgh were an Asian student and a black student.
Harris was also an active athlete who played Little League in the town.
Tenebaum said that Harris associated with “preps,” but said he wasn’t “an annoying prick.”
Sapel can’t imagine how this gentle middle schooler turned into a trench coat toting criminal, but she thinks Harris began having problems after his family moved from New York to Colorado, during their seventh grade year.
“It didn’t happen to him here (in Plattsburgh),” Sapel said. “None of us can imagine what happened.”
In Plattsburgh, Harris was a “nice, normal kid” who wore “jeans, t-shirts, and sweat shirts,” Sapel said.
If any group of students in the country have stopped to think twice about the massacre in Columbine, it’s the students of Plattsburgh.
When she heard from a local newspaper reporter about Harris’ role in the killings, Sapel said, her mouth just dropped. She said she was amazed that “something like this could happen to someone I know.”
At first, Sapel said, getting attention from the national media who came to the town to talk about the incident, “was kinda exciting.”
But the attention soon became too much.
Sapel said she felt like telling the media to “go away.”
“We don’t want to talk about this. It isn’t a news story, it’s a tragedy,” she said.
Now Sapel said teenagers in her town are wondering what might have happened “if [Harris] had stayed here” instead of moving to Colorado just five years ago.
“We’re glad it didn’t happen to us,” said Sapel. “It could have been us.”
Amanda Lehmert and Jessica Majerus are Reporters for Youth Journalism International.