West­side school killers blamed each other

With de­po­si­tions’ re­lease, lawyer aims to shed light on child shoot­ers’ traits

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - KEN­NETH HEARD

JONES­BORO — The two young­sters con­victed of killing four West­side Mid­dle School stu­dents and a teacher in 1998 blamed each other for ini­ti­at­ing the school­yard shoot­ing ram­page, de­po­si­tions re­leased Tues­day in­di­cate.

The de­po­si­tions were taken dur­ing civil lit­i­ga­tion against Mitchell Johnson and An­drew Golden in 2000, 2007 and 2008 but were sealed un­til Craig­head County Cir­cuit Judge John Fogle­man re­leased them Mon­day af­ter a hear­ing in Jones­boro.

Jones­boro at­tor­ney Bobby McDaniel, who rep­re­sents the fam­i­lies of the slain in a civil law­suit against Johnson and Golden, sought the re­lease — along with a mon­e­tary set­tle­ment — to pro­vide any in­sight into why the two would shoot at their class­mates and adults.

Johnson and Golden are the only two mass school shoot­ers alive, McDaniel said. Oth­ers, like Columbine, Colo., shoot­ers Eric Har­ris and Dy­lan Kle­bold; New­town, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza; and Vir­ginia Tech Uni­ver­sity shooter Se­ung-Hui Cho killed them­selves.

Fogle­man awarded each fam­ily $30 mil­lion on be­half of Johnson and Golden, but McDaniel said he knows they will never see any money from the set­tle­ment.

“The pur­pose was, hope­fully, to pro­vide psy­chol­o­gists, sociologis­ts, school ad­min­is­tra­tors and po­lice any idea of what a school shooter looks like,” McDaniel said.

“We wanted them to see if any stu­dents show any traits, to be vig­i­lant.”

Nei­ther Johnson nor Golden at­tended Mon­day’s hear­ing. Johnson is in a Texas fed­eral prison serv­ing time for theft and drug con­vic­tions. Joe Perry, an at­tor­ney from Mar­i­anna, and Danny Glover, a Wynne at­tor­ney, who rep­re­sented Golden also were not present at the hear­ing.

Glover said Mon­day that Golden signed a con­sent judg­ment form ear­lier this year to avoid a trial.

Golden is liv­ing in Mis­souri and changed his name to “Drew Grant.” Grant is the maiden name of his grand­mother, Golden said in his de­po­si­tion.

When the shoot­ings oc­curred March 24, 1998, Johnson was 13 years old and Golden was 11.

Po­lice say Johnson hid in a brushy area along the school’s perime­ter and Golden went in­side the mid­dle school build­ing, trig­gered a fire alarm and ran out­side to join Johnson. When chil­dren and staff ex­ited the build­ing, the two be­gan fir­ing at them with high-pow­ered ri­fles.

Killed were Paige Her­ring, 12; Brit­th­ney Varner, 11; Stephanie Johnson, 12; Natalie Brooks, 11; and teacher Shannon Wright, 32. Ten other stu­dents were in­jured.

A Craig­head County cir­cuit judge ad­ju­di­cated the two of cap­i­tal mur­der Aug. 11, 1998, but be­cause they were youths, they were in­car­cer­ated un­til they each turned 21 and then were re­leased.

Dur­ing his ad­ju­di­ca­tion hear­ing, Mitchell Johnson said he did not in­tend to hurt any­one and said he aimed over their heads just to scare them.

Bal­lis­tics re­ports later showed Johnson used a 30.06 ri­fle to fa­tally shoot Wright, Stephanie Johnson and Brooks.

In his de­po­si­tion, taken April 27, 2000, Mitchell Johnson said Golden be­gan dis­cussing shoot­ing stu­dents in De­cem­ber 1997 — a full four months be­fore the shoot­ing ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

“He didn’t say ‘shoot,’” Johnson said. “He said ‘scare them.’”

Johnson said Golden told him he was “tired of peo­ple mess­ing with him.”

“He was go­ing to prove a point that he’s not a pushover,” Johnson said of Golden. “He asked me to help him to ob­tain a ve­hi­cle to get to and from where he needed to go. And that was sup­posed to be that only.”

Johnson said he told Golden, “I didn’t want no­body get­ting hurt.”

In the de­po­si­tion, Johnson ad­mit­ted to point­ing a loaded .38-cal­iber pis­tol at Golden’s head when Golden stopped run­ning from the school­yard af­ter killing the five.

“I told him he had got­ten me into this mess and he was go­ing to get me out,” Johnson said.

Golden told a dif­fer­ent story in his de­po­si­tion, taken Dec. 22, 2008.

Golden said Johnson showed him a knife in front of Golden’s house on the morn­ing of March 24, 1998, and said he would kill Golden and his fam­ily if he didn’t go with him that day.

Golden said Johnson had talked about how he wanted to “get some peo­ple back” on other oc­ca­sions, but Golden thought Johnson was jok­ing.

“I just kind of blew him off,” Golden said. “He was al­ways talk­ing about gang stuff and this and that and I never re­ally paid much at­ten­tion to it.”

Both said in their de­po­si­tions that they didn’t re­mem­ber much of the shoot­ing.

Johnson said in his 2000 de­po­si­tion that he was in a “daze” and was not “in­ten­tion­ally aim­ing at any­body.” He did, how­ever, ad­mit that he warned two stu­dents not to go to school that day be­cause “some­thing bad might hap­pen.”

In his April 2, 2007, de­po­si­tion, taken in Fayettevil­le where Johnson lived at the time, McDaniel ques­tioned Johnson about the im­pli­ca­tions of point­ing a weapon at some­one.

“You knew that if some­body was shot with a ri­fle, it would kill them, didn’t you?” the at­tor­ney asked.

“Back then I didn’t un­der­stand that, though,” Johnson replied.

“I didn’t re­ally think all the way through and I didn’t un­der­stand that, you know, what I was do­ing po­ten­tially put peo­ple in harm, and if they did get killed, they don’t come back.”

Johnson ad­mit­ted to be­ing an­gry with teach­ers. He was placed in in-school sus­pen­sion a few weeks be­fore the shoot­ing when he balked when a teacher tried to take a hat from him that he had worn in school.

He also cursed at a teacher in 1998 af­ter he sneaked from a class­room to talk to a friend and the teacher ap­pre­hended him.

Johnson ad­mit­ted in his 2000 de­po­si­tion that he was an­gry at a coach who kicked him off the school’s foot­ball team af­ter the coach dis­cov­ered Johnson had pur­posely cut his left arm in a self-mu­ti­la­tion episode.

Johnson de­nied, though, that anger led him to slay oth­ers.

“I can’t say that,” he said. “I wasn’t an­gry at no­body. I didn’t mean to kill no­body.”

He said he re­called point­ing the .38-cal­iber pis­tol at a con­struc­tion worker who was atop the mid­dle school roof when the shoot­ings oc­curred. Johnson said he saw the worker point­ing at him and he shot at the worker twice. The worker was not in­jured.

Johnson said he con­tin­ued to deal with the re­sults of his ac­tions af­ter his re­lease from prison, say­ing in his 2007 de­po­si­tion that he re­ceived death threats and was fired from at least two jobs in North­west Arkansas af­ter em­ploy­ers learned who he was.

He said he re­gret­ted the shoot­ing and was sorry for those who lost fam­ily mem­bers.

“I deal with this ev­ery day of my life,” he said.

Johnson said he met with Brandy Fore­man, the step­sis­ter of Natalie Brooks, in July 2006 and spoke with her. He said he apol­o­gized to her.

McDaniel said Tues­day that he hoped the re­lease of the de­po­si­tions could shed some light onto why stu­dents go on ram­pages.

“School bul­ly­ing is a fac­tor in sev­eral of these school shoot­ings,” he said. “These two are the only two sur­viv­ing mass shoot­ers. If this helps stop one from hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture, it’s worth it.”

Both Johnson and Golden said in their de­po­si­tions that they are remorseful.

Af­ter his re­lease from the Alexan­der ju­ve­nile fa­cil­ity in 2008, Golden got a tat­too of a Bi­ble verse. Writ­ten on him was Ro­mans 3:23, which reads, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Johnson, too, evoked re­li­gion in try­ing to ex­plain why he fired the shots March 24, 1998, say­ing he planned on be­com­ing a Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist min­is­ter af­ter his re­lease in 2005.

“Why did you shoot these peo­ple?” McDaniel asked in his 2007 de­po­si­tion.

“Hon­est to God, sir, I don’t know,” Johnson replied. “I haven’t found that an­swer out yet.”

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