Columbine victim’s dad still wears the shoes he was killed in
Daniel Mauser was killed 20 years ago, but the massacre's terrible legacy prevails, his father says
Tom Mauser still lives in the same house as when his son, Daniel, was 15. He still drives past Daniel’s high school and, now and then, wears his son’s shoes. It is his way of marking, quietly, the boy he lost 20 years ago in the Columbine Massacre.
Then the deadliest school shooting in American history, it has gone on to define two decades of copycat killings in which hundreds of innocent children have been slain in the place they should have been safest.
Columbine’s awful legacy means we are reaching the point, Mauser says, where “every city in America is going to have its name associated with some terrible mass shooting”.Between rolling news coverage and the darker corners of the internet, the ability to learn about how such horrors might be enacted never abates. Only last week, a manhunt was launched for Sol Pais, an 18-year-old who had become “infatuated” with Columbine, sparking fears that she was planning to replicate the shooting. Pais had written disturbing posts online, bought a gun and travelled to Denver, sending threats to several schools and forcing them to close. She was found dead in nearby woodland, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot, on Wednesday.
A memorial service was held in local Clement Park on Friday night to commemorate those who did not return home from Columbine High School on April 20 1999. And the Mausers were visiting their son’s grave, as they do every year, then “lay low and wait for it to pass”.
“It’s a terrible day for us,” says Mauser. “It always feels pretty lousy.”
Daniel was a gentle boy with a dry sense of humour; a straight-A pupil who ran cross-country, was on the debate team, and spent his spare time playing computer games with friends, or table football with his father. For Mauser, he remains that way; time has stood still. “I do not think about what he would be doing or what kind of job he would have. I can’t,” he explains. “To me, he is still 15.”
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were 17 and 18 when they committed the premeditated attack that would permanently scar this hitherto quiet community in Colorado’s suburban southwest. When they opened fire on their fellow students that Tuesday morning, the pair had already planted homemade bombs in the school canteen and in a field, a few kilometres away, in an attempt to divert emergency services. Over 16 minutes the pair went on an indiscriminate shooting spree, firing at pupils on the lawns outside the school, in the cafeteria and in the library – where they later killed themselves.
Thirteen people died – 12 pupils and a teacher – and a further 24 were injured, including 17-year-old Anne Marie Hochhalter, who was paralysed from the waist down. Daniel was their final fatality.
The motive has never been fully understood, but the FBI concluded, from journals and videotapes, that both killers probably had mental health problems. By the time they took their own lives, 188 rounds of ammunition had been fired.
Tom was at work, at Colorado’s department of transportation, when a colleague told him something was happening at Columbine High. At first he wasn’t worried – Daniel was a good kid who steered clear of trouble. But his co-workers urged him to go home, where he met his wife Linda. They began exchanging panicked questions: why hadn’t Daniel called? On the radio, Mauser heard reports that a 15-year-old had been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds, at which point “my heart suddenly sank”.
He had driven to a nearby school, where Columbine pupils were being taken for safety, but his son – blond and bespectacled, easy enough to spot – was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, Mauser left, driving in such a panic that he slammed into a speed bump, flinging the car into the air. Back at home, he and Linda felt “helpless” – a feeling only prolonged after the sheriff’s deputy rang their doorbell at 11pm and told them there would be no news until morning.
After the tragedy, Tom and his wife Linda had grief counselling. “We knew we needed help,” he says. Many families were left broken: six months after the shooting, Anne Marie Hochhalter’s mother, Carla, walked into a shop, asked to see a gun and then turned it on herself. It is a horror that has been echoed in the aftermath of America’s other school shootings. Only last month, Jeremy Richman – the father of six-year-old Avielle, killed at Sandy Hook in 2012 – took his life, as did two pupils from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland where 17 were murdered in 2018.
“It’s an important reminder that these tragedies don’t just end,” says Tom, who, in his meetings with other families affected by school shootings, has seen many turn to drugs and alcohol, desperate to numb the agony. In the week after Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and six teachers were killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, anguished parents asked how he coped with the suffering so many years on. “It kind of eases with time,” he told them then, but he admits their questions were “very difficult. What advice can you give?”
Now aged 67, Tom has worked hard to reform the country’s “shameful” gun control laws – an issue that played on Daniel’s mind. Two weeks before his death, over a family dinner, he had pointed out legal loopholes that meant guns could be bought without the need for background checks or any record of purchase from “private” sellers, who often operate out of gun shows. It was at one such event, in November 1998, that Klebold’s girlfriend would buy the weapons later used at Columbine.
Notoriously, just 10 days after the massacre, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its national convention in Denver, a 30-minute drive from the school. The mayor urged them to cancel, but they were vociferous, as was the crowd of 8,000 who turned up in protest. Tom was among them. Holding a banner reading “Don’t let my son’s death be in vain” and wearing the scuffed trainers that 15-year-old Daniel had on his feet when he died – and which his father still puts on every time he speaks about his son in public – he told them: “I am here today because my son would want me to be here.”The following year, he took a year out from his job to lobby the government on gun laws, which resulted in arms purchasing loopholes in Colorado being closed. That success “meant everything to me”, Tom says. “You need to do what you think your child would want ... That’s what helps me go on. I think he would be proud of the things that I’ve done in his name.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)