Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer As the Twig Is Bent...

Jonesboro, one of Memphis's neighbor communities, copes with its tragedy.

By Jackson Baker

APRIL 6, 1998:  JONESBORO, ARK. – It was last Thursday afternoon in this Northeast Arkansas community of some 50,000 souls, an hour’s drive from Memphis – two days after the world had been horrified by news of kids killing kids at Westside Middle School, and three out-of-town reporters were rounding out a hard day of poking amongst the ruins by chowing down at the downtown Waffle House.

The carnage and its aftermath had been hard enough, but now would come a phase of things that in its own way was equally onerous – the succession of funerals for the four little girls and one teacher who had been set up and ambushed, after a bogus fire alarm, by two gun-wielding boys aged 11 and 13, who had as many weapons at their disposal as the oldest of the two had years.

A cap-clad Jonesboro resident in a nearby booth overheard the conversation, which concerned the location of a particular funeral home, and leaned over to ask, “What are y’all looking for?” The reporters explained, the man nodded, and after a spell said, in the same laconic tone as before, “If I had a piece right now, I’d use it. I’d use it on you people – you reporters.”

There was a pause just long enough for the journalists – after seeing the man’s suddenly hard eyes – to go from surprise to shock and, since no assault on them occurred in the meantime, to something more like curiosity. “What for?” asked one of the reporters finally. “After all,” he said, truthfully enough, “all we’re doing is trying to understand just what it was that went on here. And why. Same as you.”

“That’s true,” nodded a bespectacled man who was sitting across the table from the man in the cap. But his friend wouldn’t have it. “No,” the man in the cap said, looking back at the reporters and giving the final ruling of this impromptu local court. “This is none of your business!”

Two days back, Craighead County Sheriff Dale Haas had been meeting with reporters in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, which in addition to the dead had left nine other children and another teacher seriously wounded enough to be receiving emergency treatment at St. Bernard’s Hospital.

One of those who answered the 911 call from the school and had been on the scene within five minutes of the first shots was Haas himself – now, as a number of billboards in the Jonesboro area attested, a candidate for county judge, the chief executive position in an Arkansas county.

“I’ve been here a long time. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Haas said, shedding a visible tear or two. The sheriff called Westside “one of our model schools,” noted that his own wife was a schoolteacher, and said, “Who would think that something like this would happen in Jonesboro or Craighead County?”

Residents of Jones-boro, and of Bono, the rural/suburban community where Westside is actually situated, would continually stress – as Haas had – the irony that such horrendous crimes had occurred at such a “good” school. After getting their demographic bearings, some reporters wondered out loud if good meant “white.”

By the end of last week, the Jonesboro Sun – whose coverage of the Westside catastrophe was generally excellent and whose reporters were able to fade guerrilla-like into the terrain in a way that, say, the Japan Times or CNN couldn’t – was writing unflatteringly about the media invasion and pointedly citing warnings to go slow from officials like Haas and Deputy Chief Jack McCann, and from spokesmen for the Arkansas State Police.

Kill-the-Messenger is a game reporters, as the bearers of bad tidings and the investigators of misdeeds, had long been used to, but it took on a grimly literal significance in a town where a death threat can be passed around as casually as a dinner napkin. And where a middle-school fire drill leaves a body count.

Taking stock on Tuesday at the Westside gymnasium, only yards away from where bodies had lain and blood still stained the ground, was Jack Bowers, one of two Craighead County school-system psychologists and the person in charge of organizing what – as these schoolyard atrocities seem to proliferate, especially in the Greater Mid-South – has become the obligatory counseling sessions for affected students and parents.

Bowers had been a naval aviator in Vietnam, where he served two stretches. As he noted, he had seen dead children before, napalmed and horribly disfigured ones even. “You never get used to it. But that was war, and you expected it. This is different. These children weren’t at war. I’m like everybody else. I find this traumatic.”

The reaction of two 11-year-olds, Shem Davis and Tristan Brewer, was somewhat more relaxed. After the Tuesday night counseling session, the boys vied each other in describing to a reporter their closeness to the younger suspect. “He was my best friend,” said Brewer of Andrew Golden, the youngest suspect. “Well, he was my best friend, too,” said Davis. And each could relate, as if recalling some particularly cool scene from Terminator, a prophetic incident in which, a year before or the day before or last week, young Golden had promised to wreak havoc on the school, or, alternatively, as Brewer said, to “take it over.”

Some of the first reliable firsthand commentary on the schoolyard massacre had come from 12-year-old Jennifer Nightingale, an early arrival at the Tuesday-night counseling session. She told reporters how, after the fire alarm sounded, she was filing out of the classroom building alongside Candace Porter, her pal on the Lady Warriors basketball team, when something sounding like giant firecrackers went off and first Candace, then others, started falling down around her and Jennifer saw, and then felt, blood. She would go on to say that, of course, she knew both of the arrested boys and that the older of them – Mitch Johnson, or “Mitch,” as she called him – had been in her house before. “I used to be friends with ’em, but I don’t like ’em any more,” said Jennifer, who would emerge from the counseling session two hours later giggling. “It hasn’t sunk in,” said her father.

Candace Porter survived the shooting, and her mother, Kim Porter, would give a startlingly poised briefing to the press at St. Bernard’s the next day, telling, among other things, how a potentially lethal bullet had been deflected off one of Candace’s ribs.

“God held her the right way,” theorized Mrs. Porter, who went on to say that if her daughter had been involved in some way with young Johnson – who, it was now being said, had acted because Candace had spurned him – she had been unaware of it. And, as for the proliferating rumors that the two boys had harbored a variety of apocalyptic schemes and had told many others about them, including Candace, Mrs. Porter said (with an almost eerie unintentional irony), that she had always instructed her daughter, “Don’t tattletale except in a life-and-death situation.”

More of the code: Let’s keep it to ourselves.

A note struck early on – by Sheriff Haas, by Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and many others – was that the fault for these crimes must lie within the social or moral matrix somewhere. Somebody – the church, the home, the school – had failed these children, the victims and suspects alike. Then there were others, like Jonesboro Mayor Hubert Brodell, who spoke an oracular, almost Greek-like note of remove. “This is a tragedy. I don’t blame the community,” said Brodell to reporters on the night of the shootings. He seemed almost to be indicting the fates.

Neither Brodell nor Haas nor Huckabee nor anybody else locally ever mentioned guns, one of the givens of the local landscape.

There were no sadder figures in the Jones-boro saga than the members of the two boys’ immediate families. Understandably, they sought seclusion at first. The first to come forth was Doug Golden, a local Arkansas Game & Fish Commission official who had just finished giving his grandson Andrew a “practical hunting” course. It was the clearly heartbroken grandfather’s home that the boys had broken into on the morning of the murders, removing an arsenal of firearms – 13 weapons, including a deadly and powerful 30.06, capable of knocking down a deer or a wall, a gun whose scope-sight, Golden said, he had recently checked and found to be perfectly on line. Any target located in that sight was as good as locked in.

Published pictures would shortly proliferate showing the young “Drew,” as his family called him, smilingly posing in studio settings not with toys but with this or that real-world weapon. It was the same grin that, as several observers noted, seemed to be playing on the face of the 11-year old killer on Wednesday when he and his 13-year-old partner were arraigned on five counts of capital murder and 10 counts of first-degree assault.

Number 210 Royale Drive in Jonesboro is a modest one-story brick-faced bungalow whose curbside mailbox, gaily painted with a sunflower, marks it as the home of Dennis and Pat Golden, Drew’s parents. On Thursday afternoon, the two front-porch rockers were unoccupied, as was the wooden child’s playhouse that sat on stilts in the backyard. Oblivious to the emptiness about him, a stone squirrel still frolicked on a little fountain out front. The only break in this normality was the driveway crowded with six vehicles, four of them the pickup trucks so common in this part of the world. The Goldens had battened down, and, when a reporter rang the bell, a family friend would emerge to explain that an attorney – a public defender, as it turned out – would be issuing a statement later on.

The Golden family, like Mitch Johnson’s mother and stepfather, the Woodards, and like his birth father, truck driver Scott Johnson of Spring Valley, Minnesota, were no doubt searching for something to tell themselves within their cloistered walls. Perhaps even more difficult, they would at some point have to make some sort of statement to their neighbors, as well.

“They held classes at school today,” a 13-year-old girl who lived next door to Mitch Johnson (and thought him basically normal, a backyard hoop-shooter like herself) noted on Thursday. “But I was too scared to go back,” she added. And then, as if aware that what she said sounded like a stock response, the girl shrugged. “Anyhow, they’re not counting absences.”

But they are, of course – at least up to the number five.

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