The assassin at Pearl High

 

They were so regular that the neighbours could set their clocks by the Woodhams' early morning starts. At 6.45 Mary Ann Woodham and her 16-year-old son Luke would come out of their house and she would drive him to Pearl High School before continuing on to her job as a receptionist.

But not on October 1st last. As the police and prosecutors tell it, Luke stabbed his mother to death with a butcher's knife at 5 a.m., sat down and wrote a "manifesto", drove himself to school and there shot his ex-girlfriend and another girl dead and wounded seven others.

As Woodham fled from the school the assistant principal, Joel Myrick, got his pistol and dragged the boy from his car shouting: "Why did you shoot my kids?"

Myrick went over the events of that day as he sat in his office last week and is still baffled by Woodham's answer as he threw him on the ground: "Mr Myrick, I'm the guy who gave you the discount on the pizza you ordered the other night."

As Myrick kept yelling "Why?" at Woodham, waiting for the police to arrive, the boy then muttered: "Because the world has wronged me".

Back at the school there was chaos. The shooting had taken place in the assembly area called Commons where hundreds of teenage students had been chatting before classes. They scattered in terror as the shots rang out and bodies fell.

Luke Woodham was an overweight, short-sighted student who had been "picked on" and teased for his looks when in junior school. But in Pearl High, he had been doing well in class, was seen to be intelligent and had had a girl-friend for a while, 16-year-old Christina Menefee.

Now she lay dead, shot through the neck. Dead beside her was Lydia Kaye Dew (17) to whom she had been talking when Woodham, according to the police, walked over to them with a .30 calibre rifle and opened fire.

For a week, the high school - the pride of Pearl and a winner of a national award for all-round excellence - was in shock. Sixty counsellors were called in to help the students; prayer meetings were held; the national media descended on the drab town of 22,000 people strung along Highway 80 on the outskirts of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi.

The character of Luke Woodham was analysed over and over again after he was taken to jail, charged with three murders and seven grievous assaults. He has pleaded not guilty and under Mississippi law cannot be sentenced to death if found guilty, a loophole many angry citizens want to change.

Then came an another shock. On October 7th, local police arrested six other students and charged them with conspiracy to murder.

The police acted after counsellors revealed they had been told about the existence of a shadowy "group" to which Woodham belonged. There were reports of satanic rituals. The Rankin County district attorney, John Kitchens, announced that "the conduct engaged in by those charged is so anti-Christian and anti-society that it is revolting".

Two of those arrested were described as key figures in the group which called itself "Kroth". They were Grant Boyette (18), a former pupil of Pearl High School who'd gone on to attend a nearby college; and Justin Sledge, a classmate of Luke Woodham.

Sledge had already disrupted a prayer meeting held to mourn the dead students. He told the meeting that his friend "went mad because of society" and had not killed because Christina Menafee had broken up with him or because his parents were divorced.

According to Sledge, before the shootings Woodham had handed him notebooks explaining his actions. In this five-page "manifesto", Woodham had written: "I am not insane. I am angry. This world shit on me for the final time."

He went on: "I am the hatred in every man's heart. I am the epitomy (sic) of all evil. I have no mercy for humanity, for they created me, they tortured me until I snapped and became what I am today."

At the court hearing for Boyette, a longtime-friend, Rick Brown, now a bible student, testified that Boyette began admiring Adolf Hitler and praying to Satan while in high school. "If he couldn't be accepted by us, he wanted to be accepted by someone, so he prayed to Satan for power, influence and money." Greg Eklund, an investigator with the Rankin County Sheriff's Department, claimed that Boyette, a dark-haired, thin youth, led the group and selected Woodham as "the assassin".

The group met at Woodham's home and plotted the "takeover" of Pearl High, during which they would execute certain students and teachers, then blow up the school and flee to Cuba, Mr Eklund told the court.

He also described how Boyette and Woodham had killed the latter's dog and referred to a passage in his notebooks: "On Saturday of last week, I made my first kill. The victim was a loved one, my dear dog Sparkle . . . I took the night stick and hit her in the shoulder, spine and neck. I'll never forget the sound of her breaking under my might."

Boyette and Sledge have now been charged with accessory to murder which can carry a life sentence. The four other members of the group are charged with conspiracy to kill and one, Donald Brooks, is also charged with conspiracy to kill his father, a local fireman.

But Brooks senior says he doesn't believe this charge. "I never doubted my son's love for me," he has said. Now his son is free on bail and living with the father whose murder he is accused of plotting.

Speaking from the jail where he is being held after being charged with triple murder, Luke Woodham now seems to be blaming Boyette. "He just put a lot of bgad things in my head and it built up after a time. And with the pressure of everything on top of that, I just couldn't take it anymore".

Woodham apologised to the families of the two girls he shot dead in the school. "I'm sorry about the whole incident . . . I know it's not going to bring their daughters back but I'm sorry."

Asked about the killing of his mother Woodham, who was talking to ABC's Prime Time Live, became agitated and threatened to end the interview. He said she had been a good mother.

The arrests of the students have shocked Pearl even more than the killings. The Pearl newspaper, the Clarion Ledger, said: "The latest arrests may have broken its collective heart and stolen what is left of the town's innocence".

As long as Luke Woodham was a "loner" who had reached breaking point due to an an unhappy home, a broken romance and low self-esteem, the locals, while shocked, could understand what happened. The existence of a group of youths from respectable, hard-working families dedicated to murder and influenced by pagan rites and beliefs was too much to bear.

Parents here are wondering are they too to blame. Mayor Jimmy Foster who grew up in Pearl and was a policeman for more than 20 years bemoaned the "decline of family values" as he sat in his office. As society depends more on "government" and "teachers" to raise its children, are parents taking an active enough role? "Our kids are asking for help. We should get more involved as parents in our children's lives," he said.

The Governor of Mississippi, Kirk Fordice, believes the Pearl tragedy mirrors a bigger problem in society. "Youth violence - youth murder to be more specific - is one of our biggest problems. And it all has to do with the deterioration of moral values and traditional family structure in America."

But Joel Myrick points out that more than 50 per cent of pupils are now from divorced families, so that alone can't explain these killings. That's why he believes there's some legitimacy in the group theory.

Now two uniformed policemen sit in the school as they have done every day since the killings, a reminder that Pearl High School cannot be a normal one for a very long time. On Hallowe'en 8,000 pupils from schools in Pearl and Jackson stayed at home, scared at rumours of another attack. The trials are now set for early next year and, given all they may reveal about contemporary youth culture in today's America, will be watched not only by all in Pearl, Mississippi, but a great deal further afield as well.