NewsColumbine: 25 Years Later


‘Behind the scenes’ for 25 years, Columbine father Michael Shoels speaks out: 'It's time'

Michael Shoels and his family faced a barrage of criticism immediately after the tragedy.
Posted: 5:33 PM, Apr 17, 2024
Updated: 2024-04-19 22:12:23-04
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CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — In an 1800s-era parlor room on Austin Peay State University’s campus, Michael Shoels looked around, commenting on how long it has been since he last sat in front of a camera.

"I tried my best to ignore your calls," he said, sitting in a chair. "Around this time of year, I put my phone on block."

More than two decades have passed since Michael's last interview, and 25 years have come and gone since the tragedy that would change the trajectory of his life.

“My name is Michael Shoels,” he said, after several minutes of reassurances that he would be able to speak about anything pertaining to his family’s story. “I’m the father of Isaiah Shoels. He was one of the victims that was taken out so early in his life behind this plague that’s going on in America today — not only here in America, but we're talking about the whole world now.”

Over the hour that followed, Michael spoke about his views on what happened at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

He shared his thoughts on youth violence, school shootings, and his son Isaiah, whose death launched him into the national spotlight while he endured unimaginable grief.

"Any man in the world would love to have him as a son"

Isaiah Eamon Shoels was born on Aug. 4, 1980.

Beautiful. He was energetic, I mean, he was humorous," Michael said. "Any man in the world — I ain't gonna say in America or here in Tennessee — any man in the world would love to have him as a son because he was a respectful young man. He understood what life was, even at his age so all I can say is he was Mr. Beautiful."

Isaiah and Michael and Vonda Shoels

Michael said one of his son's favorite activities was making his loved ones laugh.

“I mean, he was a jokester," he said. "He had that — he was a natural. I mean, he could’ve been one of the biggest and one of the greatest… We can only wonder if he would’ve made it."

Isaiah also loved music.

“That’s in his DNA," his father said. "I’ve been in music. I was in music before they even got here. I’ve been a music producer ever since 1980 and a music executive."

Michael said Isaiah even talked about joining the music business, but he wanted to accomplish a few other goals first.

"I asked him to come on and join me after he got out of school but you know what he said? He said, 'No, dad. I want to go to school. I want to go to college,'” Michael said.

He said Isaiah had already picked out a few colleges he was interested in, with Virginia Tech topping the list.

“A whole lot of people won’t believe that, but that was one of his chosen schools: Virginia Tech," Michael said. "Him and his friends — they talked about it. When this happened, it just took everything away from me. You understand what I'm saying? It just drained everything because that was my legacy. You see, when I found out he no longer breathes, that was — I mean, that took everything away."

"Tears came to both our eyes because we knew that was it"

Michael took a deep breath as his memory brought him back to April 20, 1999. He began recounting details of the day he said altered his reality.

“Well, I was in my office at the house," he recalled. "I was going over paperwork, you know, finishing up contracts and things that we were getting ready to take out to L.A. And my wife — I heard the phone ring and my wife screamed. She screamed, 'Mike, we gotta go.' She screamed and said, 'There’s been a shooting, there’s been a shooting.' (I said,) 'What you talking about?' 'Up at the school,' and she didn’t have to say nothing else.”

Michael and his wife Vonda rushed to Columbine High School.

Within a few hours, they found their son Anthony and daughter Michelle, who were also Columbine students.

“Thank God for that teacher — he saved a whole lot of them and changed this whole thing around. Coach Sanders, if it weren’t for him... He will always be a hero in my mind because he saved my child," Michael said. "He stood in front of my child and directed her the other way… My daughter, she told us this. My daughter, she still loves this man because he saved her life. He pushed her and told her to go the other way and he turned to start assisting other children and that’s where he met his demise right there."

But as the minutes turned to hours and day turned to night, Isaiah was still unaccounted for.

“My son's coach, one of his coaches, was very fond of him and we were all friends, kind of, sort of," Michael said. "And when he got that phone call, he looked directly — me and him made eye contact. And when I looked at him and he looked at me, tears came to both our eyes because we knew that was it. They had found him."

Michael said what followed were days of shock, pain, and initially, an outpouring of support from the Columbine community and beyond.

"I buried him in his cap and gown"

Nearly 5,000 mourners attended Isaiah’s funeral on April 29, 1999.

Michael said he was only allowed to see his son a few days before the ceremony.

“They won’t let you see your son in the morgue because it’s so much controversy going on," he said. "They won’t let you in the morgue to see him. You got to wait until he gets to the funeral home to see him."

Michael said that wait was painful, but actually seeing his son's body was life-altering.

Isaiah Shoels

“I mean, that was bad. That was really really bad," he recalled. "No man, no woman, no human being, person period, should have to see their kids laying there behind somebody else’s bullet. That almost took me out. I’m going to go on and be honest with you, it almost took me out.”

When Isaiah died, he was just three weeks away from graduation.

“I buried him in his cap and gown because that’s one reason we were still there," Michael said. "He asked us to let him stay there (at Columbine) because we were packed up. We were getting ready to move."

"And if they say I’m playing the race card, let them say it"

As Michael reflects on the weeks and months that led up to his son’s death, he recounted Isaiah, Anthony, and Michelle telling stories about bullying at Columbine High School.

“We had problems after we got there with this certain group of children, by my children being minorities in the school,” Michael said. “You got this one particular group running around there, just demolishing our minority children. Throwing them in trash cans, putting them in lockers… That’s why I went to the school. We went to the school district and told them this (somebody getting hurt) was going to happen and you know what they told us?: 'Let our kids grow up and go to class.'”

Michael said Isaiah got in trouble with school administrators because he stood up against students who were picking on his siblings.

Michael said he wanted to move his children to a Denver public school, but Isaiah begged to finish out the school year and graduate from Columbine.

“He wanted to walk with his friends, you know, the people he went to school with," Michael said. "He wanted to walk with them. And he begged us. I mean, now that’s a regret if I ever had one right there, because we should’ve said no."

The Shoels family is adamant that Isaiah’s killing was a hate crime. That claim was followed by a barrage of criticism and denial from some community members who do not think the shooters targeted Isaiah.

“When they came in that school, they knew who they were looking for," Michael said. "And if they say, I’m playing the race card, let them say it. They said 'Where’s that little n*****?' Who else could they be talking about? The world knows it’s a hate crime."

Columbine father Michael Shoels speaks out to Denver7: Full, unedited interview

“They have to be accountable for what he did"

As the Shoels family continued their search for answers to what happened to their son, they simultaneously demanded accountability from the parents of the shooters.

Citing negligent parental supervision, Michael and Vonda filed a $250 million against the parents — a move that, again, garnered criticism. That lawsuit was settled in the early 2000s.

For Michael, recent events have affirmed his family’s decision to file.

What made me stand up and really feel that something is going to get done is when they got those parents there in Michigan,” Michael said, referencing the Oxford High School shooting.

“They have to be accountable for what he did and I think that the right thing was done," he continued. "They needed to be accountable. Because I really believe if that would’ve happened back in 1999 — have some accountability — we wouldn’t be having a lot of these shootings going on today.”

"We are fighting to stay as normal as we can"

Even before the tragedy, living in Littleton was no longer an option for the Shoels family. In 1999, they were preparing to move to Denver.

“The skulls and bones didn’t put themselves on my wall on the house we were having being built," he said. "We were having a house built in Denver, Colorado, in Green Valley Ranch, and someone vandalized the house before they put the paneling and stuff in it."

So, the Shoels family moved to Houston, where they remained until Hurricane Harvey tore through the city. Michael and Vonda have now settled into life in Clarksville, Tennessee.

“You probably want to know what we are doing today, my family. And all I can say is one day at a time, because I’ll be lying if I say we done came up with some closure," Michael said. "I’ll be lying if I say we done found a path to where we can heal. We’re going that way. I mean, believe me, we are human and we are fighting that way. We haven’t stopped living. So, we are fighting to stay as normal as we can, but we will never ever be able to replace that link that’s been torn away from this family chain.”

Michael said he has found joy through his children and grandchildren. Michael said his son Anthony and daughter Michelle, who survived the shooting, are doing well in their careers.

“My son Anthony, he’s a chief master sergeant in the Air Force right now,” Michael said.

He said Michelle is an executive for a major company.

"I have to forgive them, but I promise you, I’ll never forget it"

There was a time when it was hard for Michael to think about forgiving the shooters and their parents. But he said the time for forgiveness has come.

“Through our father God Jehovah, I have to forgive them, but I promise you, I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I can’t forget it and I will never forget it because they (the shooters) shouldn’t have done what they did. I don’t have my son today. If they (the parents) just would’ve called authorities and said, 'These are my children, they’re messing up, they’re getting ready to do something,' my baby would be here today. My whole world would be different.”

The Shoels family has not been in contact with other victims’ families in more than a decade, but Michael said he is open to reconnecting.

“God bless us all, we all lost that day. We all went through the same tragedy," Michael said. "That made us family. That brought us together because we all lost that day. We all lost important parts of our families. I’m talking about from the coach to the last child, mine. I’ve been out of touch for a while, a long time, but if you ever need me to talk, or you ever need me to do anything, you can get in contact with me.”

Advocating for change while remembering Isaiah

In March 2023, from his Tennessee home, Michael watched the tragedy unfold at The Covenant School in Nashville, where a shooter killed six people, including children.

Michael said he knew then that he could no longer be silent.

“That Nashville shooting, when I seen them babies, them carrying babies out, that’s what did it," he remembered. "And that was the pinnacle of: You better open your damn mouth, you better open your mouth, because it's time. It’s time. Even though it hurts me. It still hurts right now to talk about it, but it needs to be talked about because this disease — or should I say this anger and anxiety and hatred that’s causing these kids to kill one another — needs to stop and they need to understand that life is only for a season. And they need to try to live it as long as they can.”

Part of Michael's plan to help end youth violence includes reviving the nonprofit he started in honor of Isaiah.

Let’s Stomp Out Hate is about to be going again. It’s about to open back up. It’s a nonprofit organization that I had going all over the world,” he said.

Michael said the organization’s restart is part of his renewed effort to tell Isaiah’s story and do what he can to save lives.

Emotionally, he has come a long way since the Columbine tragedy, but he will never completely leave Colorado behind, he said.

“It’s hard for me to go back to Denver," he explained. "I’m going to be honest with you. It’s hard for me to go back. But I have to. It’s my duty to go back. My baby is buried there. That’s where his final resting place is and I have to make sure that he’s OK."

Michael said his family makes two trips a year to visit his son.

“We picked a particular place out and it was just a small little tree by his grave. Now that tree is big," he said. "That tree has grown and that makes me feel like there’s something there that’s still growing. That might sound crazy to you. That might sound crazy to a whole lot of people, but to me, that tree represents growth. The children are the roots of our nation. And if we keep on letting them get killed or letting them die, what are we going to do?”

He said something must be done.

“Us as a people are going to have to say enough is enough," he said. "We need to come on and bring this village back together and let’s save our children."
Editor's Note: Michael Shoels talked exclusively to Denver7's Micah Smith. It is his wish that the entire hour-long interview be publicized. That video is below.

Columbine father Michael Shoels speaks out to Denver7: Full, unedited interview

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