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The Ones That Got Away: Jonesboro’s Survivors And The Shooters Recall A Moment Of Horror

It was five years ago a young man invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., also shot and killed 20 young children and six team members, a catastrophe that indelibly scarred that little city and lives on in the collective national memory. But school shootings didn’t begin, or end, with Sandy Hook.   Yahoo News looks at the aftermath of four of these tragedies  and the lives they changed. In this story, we examine how 20 years Jonesboro, Ark., is still traumatized by an attack carried out by two middle-school boys — and how survivors manage the understanding that the natives are now grown men and free from prison. In other stories we seem at the lessons out of Sandy Hook that may have helped save  at a California school only last month and at how   the parents of a woman killed in Newtown are coping with their loss.


JONESBORO, Ark. — Sometimes the feeling of distress comes out of nowhere. Maybe it’s triggered by a particular change in the wind or when the temperature is hot but not too hot. Sometimes it’s seeing something on tv that suddenly brings it back, a memory of a horrible day that occurred long ago but is as colorful as if it were yesterday.

For Lynette Thetford, it’s the warmth of the spring which has frequently proved to be most challenging, and for almost two decades she has steeled herself waiting for those challenging days, bracing for your memories and pain which inevitably come hurrying back no matter how much she prays to God for healing and strength, no matter how much she’s come.

Over the years, Thetford has gotten more skillful at keeping it reliant on her strong Christian beliefs and shielded by a cocoon of family, friends and colleagues who make sure she feels loved and secure. But last February, the darkness enveloped her if she wasn’t anticipating an unusually mild afternoon in the dead of the winter. It was the type of day many people live for, particularly the kids at Nettleton Junior High, where she functions in the library. But in the early day, Thetford felt her heart racing and her emotions plummeting. She fought to breathe and tried not to cry. Soon she was over “the cliff,” as she put it, back into the emotional abyss.

Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News
Lynette Thetford at her home in Jonesboro, Ark..

“I wasn’t ready for this,” Thetford recalled, her voice a bit shaky. “If it reaches the states of the atmosphere, once the weather was like it was day — I understand it’s been, for example, 19 decades, but I have that relapse. ”

Thetford can’t help but consider another hot afternoon, March 24, 1998, when she had walked out into the lawn behind the local Westside Middle School, where she taught sixth-grade societal studies. A fire alarm had gone off after lunch, interrupting the beginning of fifth period. At first it wasn’t clear when it was a drill or a prank. It would turn out to be something much worse. As the pupils and teachers exited into the rear schoolyard, gunfire rang out. From a makeshift sniper’s nest in forests behind the construction, two pupils, Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, fired dozens of shots at their teachers and peers, using guns stolen that morning by Golden’s grandfather.

In a matter of minutes, the boys murdered five people — four sixth-grade girls and a teacher — and wounded 10 other people, including Thetford, who was shot in the lower abdomen as she strove to steer those about her to security. The bullet ripped through her intestines and severely injured the nerves which control her legs, causing her to fall forward into the floor unable to move. She was hauled to safety and kept from bleeding to death by colleagues who put pressure on her wound, but it took her months to learn to walk again.

Photo: Eric Thayer to get Yahoo News
An opinion of the wooded area behind Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., where Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden shot and killed five people in 1998.

Ahead of Columbine and Sandy Hook, earlier Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas and Orlando and San Bernardino and Charleston and Aurora and Virginia Tech and the rest of the mass shootings that have stunned and numbed the country over the last two decades, it was Jonesboro in the headlines, a little town that few out of Arkansas had ever heard of. It was Jonesboro that horrified the country and stripped away the innocence of teachers and pupils who had never imagined such evil descending on them, their school and their community.


What makes the Jonesboro situation unique is that the shooters survived their rampage and have had the opportunity to explain but only haven’t. Unlike other killers, such as Adam Lanza in Newtown and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine, Johnson and Golden didn’t turn their guns on themselves, making them a rarity among school shooters. The boys have been apprehended because they ran away, toward a van packed with camping supplies and meals to get an apparent escape.

Each boy faced five counts of murder, which probably would have merited life in prison or even the death penalty had they been adults. However under Arkansas state law at the moment, both could only be charged as juveniles and held in jail only until they were 18, their records sealed. Just a little maneuvering allowed federal officials to include on three more decades for weapons fees, maintaining them in prison until they were 21.

In 2005, Johnson was released from prison after serving seven decades, though he soon ran afoul of the law and briefly went back. In 2007, Golden premiered and changed his name to Drew Grant — a detail uncovered only when he registered to get a concealed weapons license a year afterwards. Arkansas State Police identified him during his fingerprints and refused the application. It wasn’t due to his criminal record — he didn’t have one, since the murder charges were expunged. They rejected him because they said he wasn’t fair on his application. Asked for his residential history, he’d hailed the speech of the correctional facility at which heor shersquo;d been locked up for years.  

Photo: Jeff Mitchell/Reuters
Family members of victims of the Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting adopt following the convictions of Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden.

Because they were juveniles, their situation remained mostly shrouded in secrecy, and in accordance with those close to the case, the boys declined to speak to researchers or offer any insight into what led to their deadly ambush. Nevertheless, they were forced to testify in a wrongful death civil case brought by the families and a hard-charging regional lawyer named Bobby McDaniel who was determined to seek answers out of them.

In August 2017, hours of videotaped depositions of both Johnson and Golden were published following a judge slapped the killers with a $150 million civil judgment — cash the families don’t expect to see. Nevertheless, they wanted the entire world to watch and learn out of Jonesboro in hopes their catastrophe could create lessons for different communities. According to McDaniel, they desired do what they were able to stop the tragedy from recurring and to offer something more enduring in the hopes which Jonesboro will be more than simply another statistic.

“The real important facet of this situation is the why do it, what did we learn from it, and how can we implement what we’ve learned? ” McDaniel explained.

From the testimony, that dates back almost a decade, the public can hear and watch the boys speaking for the first time for their offenses. The videos nevertheless offer no direct answer for the question “why? ” The shooters, by then young guys, mostly blame each other for whose idea it was to ambush their school, as they did when they were apprehended. Johnson asserts Golden forced him do it, and Golden testified that Johnson threatened to kill his family when he didn’t take part — dueling testimony which often rings hollow.

But Johnson appears more imminent than Golden about what led up into the shooting and what pushed him over the edge.

“I remember feeling like I was trapped, like nobody knew me,” Johnson testified in 2007. “I felt cornered. I felt like that I didn’t have anyplace to go, nothing to do. I believed my life, you understand, was at an end. … I had a great deal of folks that were against me afterward. ”

Andrew Golden, left, and Mitchell Johnson during videotaped depositions.

Johnson’s testimony included several dispassionate apologies to his victims. But echoing the little boy that felt the world was against him, he also sounds like a young man with his back against the walls, complaining of not having the ability to hold a job down because everybody knows who he is and what he did. “Society is cruel, you know, particularly towards a murderer,” Johnson testified. “It’s just something that I live with every day. ”

Even in a churchgoing community where many think in forgiving others as God has forgiven them, some survivors found Johnson’s comments chilling and hard to believe. The fact he and Golden are free now disturbs and frightens many survivors. They worry about running into one or fret about the mindset of someone who might someday feel once more the entire world is against him.

Though public records imply both guys now live out of country — Golden in Missouri and Johnson in Texas — several family members of those victims and survivors declined to talk about what happened in Jonesboro and their experience in the almost two decades since, in part because they expressed fear of retaliation in the shooters. “Who knows what’s going on with them? ” you said.

Almost 20 decades later, Thetford, that is 61, nevertheless occasionally limps, particularly if she’so exhausted. And some days, in spite of her strong faith in God and her perception that she must have been spared for a reason, Thetford can’t help but feel drowsy. Due to the guilt that never quite goes away and the shredded emotions which include living through something which, back then, wasn’t quite as common as it seems now.

“I find myself glued to [the coverage],” said Karen Curtner, that was the principal at Westside during the shooting. “My husband’so like, ‘Why are you seeing that? Don’t watch that. ’ However what I discover is … and that I don’t understand why I do so, but I attempt to figure out, I guess, some type of common denominator among all these. That’s what I attempt to do. I examine this, and that I presume, ‘What will cause a individual to want to do that? ’”

Photo: Eric Thayer to get Yahoo News
Karen Curtner was the principal at Westside Middle School at the time of the shooting.  

She’s not lonely. Most Jonesboro survivors say they’ve obsessed on the details of shootings in different cities, considering these tragedies as they still attempt to understand their own. Johnson and Golden haven’t explained exactly why they did what they did — a detail which has made locating a sense of closure much tougher, if closure for something like this even actually exists.  


When it occurred, the shooting rated as one of the worst in the country’s history and the worst strike a middle school, according to the FBI. Jonesboro, located about 130 miles north of Little Rock, was inundated by media from throughout the world, overwhelming the little city of some 50,000.

Situated on the rural outskirts of city, amid rolling wooded mountains which open up into flat farm fields of wheat and cotton, Westside abruptly found its parking lot filled with satellite trucks. Makers from syndicated talk shows attempted to sneak in the hospital rooms of survivors; reporters staked out funerals.

The idea that two baby-faced kids whose lives had barely begun had chosen to perpetrate such a coldblooded and mature crime was a shocking and unimaginable concept — until a bit more than a year afterwards, when Harris and Klebold, higher school seniors, shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 other people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo..

After Columbine, Jonesboro slowly began to fade from the national spotlight. The white ribbons folks tied on tree trunks in memory of those dead have long ago frayed and disappeared. In Westside, where the school looks mostly the same as it did 20 decades back, there is a stone seat out front carved with the date — “Mar. 24 1998” — and a little memorial in the shape of a sundial in a park area behind the building, close to the sidewalks which were formerly stained with the blood of the fallen.

Engraved on the sundial would be the victims’ names: Natalie Brooks, 12; Paige Herring, 12; Stephanie Johnson, 12; Britthney Varner, 11; and Shannon Wright, 32.

Photo: Eric Thayer to get Yahoo News
A sundial installed in honor of four children and a teacher murdered in the 1998 school shooting.  

“Many of those kids who are here today don’t have any idea what occurred, what any of the means. They weren’t even living,” a Westside instructor said on a recent Thursday afternoon after school had let out. “And to tell the truth, we don’t speak about it much either. ”

That’s since the community has attempted to move on. As at Columbine and Sandy Hook, the anniversary of the shooting was formally marked the first couple of years. There was a ceremony around the flagpole before Westside to mark the five-year mark. Ever since that time, the date has mostly passed without mention, except for informal gatherings of family members and survivors — a choice encouraged by people who believed that moving ahead was ultimately the ideal kind of recovery for a city that had endured so much.

Nonetheless, it’s a tragedy which has quietly suffered in ways which are not always so obvious — during the unimaginable loss still felt by parents and families of those children who were murdered, the trauma and guilt which still disturbs the teachers, pupils and other survivors and other pain which has rippled in unusual manners throughout the community.

Everybody has a story — the responding paramedics and hospital staffers who were later diagnosed with PTSD, the counselors who tended to the victims who afterwards needed counselors of their own to cope with what they ’d heard, the teachers who walked away in the classroom forever since they couldn’t get past a sense of fear or guilt they had been not able to protect their pupils from a threat that wasn’t even close to the top of the list of awful things that people believed could occur.

“After we thought of security back then, it was things like making sure the playground was equipped with security features,” said Curtner, the prior Westside principal, who is now an assistant superintendent at Nettleton Public Schools, in addition in Jonesboro. “We never believed about people hurting other people. I guess I was naive. ”

Photo: John Kuntz/Reuters
Corey Hallet, a third grader at the Westside Middle School, is mesmerized by his mother, Holly, and Elvis Poe of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, to Participate in a schedule to help pupils cope with the fatal shootings, March 25, 1998.

Following the shooting, the parents of a minumum of one child murdered split. Others took his surviving children and left town, trying to forge a new beginning in a new residence and at a new school — though for some, it caused more anguish being in a community where there wasn’t any one to speak to about what they had been through. Some turned to drugs or alcohol to alleviate the pain. Others touched by the shooting have suffered serious health problems or expired years until they were expected to, improvements other survivors feature into the huge stress of what they went through. The children who lived through the attack are now adults with their own kids, and though many have been able to manage the aftermath of that day far better than the grownups, some have informed reporters about the fear they’ve felt in sending their own kids off to school, a place that no longer appears secure.

Many of the Americans and families no longer speak to reporters. In addition to questions about Johnson and Golden, some say the subject is too painful to talk about after all the years. Many are still angry at the media about how they were treated in the aftermath of the shooting. And others say they don’t wish to get accused of trying to seek some sort of care for themselves if some in the area have always urged them to “move on. ”

After initially agreeing to talk to the media or anybody else about what she had been through, in part due to survivor guilt, Thetford eventually saw the questions as a gift from God to lift the pain and burden she felt. She began talking to colleagues and at churches. After Columbine, she traveled into Littleton, where she met with survivors and others that were on the scene, including police officers, trying to relieve their pain by discussing her own. As more acts of violence occurred, she reached out to other victims of mass shootings, trying to offer comfort.

“I’ve written places and offered to come because once you hear something like this, the very first thing that you would like to do is place your arms about them and hug them,” she explained. “This’s the first thing comes to my mind is that I only want to hold them and tell them it’t be OK, but it’ll get much better. ”


Thetford knows she was among those blessed ones, which includes guilt all of its own. She dwelt. Following the hospital, she came home to her husband and her kids. And every year, it’s she who chooses a ski vacation with her loved ones, that gets to hold her grandkids close and watch them grow up. It is she who will finally retire this year, after almost four decades as an educator, having refused to let one dreadful day take the job away she had dreamt of doing since she was a tiny woman. “I count my blessings daily since I’ve been blessed,” Thetford explained. But her life since has been anything but effortless.

Photo: Curt Hodges/Jonesboro Sun
Emergency personnel rush an anonymous student to an ambulance at Westside Middle School.  

She recalls the little details of that of that day, playing them over again and again in her mind. It was the second day back in class after spring break. Her husband had struck a deer with her older Monte Carlo before that morning, leaving a massive dent in the front. It was her dream car, and as she drove to work, she was upset. As she said hello to the secretaries in the front office, one asked her how she was doing. “The afternoon can’t get much worse,” she replied.

Today, Thetford cringes at the comment. “I haven’t said that since,” she explained.

Before class, she ran into her friend Shannon Wright, a sixth-grade English instructor who was among the youngest on team. Married with a 2-year-old son, she was showing off pictures of her loved ones’s trip to Disney World the week earlier. “They were so bright and beautiful,” Thetford recalled.

After the fire alarm began blaring soon after 12:30 p.m., a pupil told Thetford she believed she had witnessed Golden pull the alert and run out the back door. Thetford was annoyed at the disturbance. But she decided to do the drill anyhow. Grabbing her grade book, she began walking her students down the hallway toward the rear exit. On the way, she believed about Golden, that was among her pupils. Thetford knew his parents nicely. His older sister had been in the first class she’d ever taught, and she’d also taught his brother, that was the exact same age as her son. Andrew, she believed, “is gonna be in so much trouble for pulling fire alert. ”

Thetford was the first person out the rear door into the hot sunshine. She began going down her class record, checking off the kids’ names. Around the lawn was getting crowded with other pupils who had uttered. That’s if she heard the first pops. It sounded like firecrackers, and she believed it was an ill-advised effort to frighten the kids, perhaps to inspire them to carry emergency drills more seriously. “What on earth is government thinking? ” Thetford thought.

Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News
Lynette Thetford at her home in Jonesboro, Ark. 

Suddenly, Thetford began seeing pupils collapse around her, and she understood they were being taken. Dropping her grade book, she began to frantically wave her arms. “Get down! Get down! ” she screamed at those around her. Within seconds, she felt a “whoosh,” followed by horrible pain. She fell prone to the floor. On the sidewalk, she saw a tiny girl to her left. She had been shot in the head. “I knew that she was dead,” Thetford explained. Before she could come to grips with what she’d noticed, she felt hands grabbing her and picking her up, taking her out of the line of fire.

Curtner came from the front door of the school. As she walked around the side of the building, she saw kids running in terror and many others who were hurt and bleeding on the floor, including Thetford. She also heard a series of pops.

For a second, she panicked. The faculty had practiced for fires, tornadoes and natural disasters. However they had never ready for anything in this way. They’d no lockdown program or safety guard to protect them. “Faculties were the safest place to be,” she explained. “You never considered needing anything like this. It was unheard of. ”

The safety doors leading back in the school were secured, a fire protection feature triggered by the alarm, therefore the primary started herding panicked teachers and kids toward the gym next door. Bullets were flying, until suddenly the shooting ceased. With little time to think, Curtner ran back into the front entrance, which was unlocked, and began racing through the classrooms catching giant buckets and provides, including medical kits they had ready months before when scientists suggested a giant earthquake might hit the middle of the country.

She had no idea the crucial role those earthquake kits could play in another sort of disaster. Police and ambulances took more than 15 minutes to arrive at the school on the edge of town, and the kits were credited with saving the lives of several of those severely injured.

Photo: Leigh Daughtridge/Commercial Appeal/ZUMApresscom
An emergency employee carries a young woman in the ambulance outside Westside Middle School, March 24, 1998.

Since ambulances arrived to transport the wounded, Curtner knew there were kids that didn’t make it. Nothing in her life had prepared her for what she saw because she ran about trying to assist. She tries not to consider it, but the pictures appear like a bad fantasy.

From the minute she began training to be a teacher, it had been drilled into her that she was responsible for maintaining the kids in her care safe. If she could have stopped the bullets, she’d have, but she hadn’t, and for that, she felt like a failure. But the pain and depression she’d ultimately feel would only arrive much later. At that moment, she had the burden of taking on what needed to be done, of being the pillar of strength her kids and teachers desired.

Just when the police ceased Curtner and asked her to search through a list of pupils to mark who had been absent that day didn’t begin to wonder who had assaulted her school. She wondered if it was a frustrated parent or some emotionally sick fated. However she checked off who had been out of school that afternoon, a record that included Johnson and Golden.

“We’ve got these two in custody outside in the car,” the officer told her, pointing into the boys’ names.

“To what? ” she explained.

Curtner didn’t get that, even if the officer informed her Johnson and Golden had been found with the guns. When it hit her, she couldn’t think it. Afterwards, people would inquire when the boys were troublemakers, if there had been indications of instability or hints which they’d become killers. Johnson had been in trouble, but nothing outside of the ordinary for a boy his age. Even today, she remembers how unfailingly considerate he was — constantly “Yes, ma’’m” and “No, ma’’m. ” And she’d never even seen Golden in the office. “Not 1 time,” she explained. She couldn’t think them capable of murder.

She knew their parents. The Goldens, that worked in the post office, had been involved with the faculty and looked like good folks. She was still thinking about it if Dennis Golden, Andrew’s father, rushed through the front door looking for his own son.

Photo: Mike Wintroath/AP
Dennis and Pat Golden, parents of Andrew Golden, leaving the Craighead County Sheriff’s Dept., March 25, 1998. 

“He believed he was coming to pick his child up. He’so like, ‘I can’t locate my child. Where’s my child? ’& ” Curtner recalled. “I remember them in my office, and I remember the look on his face. ”

Like Curtner, he was stunned.


The next few months were, according to Curtner, “a blur. ” In a decision that perhaps wouldn’t be produced now, classes resumed at Westside which Friday, three days after the shooting. The school government, acting on the recommendation of counselors, had made the telephone in the belief that getting the kids back on a program would allow them to locate “normalcy. ”

The faculty had attracted in high heeled hoses to wash the blood away and attempted to patch up bullet holes which had pierced the faculty building and the gym. They’d ultimately bulldoze some of the trees where Golden and Johnson had put their sniper’s nest and install fences made to keep the grounds more protected, but wouldn’t occur until afterwards. Indoors, the fire alarm had been temporarily deactivated, amid worries that a false alert might send school into panic.

A few of the pupils didn’t reunite in these ancient days, but most did, even though this Friday also happened to be the day that many of the funerals were held. In every classroom, the nation had assigned a counselor to encourage the kids to talk about their feelings, though many fought to, or preferred talking only to teachers who, like them, were there and may relate to what they were going through.

Nothing was ordinary. A police officer had been delegated to the building 24 hours a day, guarding what had turned into a macabre tourist attraction. Each and every day, there was more email to open in what was an unbelievable outpouring of support. You will find letters, teddy bears, school supplies and boxes of different gifts intended to assist the school feel significant. In classes, kids were assigned to write thank-you cards. It was only a battle to get through every day.

“We only lived, pretty much,” Curtner said.

Pictures: Rogelio Solis/AP Family handouts via Reuters
Top, pall bearers carry the casket of Westside Middle School pupil Paige Ann Herring. Bottom, left to right, the instructor and four children who perished in the Jonesboro school shooting: Shannon Wright, Brittany Varner, Paige Ann Herring, Natalie Brooks and Stephanie Johnson.  

The following school year was trickier. A few of the teachers didn’t reunite — though after months of rehabilitation, Thetford did. She was pleased to be back, happy to watch her kids, but like every part of the journey following the shooting, it wasn’t simple. Many days, she spent some time after school talking to Curtner and the other teachers in what became informal therapy sessions where they spoke about the feelings and anxieties.

There were times when some of the team couldn’t escape bed because they were so depressed or full of anxiety. A few teachers admitted to thoughts of suicide. Thetford fought with feeling guilty that she had lived while her friend Shannon Wright, who had shot two bullets while trying to shield her pupils, had expired. And at one of the lowest points, Thetford told her mother, “I don’t know why Shannon got to perish, and that I stayed here. ” She was diagnosed with clinical depression.

This fall, the school was required to maintain a fire drill. Some teachers and students decided to stay home rather than risk flashbacks. But Thetford knew she had to face her fears. Ahead of the bell went off, she recalled how the new superintendent of the school district had approached her and grabbed her hand. “Mrs. Thetford, we’ll protect you,” he explained.

“” I believed, ‘No, he’t. Nobody can protect you from things like this,’& ” she recalled.

While every day was a battle, Thetford was determined to stick it out together with her pupils. Rather than sixth-grade social studies, she was teaching the seventh graders, to allow her more contact with those who had been in school daily. She loved teaching history, she loved the school and she believed things would get simpler. “To get me out of here, you’d have to blast me out,” she informed a colleague.

However one afternoon, she was pulling a clip of World War I to get a lesson. She wished to teach the kids about trench warfare, but she couldn’t bear to watch the film clip, due to the violence. How can she do her job without a visual? “I began yelling,” she explained. “This’s once I knew I’d have to escape from social studies. ”

Photo: Leigh Daughtridge/Commercial Appeal/zumapresscom
A police officer stands at the perimeter of the crime scene.  

When the seventh-grade class that year moved on into the large school, Thetford took employment as a reading instructor at Nettleton and eventually went back to school to become a librarian. For her part, Curtner stayed with the kids, getting principal of Westside High School, a project she retained until that class graduated. In a move that surprised her colleagues, she took a job as principal at the regional high school for troubled youths. Explaining the move, she says she felt she can “make a difference. ” However she admits she felt she needed a change, and to deal with kids who had disciplinary issues felt easier than staying at Westside.

“I left that burden there,” she explained. Moving to another school “took my mind from it, also it was a saving thing for me personally. ”


Frustrated by the secrecy of the juvenile court proceeding and the indication that the two boys who murdered their kids would serve only a few years in prison, the victims’ families approached a dominant lawyer named Bobby McDaniel shortly following the shooting to inquire if he believed there was any other avenue of justice.

Considered as one of the most effective civil litigators in the nation, McDaniel had made national news only two decades before as the attorney for Susan McDougal, one of Bill Clinton’s partners in the Whitewater land venture. McDaniel had forced the sitting president to sit for a deposition in a fraud situation related to the failed real estate deal.

As an example, taking the situation was private. Jonesboro was his hometown, and just like everyone else he was horrified by what had occurred. Nobody has been in it for the money — except to protect against the boys from perhaps someday selling their tales or profiting off the offense. While the Golden family reportedly did cover an undisclosed amount of cash to some of the victims’ families, what McDaniel and the parents actually wanted was advice. How can they stop anything like this from happening to anybody again?

Photo: Eric Thayer to get Yahoo News
Attorney Bobby McDaniel at his office in Jonesboro, Ark., Nov. 30, 2017.  

In 1998, McDaniel filed a wrongful death suit — naming Johnson and Golden as defendants, together with Sporting Goods Properties, the manufacturer of a Remington 742 gun which has been used by Johnson in the attack, arguing the gun was a risk because it didn’t have a trigger lock. While the gun firm was later dropped out of the case, in part because the guns were stolen, the lawyer still said they had become successful, pointing to the higher presence of trigger locks which gun makers began to add to weapons concerns of liability following what happened in Jonesboro.

“Every time you go into a gun store, every gun on a rack comes with a trigger lock on it. This wasn’t true once we filed this lawsuit,” McDaniel explained.

But it took years to realize another area of the situation: trying to know what produced Johnson and Golden attack their school daily. It was almost two decades until he got to question the boys for the first time back in 2000 — testimony which was limited since they were still juveniles and Golden had filed an appeal to overturn his conviction, asserting he had been insane at the time of the shooting.

Then McDaniel had to wait until the boys were outside of prison. Because they were held as juveniles, there was no coverage on their exact release or where they had gone. It took almost a decade following the shooting to track them down and finish the depositions. It was just another nine years until they were made public this past August — more than 19 years following the shooting.

“This was a long, long process, but as I told the families, and that I maintained, the consequences of the case are gont continue lives,” McDaniel explained. “So what should we must wait seven decades, ten decades, 20 decadesago I won’t abandon ship just since it’s gonna take quite a while. ”

The videos feel extraordinary — not so much for the answers they provide, but rather because they exist at all in a situation that for decades was marked by silence. It is uncommon to observe killers speaking under oath for their offenses, even if some of the testimony provided by Johnson and Golden is hard to believe, including claims made by both that they had taken at the sky, not at people.

There are four individual videos of close to eight hours of testimony. Two Johnson, one shot in 2000, when he was 15; and another in 2007, when he was 22 and soon to be on his way back into prison after being pulled over into a van together with bud and an unregistered gun. (Johnson said it was a Christmas gift from a friend worried about his security.) And two of Golden, one shot in 2000, when he was 13; and another in 2008, when he was 22. By then, Golden had changed his name to Drew Grant in an attempt to “begin a new life,” he clarified. McDaniel tracked him down after his unsuccessful attempt to get a concealed weapons license.

Photo: Beth Hall/AP
Mitchell Johnson, centre, taking a Rest from trial in Fayetteville, Ark., Jan. 29, 2008. Johnson, then 23, faced one count of owning a firearm while being an individual or being addicted to a controlled substance.  

From the 2008 video, Golden seems nervous and uncomfortable. He talks about going to live with his sister in Missouri to alter his name and begin over and how he stayed with a warrior of his parents to stay beneath the radar following his release. He had been taking classes at Arkansas State in Jonesboro beneath his new name and had been working odd jobs and relying heavily on his own parents, who had bought him a truck and were paying for the majority of his expenses. He had gotten one tattoo since he’d left prison: a cross with the words “Roman 3:23. ” After McDaniel inquired which Bible verse it was, Golden mumbled, “For those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. ”

Golden speaks of guilt, but never says he’s sorry. He testified he had never apologized or reached out to his victims on the advice of his lawyers and since he “didn’t want to stir anything up. ” He also provides pages of testimony regarding his skills as a professional marksman, the awards he won as a child. But when asked about the shooting at Westside, he testified he shot into the atmosphere or aimed at the fitness center, from people, although ballistics reveal bullets from his gun struck Thetford and murdered Brooks, among others. It sparked a tense exchange with McDaniel, that, off camera, sounds increasingly incredulous.

Golden: “I didn’t intentionally shoot anybody. ”

McDaniel: “This’s a lie, and you know it, isn’t it? ”

Golden: “No, sir. I never aimed toward anybody. ”

McDaniel: “Oh, it’s only coincidental that five people lay dead together with bullets throughout their mind and their kisses by pure accident, right? ”

Golden: “I never intended to. I never shot at anyone. I didn’t.”

McDaniel: “Can you understand what perjury is? ”

But in a haunting moment, Johnson was asked during his 2007 deposition when he has read about the shootings that came after Jonesboro, including the attack at Columbine, and what advice he may have to prevent future killers like him. After a minute, he responded at length, speaking somewhat dispassionately about the warning signs to search for.

“When a person is usually active, a person is doing well in school rather than having troubles, and he simply all the sudden clamps upward, don’t want to speak, getting in trouble; clearly’s a warning sign,” Johnson said. “Deviant behavior, working together with the wrong audience … this’s a bad thing. It is. People that are physically abusive and don’t get counseling for it and don’t speak about it, don’t speak about their difficulties period, things boils over, you understand. ”

Mitchell Johnson, left, and Andrew Golden in undated yearbook photos.

From the closest answer to a reason given by either one of those boys, ” Johnson added, “I think that was the main reason why. When there wasn’t any reason, that has been the main reason why I decided to assist Andrew do what he done, do we what done. I felt like that I didn’t have anybody to speak to. I didn’t have anybody to open up to. I didn’t know who I could trust. ”

According to public records, Johnson resides in Houston. Golden got married and resides out Cape Girardeau, Mo.. Neither one has apologized to their victims.

“I am incapable of expressing to you the anxiety, anxiety, frustration, and anger that these parents have that somebody who burglarizes a home, as an example, or sells crack cocaine can get 40 years in jail, and these men were out walking the street in virtually no time,” McDaniel explained. “Just like we can’t lock the drug problem — they tried that and it hadn’t worked — and locking up these kids for 100 years could be great at least in the opinion of the parents, but I don’t understand the solution. There’s no answer that will remove their hurt, frustration and anger. ”


On this hot day in February earlier this year, when Lynette Thetford felt all the memories and pain coming back, she excused herself from her desk at the Nettleton Junior High library and took a 15-minute push back to Westside, down that winding road she has traveled so frequently over the previous 20 decades. She’s come alone frequently or visited some of the pupils she dropped at the cemetery up the street. But this time, she brought one of her assistants, a close friend who has seen her during dark times like that one. She wished to tell her the story of what occurred that day.

Just as it hurts and will hurt, talking about it helps, crying about it assists. That’s what she tells other survivors of mass shootings and families that have lost loved ones. If Thetford had learned anything, it’s that keeping it inside, bottled up, only doesn’t work.

When they got to the faculty, they walked down that sidewalk, where she was taken, where she watched little women who had their entire lives before them cut down in a minute. She pointed to where the boys were, to where her friend Shannon Wright died shielding her pupils. She showed her the place where colleagues carried her out of the lineup of fire, where she lay on the floor, her colleagues plugging her wound and yelling at her to hang.

There have been so many thoughts going through her mind in those moments following the shooting, bizarre ones that now she can’t explain. Was her home clean? Why had she ate that apple and banana for lunch rather than something better if this was going to be her last dinner? As the moments passed, she was more and more confident she was going to die right there. Wasn’t this how it always was in the westerns she desired to watch. A bullet in the gut has been fatal.

Photo: Eric Thayer to get Yahoo News
A memorial garden in honor of the victims, near Westside Middle School.  

She worried about her husband and her kids and how she hadn’t been able to bid farewell to her parents. As she felt herself begin to slip out of awareness, she noticed that glowing light people are constantly talking about. She was sure it was paradise. But something seemed to hold her back. Something in her heart told her she had to forgive those it was that did this to her and to her school. She had no idea who had fired those shots, but there on the floor she willed herself to forgive. She wouldn’t be a Christian when she only followed a part of what Jesus said.

“I didn’t understand it was the boys,” she recalled. “I was anticipating large guys in camo to come running around with the large guns in their hands. I never believed it was the kids. This was among the greatest surprises. ”

Thetford later awakened in the hospital. God, it appears, wasn’t done with her yet. The doctor told her she’d dropped two 2-liter Coke bottles full of blood. She was blessed to be living. Someone finally told her that had fired the guns. Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson. She thought of her bargain with God. She had to forgive, and she had to keep forgiving.

Maybe that’s just how a few weeks later she found herself reassuring Golden’s parents, listening to his mother cry about how her baby was in prison downtown, so close, and she couldn’t hug him or hold him. The boy who had shot and almost killed her. “I simply cried. I cried with them,” she explained.

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