June 4, 2018

The Unsolved Columbine Valentine's Day Murders

Columbine High School put itself on the unfortunate true crime map in 1999 when two of its students went on a deadly rampage through the hallways, killing twelve classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives.

Less than a year later, two more students were dead only blocks from the school.

Stephanie Hart-Grizzell, 16, and Nicholas Kunselman, 15, were the stereotypical high school sweethearts.  Both Columbine High sophomores, the couple had been dating for two years.  Stephanie loved poetry.  Nick was a champion junior disc golf player.  Both adored the arts and music and were inseparable.

In January of 2000, Nick started a part-time job at the local Subway sandwich shop, only blocks from Columbine.  Despite his youth and new-hire status, by February the manager was allowing Nick to close up shop.

He was working the closing shift on Sunday, February 13, 2000.  Stephanie, in her pajamas, had told her mother Kelly she would finish up homework before going to sleep.  It was the last time Kelly would see her only child alive.  Stephanie snuck out of the home to meet Nick at Subway and keep him company.  It was something Kelly Grizzell said Stephanie had never done before.

It was after midnight when a co-worker drove by the sandwich shop, noticed the lights on and became concerned as to why the shop lights were still on.

Stephanie and Nick, found behind the counter, had been shot to death.

Kelly Grizzell noticed her daughter's car missing from the driveway when she woke on Valentine's Day morning.  The Subway shooting was the top story on the morning news.  She heard two people had been found dead and saw her daughter's car out front during the live reporting.

Witnesses reported seeing a young man walking away from Subway around the time Stephanie and Nick were discovered.  He was white, 16 to 20 years of age, clean shaven with blonde hair, standing around 5'8", wearing blue jeans, a black jacket with red liner and/or a red shirt, white tennis shoes and a black ball cap. A composite drawing was made and released by authorities.

Within a few days, Subway offered a reward for information leading to the killer or killers of Stephanie and Nick.  Around the same time, two wooden crosses, five feet in height, were erected outside the Subway shop in memory of the two teens.

On Saturday, February 19, the young couple were buried side by side at Mount Lindo Cemetery; their shared memorial reads Together in Peace Forever.

Knowing the city was still raw from the mass shootings at the school the previous year, as well as the murder of an 11 year old boy on February 1, Littleton investigators tried to work quickly on the Subway case.  Murder-suicide was ruled out.  Robbery was ruled out as a motive when it was discovered nothing had been taken from the till.  Fellow students were investigated when a jealousy angle cropped up but there appeared to be no solid evidence.  The video surveillance did not capture the shooting. Records of police calls, however, revealed some interesting facts.

Since August of 1998, police had visited the location 17 times.  Four of those calls were logged as "juvenile problems;" the last one being on January 17.  The other calls were about curfew violations, theft, fire assistance, domestic disturbance and liquor offenses.

It was also discovered that drugs were bought and sold out the back door of Subway.  Some said it was weed; others implied that cocaine and meth were also on the menu.  It was rumored that Nick and possibly Stephanie may have been recreation drug users.  

In an uncomfortable coincidence, Columbine victim Rachel Scott -- the first student shot -- had worked at Subway up until her death.  Was it more than coincidence?

It was also rumored that both Nick and Stephanie had known, and been friends with, Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers.  If true, did this have anything to do with their deaths?

The drug angle seemed the likeliest motive but would two teenagers be shot over some weed?  Or was it something much larger, like trafficking?  Could Stephanie and Nick been the victims of a hit?  Would someone have done that, when the media was still focused on Columbine?  And would a killer, just having executed two teens over drugs -- whether it was weed or something bigger -- leave money in the cash register?

The police followed hundreds of leads, some of them as far away as Florida and South Carolina.  Several people confessed but the confessions were found to be false.  More than 50 drug cases were investigated.  More than 150 items were logged into evidence.  That evidence, including fingerprints and some DNA, turned up no new suspects.  The leads went nowhere and the case went cold.

Conspiracies popped up, including that the killer or killers never set foot inside the Subway shop but executed Stephanie and Nick from a building across the street.  Alleged bullet holes in the front window were cited as proof, as well as the lack of anything on the surveillance video.

In July of 2000, Subway's owner was fined nearly $19,000 for violating child labor laws in having Nick to close up the restaurant alone.  Federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 16 working past 7 p.m. on a school night, or 9 p.m. on non-school nights.

In February of 2001, Stephanie's mother Kelly filed a wrongful death suit against Subway.  Her attorney asserted in pleadings that Subway's owner knew of the drug use going on at the shop and did nothing about it.  It was also claimed that the surveillance camera had been off that night, so as not to capture employees' drug use.  Kelly Grizzell also claimed in her pleadings that Nick had let the killer into the shop through the back door after closing time.   The case was dismissed in September of 2001.

Nick's family, receiving Nick's workers compensation, were not allowed to sue on his behalf.

The owner of the Subway shop at the time of the murders sold it in October of 2001.

In January of 2002, three people were shot to death at a bowling alley in Littleton.  The motive for that crime was identified as robbery and it was determined not to be related to Stephanie and Nick.  That case too remains unsolved.

Nick's father and stepmother would leave Littleton and move near Grand Junction.  His mother,  Wendy, would relocate to Missouri.  She was living in Trenton, Nebraska in July of 2012 when she passed away.  She was cremated and some of her ashes were spread over Nick's grave.

I don't believe the executions of Stephanie and Nick -- and they were executions -- had anything to do with the Columbine school shootings.

I think Nick may have known his killer.  It's possible, if Kelly Grizzell's accusations are true, that he let the person in, believing he was there to buy or sell drugs.  In all likelihood, the murderer was also a teenager.  Why did the night result in murder?  Until a good suspect is identified, it's difficult to say.  It could have been a disagreement over drugs.  It could have been because Nick had nothing to do with drugs.  No money was taken from the register; it could have been because the killer was scared and/or upset at what he had done and fled the scene.

There is also the possibility that, despite the business going on at the shop, drugs had nothing to do with the crime.  Could Stephanie have had an admirer that wanted Nick out of the picture?  She wasn't supposed to be there that night.  In all likelihood, Stephanie was, sadly, collateral damage.

The most surprising thing, at least to me, is that the offender -- surely a teen  -- did not confide in someone.  Or if he did, that someone did not go to the authorities.

Had they been allowed to live, Stephanie and Nick would both have been thirty-four years old.

What do you think?  Were the murders drug related?  Was Nick or Stephanie a target?  Did these two teens come across something they shouldn't have?  Will this case be solved?  

The murders of Stephanie Hart-Grizzell and Nick Kunselman are unsolved and the case remains open.  If you have any information, contact the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office at 303.271.5599.

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