At Westside Middle School west of Jonesboro, the underage killers pulled a fire alarm first; afterward, they opened fire.
Four young lives were lost that day, March 24, 1998: Natalie Brooks, 11; Britthney Varner, 11; Paige Herring, 12; and Stephanie Johnson, 12. Sixth-grade teacher, Shannon Wright, also died. Ten other people were wounded.
The violence was hard for Westside English teacher Debbie Pelley to fathom.
“All the years I’ve taught here, I thought it was the safest school in the nation,” she told the Democrat-Gazette. “I never dreamed it would happen here.”
Two suspects, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, were arrested and charged with five counts each of capital murder and 10 counts each of battery.
Clad in camouflage and armed with rifles, there was never any doubt they had pulled the triggers.
As they awaited trial, the state’s governor at the time, Mike Huckabee, released a book, co-authored by Tennessee pastor George Grant, titled Kids Who Kill: Confronting Our Culture of Violence.
Huckabee received $25,000 for the book, though he stood to make more if sales were strong, the paper reported.
Criticized by his 1998 Democratic challenger, Bill Bristow, and others for capitalizing on the tragedy, Huckabee said the book “was not about Jonesboro” and had only “fleeting references” to the Westside shootings.
That summer, Johnson pleaded guilty and Golden was convicted after a brief trial. Under Arkansas law at the time, neither shooter could be tried as an adult. Both were released when they turned 21.
The shootings prompted the state Legislature to change the law. Murderers who are younger than 14 can now, in some circumstances, be tried as adults.
After his release, Golden changed his name and moved to Missouri. He died in July in a head-on collision near Cave City.
Johnson has had several run-ins with the law, serving time for drug, weapons and theft-related charges.
In August 2017, the families of the victims won a civil lawsuit against the killers and were awarded $150 million.
The victory was largely symbolic.
“The truth is, we don’t expect to see any money, but both have judgments hanging over them,” their attorney, Bobby McDaniel, said at the time. “If they win the lottery or write a book, they can’t profit.”
In the two decades since the Jonesboro massacre, schools across the country have tightened security. Despite those efforts, the killings have continued with shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and a long list of other campuses.
— Frank E. Lockwood
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