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Angry parents cut down 2 trees

Church planted 15 for those who died at school, including Harris and Klebold

By Jeff Kass
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

JEFFERSON COUNTY -- Parents of slain Columbine High students marched into a church prayer garden Sunday morning and sawed down two trees planted for the families of the two gunmen.

The 10-foot trees came down as services were under way inside West Bowles Community Church in Littleton. Sheriff's deputies and some church members watched from afar in silence.

No one was arrested, but the unusual protest capped a religious and moral debate that has been brewing for more than a month.

Church pastor George Kirsten said 15 linden trees were planted about two weeks ago to acknowledge the heartache suffered by the families of all those who died in the shooting, including the killers.

"We intend no offense to anyone who holds a different view than we do," Kirsten said in handouts given to church members Sunday. "And we earnestly implore that anyone who disagrees with us try to understand our underlying motive."

But protesters called the gesture insensitive to those who lost family members in the shooting. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot themselves after killing 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School April 20.

"Did we honor Hitler's mom and dad? No," said Al Velasquez, father of slain student Kyle Velasquez. "How do we even know that the Harrises and Klebolds want this?"

A similar incident happened this spring when parents objected to 15 crosses erected on a hill overlooking Columbine High. Parents tore down the crosses for Harris and Klebold.

Kirsten did not yet know whether the church would replant the two trees.

Protesters carrying signs arrived Sunday at 8 a.m., before the first service started at the Evangelical Presbyterian church.

Almost 50 men, women, and children circled near the church entrance as some members stared through windows. Others set out thermoses of coffee for the protesters. Some church members engaged in a debate over forgiveness with the protesters.

Churchgoers stood by the church's decision to plant 15 trees.

"The two families really were hurt, too," said Drew Goheen, 14.

Pat McGuire, 14, another youth group member, said, "If we have more hate through this, when does it stop?"

The parents of Daniel Rohrbough and Matt Kechter's father were among the protesters to decry trees planted for their sons' killers. They were joined by friends and family members.

"They said they're doing this for the families. Well, nobody told me," Velasquez said. "I don't want Kyle to be honored in the same place as the murderers."

Velasquez and the others then entered the prayer garden.

They nailed placards to each tree with the names of those killed by Harris and Klebold.

They chose to cut down two trees in the middle of the arc that were nearly bereft of leaves.

In front of the first tree Velasquez, 46, got down on his knees and used a saw owned by Daniel Rohrbough's father, Brian.

The crowd was silent. The only sound was the smooth buzz of the saw rubbing into the wood. The 10-foot tree fell after about four minutes. The crowd applauded.

Rich Petrone, Daniel Rohrbough's stepfather, then felled the second tree in about a minute.

"I was getting all my anger out on that tree," Petrone said. "It felt good."

The church first planned a memorial to honor Cassie Bernall. She attended the church, and some say she professed her belief in God before being shot.

The church eventually decided to include all 15 families.

But both sides agree Kirsten then promised not to plant 15 trees after listening to the concerns of some of the victims' families on Aug. 24.

Kirsten said the church finally received 15 trees from a nursery and decided to plant them all.

Kirsten acknowledged he should have informed the victims' families of the change in plans.

But he stressed: "In no way is this to memorialize or to honor Eric and Dylan."

Instead, it was an attempt to help their families.

He later added, "If I knew that a church had planted a tree for my lost son, I would be thrilled."

Finally as the protesters left, members of the church youth group that had planted the trees silently filed into the garden.

They picked up the fallen trees, plunged them back into the ground next to the stumps and walked away.

September 27, 1999