On March 3, 2017, the older of two boys, Thomas Wyllie, uploaded a video to YouTube glorifying Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. By the end of the month, according to search history obtained by police, he had moved on to researching Nazism, before starting an Instagram account where he superimposed the heads of teachers from his North Yorkshire school onto figures from the Third Reich. He was 14, as was his younger partner Alex Bolland, thus neither could be named until July of 2018, when a judge lifted reporting restrictions on the case.
Later, Bolland told police he'd been bullied for four years by 11 people and had attempted suicide seven times. Despite knowing about the bullying, he said, the Northallerton school he and Wylie attended did nothing. So, in May, he messaged Wyllie, "I can't be bothered anymore," to which Wyllie replied, "Why not take others out as well? If you're going to kill yourself, shoot up the school."
Soon, Wyllie presented him with a map showing not just where they'd plant bombs, but where—according to Bolland—he'd stand and "mow people down." Then came screenshots from an e-book detailing nail bombs, fuse ignition, and homemade gunpowder. The tactics were familiar: The Columbine killers had planned to detonate bombs, drive people outside with the explosions, then pick them off as they came through the exits. In the end, their explosives failed and Harris and Klebold resorted to random shootings.
In June, Wyllie began seeing a girl. They connected over social media because of their interest in alternative clothes, music like Nirvana, and true crime dramas. The girl later said that she was already in a dark place and would self-harm. She told police, "When I self-harmed really badly, [Wyllie] would sit for three hours and listen to me and tell me I was worth something." She also said he would post pictures of murderers and videos of suicides on Instagram, and when he got messages from someone he didn't like, he'd reply with images of dead fetuses and miscarriages.
At Wyllie's house once, she said, he let her look through one of his diaries. It had "Natural Selection" written on the front—a reference to Eric Harris' T-shirt on the day of Columbine—and though it began with mentions of suicide, as it progressed, it became more and more about mass murder. She claimed that by then he spoke so much about Columbine she'd become desensitized—once telling classmates, according to police interviews, "Guess who's dating the school shooter"—but that she found these references to murder too much.
The girl told police how Wyllie tried to control her, saying that if she didn't pick up the phone in seconds he'd message her incessantly, asking what he'd done wrong. He also put pressure on her to stop her antidepressants and had her social media passwords because he said he didn't trust her. Then came the talk of tattoos—or, as he saw it, the talk of carving his name into her skin.
The first time, he turned up with a scalpel. Thankfully, she distracted him and they went to a farm show instead. The second time, he came with a penknife and dug it into her back. Halfway through, she asked him to stop—it hurt—but he continued and told her to shut up. Afterward, she remembered the silence. She remembered feeling numb. Though in court an Instagram message was read out where she said she "adored" having his name on her back, she also told police she'd tried cutting and burning the skin to remove it.
A classmate told police he'd heard the boys talking about wanting to die frequently, and that, once, Wyllie had taken a knife into school. He also said Bolland had shown him a picture of a gun and claimed to have made explosives. Truly revealing, though, was the information that they'd drawn up a "shopping list"—names of students they wanted to kill. When the classmate asked whether he was going to be killed, Bolland said, "We're only going to kill people on the hit list, but if you get in the way, probably."
The classmate said, "I had a weird feeling in my stomach. I didn't know if I would live tomorrow or not."
Police interviews further revealed that another student received a Snapchat message from Bolland in September saying they were going to shoot up the school, and when she asked if he was joking he replied, "No. No one innocent will die. We promise. We're not doing it for a while anyway because we don’t have guns atm."
Bolland then messaged Wyllie telling him to wear his trench coat to school the next day to scare people, before messaging his mother asking her to buy him one on eBay. Jokingly, she wondered if he thought he was in The Matrix—if he was going to wear it with sunglasses. "No," he replied. "Combat trousers." Those familiar with Columbine will know that Harris and Klebold wore trench coats for portions of the shooting, but that their significance was vastly overplayed by the media.
Perhaps because they were the first school shooters in the age of 24-hour TV news, Harris and Klebold—who murdered 13 on April 20, 1999—were heroes to those who followed in their footsteps. Seung-Hui Cho, for instance—the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 students and staff in 2007—considered them "martyrs," while Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the Finnish 18-year-old who murdered eight at his school the same year, had online aliases of "Natural Selector" and "NaturalSelector89."
Their main appeal, though, was their portrayal as victims of bullying and the belief that they acted in revenge. Though the bullying was proven to be exaggerated in, for one, Dave Cullen's investigative book Columbine (where Harris and Klebold were revealed to be bullies themselves) that didn’t stop the internet from doing what the internet does. Today, under every YouTube video on Columbine—like the one Wyllie uploaded in March 2017—vast amounts of young people sympathize with Harris and Klebold the same way they do under videos of Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
After the student received Bolland's Snapchat messages about shooting up the school, she showed them to staff and the boys were spoken to. In an interview with a teacher, Bolland said that some at the school were making his life intolerable, infecting the gene pool, and thus needed killing. He then quoted a "Satanic text," said the teacher during the trial, equating to "an eye for an eye." "He was emotionless about the plan," the teacher said. "It was the most dreadful thing that a student has ever said to me."
The same teacher would later learn from police that he, too, was on the boys' shopping list.
Meanwhile, Wyllie denied everything, not just to school staff, but the police who visited his home. He was given a warning to watch the jokes he made and had his Instagram account suspended, while Bolland was sent to a support worker. That was basically it for the time being, with police not realizing until later that, within minutes of them leaving, Wyllie was back online researching Columbine. Paul Greaney, a lawyer for the prosecution, said during the trial, "Once you have heard the evidence, you may conclude that the police in North Yorkshire responded inadequately."
Worth noting is that prior to the Dunblane school shooting in 1996—one of Britain's worst mass murders, was 16 children aged five and six were killed, along with a teacher—police had received three reports of the perpetrator, Thomas Hamilton, behaving aggressively toward children, about which, little was done.
North Yorkshire Police did, however, contact the Snapchat message recipient's parents to express concern over her safety, to which the parents responded by banning her from seeing Wyllie again. That was followed by them finding Nazi graffiti outside their home and, unbeknownst to them, their daughter receiving a message saying Wyllie was coming over to go "full NBK." NBK meant Natural Born Killers, an Oliver Stone film about a guy who murders his girlfriend's parents before embarking on a killing spree, which just happened to be Wyllie's favorite movie.
On October 21, the girl's mother found him in her daughter's bedroom in the middle of the night, dressed like Eric Harris in a "Natural Selection" T-shirt. Upon seeing her he fled into the street, wielding a "really big knife"—according to her testimony—in an image that still haunts her when she closes her eyes. Several weeks later, the knife was found by trees near the family's home by a four-year-old girl. The blade was seven inches long—on it, written in black marker: "Love."
That night, Wyllie called Childline [counseling service] and told them he'd run away from home. The person on the other end advised him to go to the nearest police station, which he did. The girl whose house he'd been at was so upset that, according to her mother, she tried swallowing bleach.
On October 23, police arrested Wyllie on suspicion of threatening to kill the girl's parents. At his home, they found a diary with "Helter Skelter" written on the front, a reference to the Beatles song Charles Manson believed conveyed information about an upcoming race war, used as justification for several of his cult's killings. On the inside cover, Wyllie had written, "Sorry if this is found I have committed one of the worst atrocities in British history or I killed myself."
It provided police with, they believed, a window into the boys' objectives, an entry written just before the arrest reading (all SIC), "I have a plan, a great fucking plan. Ill run away to Catterick [a nearby town] and lay low for a while then we murder her parents and well stay at her house for a while and get all of her dads guns and Ill make some explosives then well find a way back to Northallerton and well begin our assault on that fucking school.
"Great idea isnt it. Fuck, I hate my school. I will obliterate it. I will kill everyone."
Other entries in the diary—according to the girl, different to the one she opened—read like the monologues of Travis Bickle in the movie Taxi Driver, an unhinged Vietnam vet stalking New York City looking for revenge on a population he perceives as impure. "I just want to kill every single one of you fuckers," Wyllie wrote. "Everyone is filthy and deserve to be shot, including me. Ill play the role of god and decide who a let live and die. Humans are a vile species which needs to die out. The Human condition is a curse and burden."
The diary also revealed Wyllie's "love" for murderers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, Richard Ramirez, and of course Harris and Klebold, while a piece of paper recovered by police had German phrases translating to "Kill the Jews," "Gas the Jews," "They're in the attic," "Shower time," and "Hitler did nothing wrong."
Wyllie kept saying he was innocent, though, claiming when interviewed by police that his visit to the girl's house was simply to run away with her, not kill anyone. He also told them his diary and the plans in it were "hypothetical, just thoughts and feelings," and that he showed it to a mental health worker, the entries acting as "basically a sort of therapy." The mental health worker confirmed, however, that she had never asked him to keep a diary.
The notebook also contained a checklist of things like guns, knives, trench coats, and duct tape, written beside a key ingredient for firebombs, which was ticked and notated with "some but needs more." There were also recipes for napalm, gunpowder, and pipe bombs, the latter notated with. "Add shrapnel for fun." The diary, combined with information garnered through police interviews and a police search of a hideout the boys kept—where they found balaclavas, a bag of nails, and a bottle of gas—led them to arrest both of the boys on October 28, on conspiracy to commit murder at their school.
The trial began on May 3, this year at Leeds Crown Court. Bolland pleaded not guilty to the charge and Wyllie not guilty to the same, along with others of aggravated burglary (entering the girl's home with a knife) and unlawful wounding (carving his name into her back). They were portrayed as having "hero-worshipped" Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with the prosecution’s lawyer Paul Greaney repeatedly hammering home lines about everything being "real, not fantasy." The boys were 15 by the time of the trial.
Bolland had numerous character references read out, not just from those close to him, like his uncle, but also the parents of a friend and, in fact, the executive principal of the school. They described him as "polite," "helpful," and "well-behaved." Meanwhile, in an interview with police, he claimed that he would have never gone through with killing because it was "beyond me and evil," and though he believed Wyllie would have, he thought he mentioned it to others as a "cry for help" so that someone would stop him.
A jury of seven women and five men returned a guilty verdict on May 24, on the charge of conspiracy to murder for both boys, while Wyllie was also found guilty of unlawful wounding. The boys sat unmoving beside their crying mothers as the judgments were read out, and on July 20, Wyllie was sentenced to 12 years in prison with five on extended license, while Bolland was sentenced to ten.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.