St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 18, 1998

'Why?' still echoes in Jonesboro's quiet streets
A month after boys ambushed classmates, there's no answer,
By Rick Bragg, New York Times

JONESBORO, ARK. The white ribbons, symbolic of the city's grief, are beginning to fray. It has been almost a month since the schoolyard murders of four girls and a teacher, apparently by an 11-year-old boy and his 13-year-old buddy, and the shock and rage have given way to dull anger, a nagging, heartbreaking puzzlement.

The why of it, the explanation for the worst thing that has happened here, evades Jonesboro even as the new spring grass creeps across five fresh graves. People speak about moving on, but until there is an answer they wait, bogged down in their own uncertainty, like the farm machinery that sits idle in muddy fields around this city, waiting for clearer, warmer skies.

"If you had asked me to list the names of any student who might have done something like this, I don't know if I could list the name of one child," said Lynette Thetford, who taught sixth-grade social studies at Westside Middle School. She was shot in the schoolyard ambush on March 24 and is at home now, recovering.

There has been new information, and wild opinions, but no explanation, and many of the excuses offered for the killings seem to defy common sense, said people who were touched by the killings or just deeply troubled by them. In Craighead County, Ark., that includes just about everybody.

The 13-year-old boy, Mitchell Johnson, had been sexually abused, said one of the boy's lawyers, declining to give specific information about where and when. The boy lied about being in a gang, apparently because he felt shunned by some of his peers. He talked about killing his ex-girlfriend because she had broken up with him. But not every boy who is abused or is not popular or is jilted becomes a cold-blooded killer, people here point out.

As for the 11-year-old, Andrew Golden, his history and character change from that of saint to demented child, depending on who is asked. He played trumpet in the school band and once bottle-fed a lamb. His grandfather said he was a fine marksman, and neighbors said he liked to wear a skinning knife strapped to his leg when he rode his bike. But guns and knives are almost playthings here for boys his age, no more ominous than other toys.

Beyond vague references to getting even with people who had been mean to him, he seemed to have no motive.

"I never even paddled him," said Thetford, who taught Andrew.

The answer is that there is no answer, at least none that makes sense, for why two boys, apparently angry at things boys get angry about, somehow made the leap from bombast about avenging petty disagreements with classmates to murder.

The inability of people to grasp fully what happened here is apparent in Thetford's description of the minutes leading up to the shootings.

Heather Pate, a sixth-grader, had left class to go to the bathroom and saw a boy dressed in camouflage pull the fire alarm. She returned to find Thetford readying the class to walk outside, in an orderly fashion.

"Ms. Thetford, it was Andrew who pulled that fire alarm," Heather told her teacher.

"Well, we have to respond anyway," Thetford said.

But as she directed her students outside, she thought, "He's really going to be in trouble for ringing that bell."

Seconds later, her students started to fall in the path of bullets.

Mitchell and Andrew are charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery. In Arkansas, those under age 14 cannot be tried as adults, no matter how heinous the crime, and the state Legislature cannot change the law retroactively. If found to be "delinquent" by the juvenile-court judge, they can be held only until their 18th birthdays; then they automatically are set free.

Excuses from the families of both boys have only angered people here. Friends and relatives of the boys say neither could have done this on his own, but people around Jonesboro say that does not make sense.

Common sense tells them that one boy did not force another boy to become a killer. Most children, they theorize, would have told their mothers or fathers if a friend had wanted them to murder their schoolmates.

Investigators found 22 spent shell casings in the copse of trees where the boys are believed to have ambushed the other children. Five casings were from a 30.06 rifle, which the police took from Mitchell. Fifteen were from a .30-caliber rifle they took from Andrew.

"It's just too sad to understand," said Pat Whitlock, who runs Whitlock's Country Music Store on Linwood Drive in nearby Paragould. Musicians and music lovers gather here on Thursday nights to pick and sing and talk, and lately the talk has been about the killings.

"I don't think we'll ever really know why," Whitlock said. That has become almost the anthem of people here. Everybody wants an answer, but few people believe they will ever get one that satisfies them.

"Maybe," Whitlock said, "they just needed attention."

They have it now.

Every day several pieces of mail addressed to the boys are intercepted by the sheriff's department, which turns the letters over to the boys' lawyers and parents. Some of them are hate mail, including death threats, said Dale Haas, the Craighead County sheriff.

Mitchell, in turn, wrote a letter that his father read aloud on television. He wrote, "My thoughts and prayers are with the people who were killed, or shot, and their families." He went on, "I really want people to know the real Mitchell someday."

Relatives, visiting the boys in detention, have said they sob and appear dehydrated and not well.

"He ain't holding up real good," said Doug Golden, Andrew's grandfather.

But a worker at the detention center who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the boys were well fed, and that they watched cartoons on television and "never cry or show emotion except when they are with their families or lawyers."

The case took a turn on Wednesday when a judge ordered Tom Furth, a lawyer for Mitchell, removed from the defense team. The judge said he feared Furth's conduct outside the courtroom was detrimental to Mitchell's interests, and expressed particular concern that Furth was speaking too freely with reporters.

Bill Howard, a public defender in Jonesboro, remains assigned to the case.

Reporters and investigators have combed the boys' backgrounds, looking for what might have set off this irreversible act, but there are only pieces.

Of the two, Mitchell, from a broken home and with apparent problems of self-esteem, seems to have the most complicated background.

His childhood has been less than perfectly middle American. Last summer, Mitchell was charged with molesting a 2- or 3-year-old girl in Minnesota. According to a report in Mower County, Minn., Mitchell was caught in a room with the toddler with his pants down.

His mother and father divorced in 1994. His mother, Gretchen Woodard, moved her sons, Mitchell and Monte, now 11, first to Kentucky, where she worked as a prison guard, and later to Arkansas, where she married a man who had served time in prison on felony drug and weapons charges.

In the divorce file, Scott Johnson complained that his sons had to sleep in the living room of the trailer they and their mother shared with a grandmother in Spring Valley, Minn., after the parents were separated. One slept on the couch, the other on the floor.

On a return visit to see relatives in Minnesota, Mitchell told a friend, 13-year-old Sarah Laack, that he did not like Arkansas, that other children were mean to him. He was slightly paunchy, and he confided to her "how people made fun of him," Sarah said.

"He wanted to be with his grandma and his dad," she said. "He missed them a lot."

To her, it seemed that Mitchell had tried to cultivate an image as a tough guy. "I just think Mitch wanted everybody to be scared of him, so they wouldn't mess with him," Sarah said. "I still can't believe he did it."

His Arkansas classmates said he had bragged about being in gangs, but even 12-year-olds were skeptical when a white boy in Arkansas said he belonged to the Crips or Bloods, big-city street gangs made up mostly of black youths.

So when he and Andrew, a friend he knew mostly from the school bus, bragged that they were going to get even with other children, and kill them, no one took them seriously.

In particular, Mitchell was mad at 11-year-old Candace Porter. She had not been afraid of Mitchell when she told him she did not want to be his girlfriend anymore, because "boys don't hit girls," she explained in an article in the Jonesboro Sun.

Candace was his girlfriend for three days. She thought he was nice at first, but broke up with him several weeks before the shooting when Mitchell began acting strange, talking about hurting other boys. "He was trouble," she told reporters recently.

But she, like all the other students, thought he was just talking big again when they heard he had put together a list of students he planned to kill. Two students said he told them he was going to shoot Candace first, and then kill everyone else in the building. They ignored him. Teachers at the school said they were never warned about the boys' threats.

Candace, a brown-haired, freckle-faced sixth-grader, was shot in the back, but the bullet did not go in deep.

Andrew's parents have been mostly silent. The boy's grandfather, Chuck Golden, is obviously heartbroken. Andrew stole his guns to use in the shooting.

The boy he remembers would not even have touched them without asking. The boy he remembers used to stop by his house and play with the dog; he would carry out the trash to help his grandfather; he was polite and respectful to his elders.

"He had this little sheep," Golden said, thinking back to a younger Andrew. "He raised it on a bottle."

He said his grandson liked school, that he went early to play at the playground. Unlike Mitchell, who was apparently teased, Andrew seemed to have no enemies, his grandfather said.

As much as Jonesboro is puzzled by its tragedy, the people here are also a little tired of talking about it.

"Before we can start to heal, we got to quit scratching," Golden said. "It's like scratching at a sore."

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