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Mom moving past the 'why'

by Kenneth Heard | March 21, 1999 at 5:46 a.m.

— A year after her daughter was gunned down at Westside Middle School, Tina McIntyre looks for the ladybugs.

The winged insects remind her of a lesson about hope and innocence taught by Stephanie Johnson, 12, a few months before she died. Police said "Steph," a seventh-grader, was the first person shot to death March 24, 1998, at the school near Jonesboro.

Stephanie, other students and teachers left the middle school building shortly before 1 p.m. when the fire alarm sounded. They were met by a hail of bullets from two student snipers who set the alarm and waited in nearby woods.

Stephanie was giggling as she walked from the building into the sunny afternoon, friends said. A second later fellow student Mitchell Johnson, then 13, shot a bullet from a .30-06 rifle that tore a hole through her chest.

Another student, Andrew Golden, then 11, was also shooting at the students and teachers.

Stephanie's mother was buying chocolate cookies in a Jonesboro grocery store a few miles from the school when she heard the ambulances. She and Stephanie often enjoyed cookies and milk while sitting at their kitchen table and recalling the school day.

When McIntyre heard the wailing sirens, she sensed that her daughter had been hurt.

As the one-year anniversary of the shooting approaches, McIntyre, 37, is still struggling to understand why her daughter was taken from her. Almost obsessively, McIntyre has sought evidence and talked with prosecutors during the past year. She has read her daughter's autopsy report and interviewed witnesses to understand the shootings, which left three other students and a teacher dead and 10 people wounded.

"There is no 'why,' " she said. "I've tried for a year to find it."

In February, 11 months after Stephanie's death, McIntyre decided to put away the bad memories. She spent several hours in her mobile home in northwest Jonesboro one Sunday afternoon tenderly placing newspaper clippings about the shooting, photographs of Stephanie's body lying in her casket and of the funeral service, sympathy cards and other reminders into a large cardboard box.

She said she would seal the box to get on with her life.

McIntyre placed in her videocassette recorder a tape of her daughter and friends frolicking on a trampoline in summer 1997. Stephanie's squeaky voice and laughter broke the room's stillness as McIntyre thumbed through her daughter's memories.

As McIntyre sat on her sofa and held artwork that Stephanie made in school, she recalled learning about ladybugs' importance.

She said that four months before the shooting she and Stephanie were driving along Gee Street in Jonesboro when her pickup stalled. McIntyre rolled into a parking lot and tried to restart the truck. When it wouldn't, she headed for a pay phone.

"Just then a ladybug landed on my arm," McIntyre said. "Steph looked at it and told me it was good luck when a ladybug landed on someone. She said we should go back to the truck because it would start now."

The truck started, and the child's innocent statement became a fun catch phrase for the two.

"We had a rule in our home after that," McIntyre said, smiling. "We didn't smush ladybugs."

A few months after Stephanie died, McIntyre prayed for a sign that her daughter was in heaven. She said she visited her daughter's grave in September and saw that her prayer had been answered. Hundreds of ladybugs were crawling atop the large heart-shaped monument at her daughter's grave.

"I broke down and cried there," she said. "I knew Stephanie was all right."

Overhead, as McIntyre talked, two ladybugs ambled across the ceiling.

"See," she said, pointing. "Stephanie's here. She's watching over us.

"Whenever one lands on me, I feel Steph's arms around me," she said. "It's very peaceful and comforting. I don't feel as bad when that happens."

McIntyre's home is a shrine to Stephanie's memory. Angels are scattered throughout the living room. Framed prayers from people across the country hang on the walls. Stephanie's seventh-grade desk sits in the entryway between the kitchen and living room.

McIntyre continued sifting through the boxes of memories. Photographs chronicled Stephanie's life: baby pictures, a picture of Stephanie tasting her first chocolate-covered cherry, birthdays with cakes and balloons. All were saved. A report card and art projects were also kept as memories.

Laughing, McIntyre held up a $5 restaurant coupon that a boy in Boynton Beach, Fla., sent her.

The boy wrote that it wasn't necessary to write him back. A large binder contains hundreds of letters, prayers and e-mails sent as condolences.

"Time does heal," wrote an Oklahoma City woman who noted the April 19, 1995, bombing of the city's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168. Residents of Dunblane, Scotland -- where on March 13, 1996, a gunman entered a grade school and killed 16 5- and 6-year-old students and a teacher -- also offered encouraging words.

A diary offered Stephanie's thoughts. Stephanie wrote that she was embarrassed by tripping over a television cord on July 4, 1997. The next day she was worried that she may have been getting fat.

Scenes on the videotape switched from the children playing on the trampoline to a hayride taken by several youngsters on Halloween night 1997.

Moments later, the picture faded to black and turned to news video of medical workers taking a wounded child from the schoolyard.

McIntyre's boyfriend, Bill Wren, 43, jumped from his chair and quickly turned off the television.

"I don't know how that got on that tape," McIntyre said. "Things like that catch me by surprise. I can be doing something like reading a magazine or watching television, and suddenly things jump out and catch me off guard."

McIntyre dug deeper into a box and pulled out several newspapers depicting the days after the shooting. A mother's gentle memories were replaced with bold headlines and photographs of wounded, crying children.

Wren gently returned the papers to the box.

"[Tina] said she felt like doing this today," he said. "We want to get this behind her and move forward."

McIntyre placed a wrinkled brown paper bag on Stephanie's desk and pulled out a plastic evidence bag. Inside were two hair bows. Stephanie was wearing one when she died. She had borrowed the second bow and had it in her pocket when she died.

McIntyre then reached in the bag and took out the tie-dyed shirt Stephanie was wearing when shot. A small triangular hole pierced the shirt's back left shoulder. A larger hole was on the front. Blood had stained the shirt to almost black.

McIntyre also displayed Stephanie's pants and shoes before carefully returning the clothing to the bag.

She said she wouldn't have wanted the clothing if she had seen Stephanie at the school. When McIntyre arrived at the school after the shootings, she heard that her daughter had been taken to St. Bernards Regional Medical Center in Jonesboro for treatment.

As McIntyre heard the misinformation, she didn't know that Stephanie's body lay on the pavement.

"Stephanie was part of the crime scene," McIntyre said.

Police didn't release the body from the scene because they were investigating.

McIntyre said she learned about five hours after the shootings that her daughter had died. She first saw her daughter after the shootings in a body bag at Emerson & Son Funeral Home in Jonesboro.

Mike Walden, Craighead County deputy prosecuting attorney, said several families requested clothing of murder victims.

"It may seem odd to some, but it is a normal aspect for those who lost loved ones," Walden said.

After McIntyre returned the belongings to the boxes, Wren burned the box. As the flames curled the photographs and blackened newspapers, the memories, McIntyre hoped, would fade like the gray smoke drifting from the small fire.

"I've worried about her [McIntyre] over the year," said Suzann Wilson, 38, whose daughter, Britthney Varner, 11, also was killed in the shooting. "I think it hit her the worst.

"It's good to hear she's found someone who can help her through this," she said.

McIntyre has been in the hospital several times during the past year. Doctors have told her that stress from the shooting has hurt her health. In the past year McIntyre suffered from asthma, an inner-ear ailment and a bout of pneumonia. She is scheduled for back surgery this year.

A counselor visits McIntyre weekly, and the two work to put her life back together.

"Steph was more than just my daughter," McIntyre said. "She was my best friend. They tell me I need to accept her death. I know she's dead, but how do you accept what happened?"

Often, in the quiet of the night, McIntyre awakens, crying for her daughter. She mourns the loss; she wanted to see her girl grow into a woman.

Seeing a child waiting for a school bus recently flooded her with fond memories of Stephanie. She often catches herself buying more cookies for Stephanie. Songs bring tears.

But, she said, she is moving forward, and Wren has helped.

"He's been great," she said. "If it wasn't for him, I don't know if I would have made it this far."

There has been talk of a July wedding for the couple, who started dating after Christmas. McIntyre had bought a wedding dress but was waiting for the right person. Now, she said, she's found him.

She said she thought Stephanie would have approved.

"I'm sure if she had met him, she'd love him," McIntyre said.

The wedding dress was hanging in her bedroom as McIntyre talked on the telephone recently. McIntyre straightened the dress's hem and smoothed the billowing white satin.

Then, she drew her breath suddenly.

Crawling across the material was a ladybug.

Copyright © 2007, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.v


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