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Why Does the Columbine Myth About "Martyr" Cassie Bernall Persist?

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Early in the Republican presidential undercard debate tonight, Rick Santorum dredged up a powerful old Columbine myth to defend Kim Davis, Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and to illustrate the steepness of America's moral decline. “Sixteen years ago,” he said, “this country was tremendously inspired by a young woman who faced a gunman in Columbine and was challenged about her faith and she refused to deny God. We saw her as a hero.”

The last part was true. Briefly. Cassie Bernall, a 17-year-old killed in the massacre, was an international sensation for about five months. Cassie rallies with fevered altar calls erupted around the globe. The biggest occurred at the Silverdome in Michigan, where Weekly Standard writer Josesph Bottum described how "73,000 teenagers wept along with sermon after sermon on her death.” Cassie's mother Misty Bernall wrote a bestseller: She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.  The story was reported virtually everywhere, by every legitimate outlet. I cringe to admit that I repeated the story in Salon that spring.

All the while, detectives and FBI agents leading the massive police investigation fretted over how to break it to the public that it was all a huge misunderstanding. In September 1999, I broke the news in Salon. The Rocky Mountain News, which had been investigating the story for months, followed the next day, with a much more detailed account. Emily Wyant, the little girl under the table with Cassie when it happened, came forward. Virtually every major media organization followed.

I don't begrudge anyone telling the myth in 1999. Everyone believed it. And in the end, there was no conspiracy or intent to mislead. One traumatized young boy made a simple mistake, and the story spread like fire. But it was thoroughly debunked 16 years ago, so why is Rick Santorum still misleading the public now?

Like most of the Columbine myths, the martyr story gained traction because it was based on a kernel of truth. A young girl did profess her faith in God at gunpoint, but she lived to tell about it. Her name is Valeen Schnurr. Ten years later, I sorted through the confusion again in my book, Columbine:

Val was shot before her exchange about God. Dylan pointed his shotgun under her table and fired several rapid bursts, killing Lauren Townsend and injuring Val and another girl. Val was riddled with shotgun pellets up and down her arms and torso. Dylan walked away.

Val dropped to her knees, then her hands. Blood was streaming out of thirty-four separate wounds. “Oh my God, oh my God, don’t let me die,” she prayed.

Dylan turned around. This was too rich. “God? Do you believe in God?”

She wavered. Maybe she should keep her mouth shut. No. She would rather say it. “Yes. I believe in God.”


“Because I believe. And my parents brought me up that way.”

Dylan reloaded, but something distracted him. He walked off. Val crawled for shelter.

Once she made it out, Val was loaded into an ambulance, transported to St. Anthony’s, and rushed into surgery. Her parents, Mark and Shari, were waiting for her when she came to. Val started blurting out what had happened almost immediately. She made a full recovery, and her story never varied. Numerous witnesses corroborated her account.

Val's table was on the inside edge of the library, near the hallway. A boy named Craig, hiding under a table in the middle of the library, heard the exchange, and for some reason thought it was Cassie. He made it out of the library, told friends, and the story took off. By Sunday, it was being reported by major media and proclaimed from pulpits around the world.

In reality, Cassie was hiding under a table at the far edge of the library, by the windows. Just one girl was under the table with her, Emily Wyant. They had wisely chosen to face each other, so they could stay in contact, but look past each other to get a 360-degree view of the room, at least at floor height.

[Emily] saw a kid near the counter jump or go down. The killers walked around a lot, taunting and shooting, and Emily got a good look at them. She had never noticed them before—she was a sophomore—but was sure she could pick them out again if she ever saw them again.

The girls whispered back and forth. “Dear God, dear God, why is this happening?” Cassie asked. “I just want to go home.”

“I know,” Emily answered. “We all want to get out of here.”

Between exchanges, Cassie prayed very quietly. Eric and Dylan passed by several times, but Emily never expected one of them to “come under the table” and shoot.

Eric stopped at their table, at Cassie’s end. Emily could see his legs and his boots, pointing directly at the right side of Cassie’s face. Cassie didn’t turn. Emily didn’t have to—she was facing perpendicular to Eric’s stance, so she could look straight at Cassie and see Eric just to her left at the same time. Eric slammed his hand on table, then squatted halfway down for a look. “Peekaboo,” he said.

Eric poked his shotgun under the table rim as he came down. He didn’t pause long, or even stoop down far enough for Emily to see his face. She saw the sawed-off gun barrel. The opening was huge. She looked into Cassie’s brown eyes. Cassie was still praying. There was no time for words between them. Eric shot Cassie in the head.

Everything was muffled then. The blast was so loud, it temporarily blew out most of Emily’s hearing. The fire alarm had been unbearably loud, but now she could barely hear it. She could see the light flashing out in the hallway. Eric’s legs turned.

Bree Pasquale was sitting there, right out in the open a few steps away, beside the next table over. It had been jammed with kids when she got there—she couldn’t fit, so she sat down next to it on the floor.

Bree was a bit farther from Cassie than Emily—the next closest person—but she had a wider view. She had also seen Eric walk up with the shotgun in his right hand, slap Cassie’s tabletop twice with his left, and say, “Peekaboo.” He squatted down, balancing on the balls of his feet, still holding on to the tabletop with his free hand. Cassie looked desperate, holding her hands up against the sides of her face. Eric poked the shotgun under and fired. Not a word. 

Investigators later brought Craig back into the library, where he indicated where the voice had come from—where Val had been, the exactly opposite direction of Cassie. And there was a wealth of additional information. Part-time art teacher Patti Nielson's famous 911 call from the library allowed to investigators to reconstruct most of the carnage moment by moment. Nielson eventually dropped the phone to take cover, but it continued recording, and the FBI lab enhanced the tape. Both eyewitnesses to Cassie's death—Emily and Bree—have been unequivocal about what happened right in front of them, as has lead investigator Kate Battan.

But something interesting happened once the truth came to light. Cassie’s church didn't back down. Hanna Rosin did a wonderfully thorough dissection of the rise and fall of the myth in the Washington Post.  Reverend Dave McPherson, Youth Pastor at Cassie's congregation at West Bowles Community Church, told Hanna, “You will never change the story of Cassie.... The church is going to stick to the martyr story. You can say it didn’t happen that way, but the church won’t accept it.”

He didn’t mean just his church; he meant the worldwide evangelical community. And to a large extent, he was right: this widespread debunking was met with widespread denial. She Said Yes was reissued in several formats and sold over a million copies. A vast array of websites sprang up to defend the erroneous story. Too many people had found too much value—spiritually or financially—in the myth to simply let it die. Which explains why 16 years later, a presidential candidate is still repeating it.