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Schnurr's memory corroborated by other witnesses

By Susan Besze Wallace
Denver Post Staff Writer

Sept. 28 - Getting used to new dorm mates and studying for your first round of exams is a full plate for any college freshman.

Val Schnurr must also grieve the murder of a friend she's had since preschool. Fight through lapses in her ability to concentrate. Awaken each morning to a body riddled with 40 scars. And pray for moral guidance as the terror she experienced in the Columbine High School library con tinues to haunt her in different ways. Please do not refer to her, she asked, as the other girl who might have said "yes.'' She said she knows what she said that day, bleeding as she crouched on her hands and knees. The rest of the world knows Cassie Bernall as the girl killed after affirming her faith. It's now unclear if she did. Val, who was shot before she answered yes to believing in God, doesn't know. And that is why she hasn't said much more.

"I don't have anything to clear up,'' Val said in her living room over Columbine's homecoming weekend. "I don't want to be famous or deemed anything. I said I believed in God out of respect for myself and respect for God. That's it.''

After considering her response silently for a few moments, "frustrated'' is how 18-year-old Val describes her reaction to the legend of Cassie's last moments. In the days following the shooting, Cassie's story was repeated around the world, the label "martyr'' soon a part of it.

During those same days, Val lay in a hospital bed, ravaged by sawed-off shotgun pellets that had entered and exited her body 34 times. Mark and Shari Schnurr held vigil by their daughter's bedside, and she told them what had happened. How she and Lauren Townsend and three other friends were studying before AP English. How she saw the boots and heard the voices of two boys who pointed weapons under the library tables and fired. How she'd been praying silently when a blast hit her, propelling her out from under the table. How she was saying "Oh, my God, oh, my God, don't let me die'' when one of the shooters asked her if she believed in God.

Val said yes. He asked her why. She said, "Because I believe and my parents brought me up that way.'' She said she crawled away as he reloaded.

Investigators say Val's account has remained consistent and was corroborated by others. Investigators told Mark Schnurr that a student who helped authorities retrace the events in the library got physically sick when he realized it was Val's table, not Cassie's, that he was pointing out to authorities. "In the end it doesn't really matter who said what,'' Mark Schnurr said. "What matters to me is my daughter.''

Complex emotions

A father's simple declaration belies the complex emotions and decisions that have faced the Schnurrs for months.

The Bernalls, though told by investigators of the conflicting accounts, wrote a book titled "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.'' Shari Schnurr said she asked the book's editor not to rush the publication and to wait for more details.

But Misty Bernall was eager to share Cassie's other story, her transformation from a troubled teenager who threatened suicide to a Christ-loving girl eager to share her faith. Editor Chris Zimmerman said he had resolved any inconsistencies to their satisfaction. And so less than five months after the shooting, the book - with an introductory acknowledgement that the "exact details of Cassie's death may never be known'' - was released, marketed and titled on the premise that Cassie was shot after affirming her faith.

"Plough gets an A in marketing, an F in research,'' said Mark Schnurr. "Cassie's story (of transformation) would have been wonderful on its own.''

The book is a best-seller. A copy sent to the Schnurrs remains in its wrapper. They don't plan to read it because they know well Val's own account of the massacre.

Like several students affected by the nation's worst school shooting, Val has been asked to speak about her ordeal and has felt compelled to do so. But because her experiences have been less publicized than Cassie's, Val said she's been accused of being a copycat and her "real'' relationship with God has been challenged, once at a evangelical youth rally honoring Cassie and shooting victim Rachel Scott. That's where her frustration was born.

"It's hard to know what I experienced, to know what I know is real and then have it questioned - that's hurtful,'' Val said. "But you just give it up to God. You move on.

"The reason I'm saying anything about it now is that it's hard to keep quiet when everyone is talking. So one last time, this is what happened to me. ... I just don't want anything I say to hurt the Bernalls.''

"Sincerely apologize'

On Saturday the Bernalls released a statement saying that "if any of our actions have hurt or offended anyone, we sincerely apologize.''

Mark and Shari Schnurr, knowing more details of the investigation than Val and having heard the 911 tape of the library carnage, have their own hurdles. They are proud of a brave, strong, God-loving child. They don't want her to feel victimized yet again. "We thank God every day we still have her,'' said Shari Schnurr, who still wears a Columbine ribbon. "Val should be able to tell her story without people doubting her. The issue shouldn't be about who said what, it should be about kids and their faith.''

The Schnurrs discussed their concerns for Val and the Bernalls with close friends and clergy.

"Staying quiet isn't taking the high road, it's the right road,'' said Mark Schnurr. "It keeps our focus on our family.''

The book is not foremost on Val's mind. But the shooting, and childhood friend Lauren Townsend, who she tried to wake by rubbing her cheek, rarely leave her thoughts. She was too weak from her own wounds to carry Lauren out of the library.

"I feel survivor's guilt every day,'' she said. "It could have been me. She was a good person. ... There's got to be something to why I'm still here. ... So I'm looking for it.''

Her eyes appear moist, but she does not cry. Val is too overwhelmed to say much more about her friend's death. She e-mails and talks to the Townsend family regularly.

On campus at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Val hasn't said much at all about Columbine. Making new friends usually means answering, "Where you from?'' and, "What high school?'' but she says students have generally left it at that, and only those closest to her know she was shot.

"I get more questions from adults. They want to go deeper. They want to know if I knew (killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris). And I have a hard time talking to strangers.''

Val had a 3.6 grade-point average at Columbine and was a peer counselor who helped fellow students work through boyfriend-girlfriend issues and teacher problems. She felt she'd found her niche, and now counseling is her career goal. Perhaps in a school setting.

For now, she's concerned about how she did on that first round of college tests, trying to get involved on campus and find a church to augment the Bible study she's joined. Val was heartened to return for Columbine's homecoming last weekend and spend it with old friends who didn't bring up the shooting.

Val's eyes light up when asked about college life. She is glad she picked a campus far enough away for independence but close enough to do laundry free and grab hugs from family. The shooting has reinforced how precious her parents and younger sisters are. The mental recovery is more frustrating. Some days she is just down. Sometimes a flashback forces her to relive the shooting, complete with physical pain. Her ability to focus and her attention span have been affected by the trauma as well.

"I'm doing OK enough that I don't need to see anyone,'' she said. "I've always been pretty strong.''

Her parents nod. Her mother glances into "the Columbine room,'' a vast swamp of cards, books, get-well posters, newspapers and empty vases. The Schnurrs know well that what touched their daughter has touched the world. That's why Val and her father have agreed to speak to groups like Adams County mental health workers who are trying to learn from the Columbine tragedy.

"Speaking is nerve-racking, but I feel like it's something I should do when it arises,'' she said. "The more opinions out there the better. I don't want my sisters to go through this one day.''

Samantha, 7, and Ashley, 11, slipped in and out of the house quietly Sunday as their big sister spoke, then presented her with a notebook-paper drawing of what looked like a barn for her dorm. After repacking her weekend bag, finding misplaced keys, grabbing some gas money and giving some tight hugs, Val started the 80-minute drive back to Greeley.

Her mother cried.

The cooler weather, Val said with a laugh as she left, is a good thing. Long sleeves hide the purple scars up and down her arms. The four pellets that left the hospital with her have now been removed, but she still gets infections, still faces more surgery. She is grateful a table brace shielded her face from the gunfire.

"I hate looking at myself, but this is the way it's going to be. They are getting pinker,'' she said, surveying one arm. "Isn't it always frustrating to look at yourself in the mirror? You get through it, you keep going. I'm alive.

"So I'll look at them and remember, every day till I die. Which hopefully will be a long, long time away.''

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