Cover Story

Westside story

Two weeks after the Arkansas school shooting, some of the pieces to the puzzle of this story of juvenile crime and small-town gangs are evident; others remain missing

Issue: "The Jonesboro puzzle," April 11, 1998

(in Jonesboro, Ark.) - In a broken voice, Scott Johnson talks of a respectful boy who loves sports and went to church. "My son is not a monster," he says of 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, one of the two boys who allegedly lured classmates out of Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., on March 24 and then opened fire, killing four girls and a teacher, and wounding 10 other students. No, not a monster, but perhaps a puzzle, certainly a paradox. How can two children be multiple murderers? In like manner, everything about the Jonesboro tragedy seems jarring and incongruent. At a jam-packed memorial service on March 31, dedicated secularists such as Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard Riley stood uncomfortably as Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's words were read: "I'm more convinced than ever that the real hope for humanity is not in the laws we pass but in the Lord who provides his grace for the days when there is no adequate human answer." Miss Reno countered with a monotone admonition: "We cannot lose faith in human goodness." The national press, by nature uncomfortable with puzzles, has packaged the Jonesboro story as a straight piece on gun control. But it's not that simple. The guns have always been here, in rural Arkansas and everywhere else in the nation. The question remains, what has changed, and why? The shootings came on a Tuesday just after noon. Sixth-grader Emma Pittman says she watched Andrew Golden, 11, pull a fire alarm outside a classroom at Westside Middle School. More than 200 students and teachers filed out of the building. That's when students saw Andrew "Drew" Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson open fire. Four young girls and a teacher were killed. Ten others were injured. Minutes later, the boys were captured running through the woods toward a stolen van. On the boys and in the van, police say, were at least 10 firearms, reportedly stolen from Drew Golden's grandfather. Dead were Paige Ann Herring, 12; Natalie Brooks, 11; Brittany Varner, 11; and Stephanie Johnson, 12; as well as 32-year-old teacher Shannon Wright. The two boys last week were being held in the juvenile section of the Craighead County jail. The Jonesboro shootings may raise deeper cultural questions than the school killings in West Paducah, Ky., last December. Michael Corneal, the 14-year-old who allegedly opened fire on a before-school prayer meeting, came across as a disturbed misfit with no history of trouble or violence. But both Drew Golden and Mitch Johnson are reported to have talked openly about violence and gang activities. As in Jonesboro itself, the warning signs were ample and evident. If Paducah was about the tragedy of something going terribly wrong in a single youth, then Jonesboro is about the tragedy of what has gone wrong in the way many American youths are raised-and why gang culture has become a threat even in small towns such as Jonesboro. The boys
Reports suggest that last summer Mitch Johnson showed signs of trouble. Last week, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press reported an accusation that Mitch molested a little girl while he visited Minnesota last summer, according to his aunt and a former neighbor. "It happened," Mitchell Johnson's aunt, Linda Koelsch, said. "He did it." The boy was charged with inappropriately touching the girl, who was about 2 at the time, a source close to the investigation said. After returning to Arkansas, though, Mitch attended a weeklong youth revival in September. On the first night, he walked the aisle, approached a counselor, and prayed to accept Christ as his savior. Now, six months later, Central Baptist Church youth minister Christopher Perry says he's troubled by the two vastly different images of the boy that have emerged. "During that revival, 280 kids came forward," says the minister, who wears the proper youth minster goatee. "I've thought back, and there was nothing about Mitch's profession of faith that was any different from any of the others. I just ... all I can think of is Jesus' parable of the seeds. Some fell among rocks." Mr. Perry says church leaders tried to be faithful in their followup after the revival, but after a month of being active in the youth group, Mitch dropped out. Some kids later told Mr. Perry that Mitch was becoming a bully. He was angry about his parents' divorce, they told the minister, and he was angry that he didn't see his father much. But since January, Mitch had been frequenting the Bono Revival Tabernacle Pentecostal Church in Bono, the small town bordering Jonesboro where he lived with his mother and stepfather. William Holt, the pastor there, says Mitch's mother would drop her son off, and Mr. Holt would take him home. Mr. Holt spoke about Mitch's manners. "You don't find a lot of kids these days that say 'yes sir' and 'no sir,'" he said. But his classmates tell another side of the story. Mitch talked often about gangs and violence, they say. He doodled gang symbols during class (and teachers saw this). He would pretend to shoot other kids, or stick his finger in their sides, as if he had a gun. He picked on other students. He boasted of pulling a knife on another student. And the day before the shooting, he told classmates he had "a lotta killing to do." He told one, Melinda Henson, that "tomorrow, y'all are gonna find out if you live or die." No one related the threats to school officials or even their parents; most now say they thought he was just talking. Some students said it might have something to do with girl trouble; some kids "go steady" at this early age, and 12-year-old Candace Porter had recently broken up with Mitch because, she says, his gang talk bothered her. Candace was one of the students wounded on that Tuesday. Drew Golden, the other alleged shooter, was also flashing gang-related hand signs. Some kids say that of late, he had taken to bicycling around his neighborhood wearing camouflage clothes and carrying a hunting knife, which he would use to threaten other children. Three months ago, the father of one of Drew's friends went to a school counselor. Edward Woodard, a Jonesboro electrician, said that Drew told his young son about a plan to come to school and shoot people. The counselor talked to Drew, according to Mr. Woodard, and Drew admitted the plan. But he said he'd had a nightmare about such a scenario; in the dream, Mr. Woodard says, Drew died, too, and that "scared him off his plan." School officials have not confirmed Mr. Woodard's story, but one tale has been confirmed: The night after the shooting, 11-year-old Drew Golden curled up on his bed in a juvenile lockup and cried for his mother. Sheriff Haas has cried, too. "These are babies," he says. The details simply aren't available about the family life of these boys. There doesn't seem to be any indication that either of the Goldens, both postmasters in nearby towns, were active in any church. Mitch Johnson's mother and stepfather would drop him off at youth group meetings and Sunday services, but ministers didn't say they attended themselves. For now, at least, the families are being shielded from the press by law enforcement officials. The town
Late in March, Richard Williams's big Mercury Marquis slid through the streets of downtown Jonesboro, Ark., under old oaks just beginning to bud. "Jonesboro was and still is one of the greatest places in the country to raise your children," said the bearded, polished former pastor. "The churches are strong, the schools are strong. Really a wonderful place." Mr. Williams's own presence belies the claims. He now works with CityTeam, a California-based Christian group that focuses on typically urban ills such as juvenile crime, homelessness, and poverty. If Jonesboro is so idyllic, why is CityTeam here? He let out a breath and admitted, "That's a good question. Well, civic leaders in Jonesboro were thinking ahead; they saw some indications that some problems were beginning to emerge." In fact, studies showed juvenile crime in Jonesboro had jumped 471 percent from 1986 to 1995. The dropout rate was hovering stubbornly near 27 percent. And a juvenile crime task force estimated that 60 percent of the teens had experimented with drugs, while as many as 75 percent of the high-schoolers were sexually active. Mr. Williams's long, gray car entered the more depressed areas of the city. He passed boarded storefronts and shabby warehouses, then slowed down at a downtown lot where a freshly poured concrete slab can be seen. Eventually, this will be a 15,000-square-foot youth center, to be run by CityTeam and funded by the community. "Jonesboro isn't a sleepy little town anymore," Mr. Williams said. "The gangs are here. We have the signs spray-painted on the buildings. I remember when I was pastoring here, and I would open the Jonesboro Sun and see one or two break-ins reported in a week. Now we have 10 or more a day. That's the tip of the iceberg." The gangs
Jonesboro Sun Publisher John Troutt has a handsome, craggy face, a tailored suit, and a serious smile that never quite reaches his eyes. And he's got a calendar chock-full of community involvement-Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce committees, and various task forces. Mr. Troutt helped bring in CityTeam last year, but he's still reluctant to speak freely about the town's troubles. "We knew there were problems on the horizon," he slowly intones, leaning back in his chair. "In some senses, the youth seemed to be rudderless-trying to go astray. It's happening everywhere, and it's part of Jonesboro's incredible growth. We went from 30,000 in 1980 to 55,000 today. And many of us were feeling it was time to address these issues." His reporters have been writing of serious and documentable gang activity for nearly a decade. In the late 1980s, a Chicago gang called Folk Life or Folk Nation set up shop in Jonesboro's Apartment City and other housing projects. Other gangs have come up from Little Rock. The spread of gangs is not so much about the search for new markets as it is about gang parents' belief in the myth of small-town safety, according to the FBI. Relatives will move a gang-member child out of the city and into rural areas, in the hope of removing him from gang influences-but he often brings the gang culture along with him. Also, new kids on the block who had no real previous gang involvement will invent tales to tell their new acquaintances, gaining in the process easy, instant status. Gang expert Steve Nawojczyk, the former county coroner in Little Rock, says there's no such thing as wannabe gang members. "If a kid believes he's in a gang, he's in a gang. I call them teenage mutant gangsters. There's no real connection with the Bloods or the Crips in L.A., but they adopt the culture from what they see in the media. I think they're even more dangerous than the connected groups, because they're out there making up their own rules." Mr. Nawojczyk began seeing an increase in gang activity in Pulaski County (Little Rock) in the mid-1980s. "The homicide rate started to increase," he says. "And it was all kids." He began to see gang tattoos on the bodies of children he examined. Some of the spread was economic opportunism, he explains-gangs wanting easier ways to obtain guns and sell drugs-but most of it was media-influenced. The movies Colors and Boyz in the Hood, and "gangsta" rap music, were effective recruiting tools. The granddaddies of the gangs are the L.A.-based Crips and Bloods. The Crips gang developed among black youths, too young to have participated in the Watts riots of the 1960s ("Crips" is probably a variation of "Cribs," a designation of many small street-level groups that indicated the youthfulness of the members). Once the Crips organized, opposing gangs grouped together for self-defense. They choose the color red, the opposite of the Crips' blue, and called themselves the Bloods. Chicago's gangs formed two camps also: Folk Nation (or Folk Life) and the Vice Lords. Later, the Folk Nation gang allied itself with the Crips, and the Vice Lords joined with the Bloods. Other gangs, such as the Gangster Disciples and the Latin Kings, have made similar alliances. In Jonesboro, Mitch Johnson had shown some sophistication, according to the reports of his friends. He was often seen writing "Crips Killer" on dirty windowpanes-that's a common tag left by Bloods gang members. The predators
In 1996, Princeton professor John DiIulio, along with former anti-drug officials Bill Bennett and John P. Walters, published a sobering book, Body Count. The book described "the coming superpredators," juvenile offenders who could become the most conscienceless, brutal criminals in recent history, because they have grown up "fearing neither the stigma of arrest, pains of imprisonment, nor the pangs of conscience." Mr. DiIulio states unapologetically that we face a cultural crisis: "Crime is a cultural and moral problem with cultural and moral solutions. It is traceable to human failures, the disintegration of institutions that make for decent character, that socialize and civilize. Being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach the young right from wrong." Predictably, Body Count was criticized from the left-not least for using such words as right and wrong. A reviewer in The New York Times Book Review slammed it, maintaining that morality is secondary to economics as the cause of crime. Worse yet to modernist eyes were the solutions offered by Mr. DiIulio and his co-authors. Churches, they argued, are what work. Mr. DiIulio arrived at that conclusion in a wonkish way, by studying statistics. He found that about half of the kids who fit in the "at risk" categories turn out just fine, with the experience that made a difference being the "religious or faith-based variable." In fact, the list of practical recommendations in Body Count sounds like a brochure for CityTeam: a safe place to hang out after school; supervised recreation programs; tutoring; real mentoring-not just counselors to pat kids on the back and affirm them, but real adult friends; and most importantly, the compassion of Jesus Christ. "Am I my brother's keeper? The right answer to that is yes," says CityTeam's Mr. Williams. The aftermath
On a cloudy late March day in Jonesboro, with rain predicted, cars were lined up eight and nine deep at the Perkins restaurant. A hastily organized car wash led off a dreary Saturday, with three funerals scheduled for later in the day. Several youth groups were splashing autos and each other for donations. Christine, a 14-year-old wearing a denim baseball cap, her long, brown pony tail emerging at the back, had the sleeves of her crisp yellow T-shirt rolled up just so. After some pushing, she admitted that she had ironed her T-shirt. For a car wash? "So?" she responded, effectively putting the issue to rest. "It feels good to do something to help," explained the high-school student. The money will go to the Westside Middle School Crisis Assistance Fund-but what, exactly, is the fund for? "I don't know," she said. "Medical stuff, I guess. It feels good to do something." The need to "do something" is a feeling that extends beyond Jonesboro to the rest of the state and indeed, to the rest of the nation. One result of the tragedy seems to be a revival of the national debate on the nature of juvenile crime. "How are we to square the image of a child and the image of a killer?" asks CityTeam's Mr. Williams. "That's what troubles us. In adults, we have no trouble seeing crime as a moral decision. In children, we want to see it as pathology-we want it desperately. Does an 11-year-old know he killed somebody? Yes. But does he understand the finality of death? I don't think so-not when he's seen thousands upon thousands of deaths on TV and in the movies, and in video games. "The difficulty for us is to understand what's going on in the mind of an 11-year-old child-but that's what he is, a child. When it was over, all he wanted to do was crawl up in his mother's lap and cry. That's not a hardened criminal-that's a child trying to grasp what he has done." There's been remarkably little call-even in Arkansas, which national media reports repeatedly note in ominous tones is "a Southern state"-for toughening the juvenile laws. Gov. Mike Huckabee has set up a commission to review the laws (one of his appointees is Mr. Nawojczyk), but he's said firmly that a knee-jerk reaction would be a mistake. The problem is the "culture of violence," he contends, and that sickness can't be remedied solely by locking up children. In the end, he says, what went wrong in Jonesboro is that caring adults were not close enough to these children to see the warning signs, and in particular to show them the way of Christ. "That's what every kid needs-that's the vision," he says. "If people can't see it now, I guess they'll never see it."

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