A breeze rustles through the pecan-tree grove as Dale Haas leans back in a wrought-iron chair on his back patio. A rooster crows, strutting from around the metal barn.
Wide open acreage surrounds the modest brick home for miles.
The solitude of the farm in Caraway allows Haas a protective sanctuary where he home-schools his 14-year-old son and teaches him the moral lessons that come with good, hard work.
It’s difficult, Haas says, to see his wife off each morning as she treks the 28 miles to Jonesboro.
She’s a schoolteacher.
Haas retired eight years ago after a dozen years as the county judge for Craighead County. Before that, he was the county’s sheriff.
Pain flashes across his face. He lifts his foot up and flicks a spot of dirt off the sole of his tennis shoe.
It’s been 20 years since Haas stood before a mass of media at Westside Middle School, 2 miles on the outskirts of Jonesboro, and cried as he confirmed that four students and a teacher had been shot to death and 10 others wounded on the school’s playground.
He hasn’t spoken about it publicly since, until now.
“It just kind of makes you sick at the pit of your stomach that it keeps happening,” Haas says. “I don’t see it stopping anytime soon. I think the moral compass of the country needs to be reset.”
Haas grimaces and doubles over in his chair. He doesn’t want to talk about it, he says. But once the gate is open, the words flow out quickly and unchecked.
“I’ve always relied heavily on my Christian beliefs, and I do believe that’s what gave me the strength to get through the day of the Westside shooting,” he says. “It has bothered me ever since, and I’m sure it will haunt me the rest of my life. Just thinking about it, it makes you sick thinking of … how unnecessary. Just how unnecessary. What point did it prove? Why was it so senseless? So senseless.”
prosecutor's office in Jonesboro.
Those killed in the attack were:
— Shannon Wright, 32: Teaching English at Westside Middle School, where she had attended school, was a childhood dream for Wright. As a child, she would play school, writing out lesson plans for her little brother and making him do homework. Wright loved all of her students, even the troublemakers, and protecting them was her natural instinct. On that spring day in 1998, Wright stepped in front of sixth-grader Emma Pittman and was shot in her chest and abdomen. Wright was married and had a 2-year-old son.
— Natalie Brooks, 11: Known as a sweet child who loved to play in the pool, Natalie carried a Bible to school every day. She was to be baptized on the Sunday after her death. Nearly 500 people crowded into the funeral home for her service.
— Paige Herring, 12: Because of her love of music, Paige wanted to become an elementary-school music teacher when she grew up. She played basketball and was a trusted confidant for friends who sought her out for advice.
— Stephanie Johnson, 12: A dark-haired girl whom classmates called friendly and quiet, Stephanie liked shopping for shoes and fishing. She was a caring child who often volunteered at the city’s animal shelter. She had an analytic mind and was always trying to figure things out.
— Britthney Varner, 11: Always with an infectious smile and bubbly personality, Britthney loved to play tricks on her family and friends. She often told others that she loved them and was known for lifting their spirits.
Wounded in the attack were: Sara Thetford, 42; Amanda Barnes, 13; Ashlee Betts, 12; Jennifer Jacobs, 12; Brittney Lambie, 13; Candace Porter, 11; Christina Amer, 12; Jenna Brooks, 12; Tristan McGowan, 13; and Whitney Irving, 11.
Seconds later, though, the 911 messaging system announced that someone had opened fire on students and teachers at Westside Middle School. They warned that the situation was not a drill.
Medical personnel quickly migrated to the emergency room from all areas of the hospital, and within minutes the department was filled with nearly 75 doctors.
Normally, only two doctors staff the department.
“As the victims came in, they already had a team of health care workers waiting for them,” said Million, a nurse who is now the vice president of Women’s and Children’s Services, Dialysis and Perioperative Services for the hospital.
Children and teachers had been shot in their heads, chests and stomachs. Bullet wounds ranged from shattered bones to severed arteries and ruptured colons.
Several were injured by falling or straining as they fled.