In a week when the flea market was supposed to be the headline event, fear and rumor captivated this small country town, as residents learned that six local sons were arrested and charged with conspiracy in last week’s shooting spree at Pearl High School.
Just as people were getting over the shock of 16-year-old Luke Woodham being arrested and charged with butchering his mother, then shooting two classmates to death and wounding seven others, Pearl officials were on national TV again Wednesday, breaking the news that they believe that six local teenagers had helped Woodham plan his rampage.
Together, the seven boys were said by police to have formed a strange and morose circle. Intellectual, aloof, they called themselves “The Group” and may have found common purpose in misreading the violent writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, according to several people familiar with the investigation.
In addition, Mayor Jimmy Foster said he had been told that Woodham was gunning for his son, Kyle, possibly because a high-profile killing would garner more publicity. The mayor said students who witnessed the shooting overheard Woodham mention Foster as an intended victim.
“It’s the grip of evil is what it is,” said Ricky Blailock, whose 15-year-old daughter, Pam, escaped injury in the shooting, though she was standing near Woodham when he opened fire. “It’s the grip of Satan. He’s got a grip on this world like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Scary,” said Pam’s mother, Jewel. “Do you let your children go back to school while the investigation is still going on?”
Families and defense attorneys of the accused students said police had overreacted. But scores of other parents, fearing that all “conspirators” may not yet be in custody, kept their children at home Wednesday despite a bristling show of police force at every school entrance and exit.
Pearl Police Chief W.E. “Bill” Slade would not reveal what evidence led investigators to arrest the six boys--Grant Boyette, 18; Wesley Brownell, 17; Donald P. Brooks II, 17; Delbert Alan Shaw, 18; Justin Sledge, 16; and Lucas Thompson, 16--just one week after Woodham was captured after allegedly walking through the school grounds firing his hunting rifle, a blank look on his face.
Slade would only say that many students and parents told school officials--often during emotional grief-counseling sessions--that Woodham hadn’t acted alone.
When investigators compiled solid proof that such tips were true, Slade said, they pulled three students out of Tuesday morning’s first class. The three other suspects were already in custody, arrested the night before, including Boyette, a Pearl graduate who attends nearby Hinds Community College. Some of the evidence against the teens should be made public next week, Slade said, at a preliminary hearing.
Besides the conspiracy to kill Pearl students, Boyette and Brooks were charged with conspiring to kill Brooks’ father, Donald Sr., a Pearl firefighter. All six youths are being held at the local jail on $1 million bond per count. Woodham is being held without bond.
Defense lawyer James Bell said Brooks “is absolutely not guilty of any charge. His father fully supports him.”
Lawyers also criticized police affidavits.
“It’s a very scantily worded affidavit in that it simply said they conspired to commit murder and doesn’t even say who,” said Dale Danks, an attorney representing Sledge.
Shaw’s mother, June Goodin of Louisville, about 90 miles northeast of Pearl, said he had lived with her for the past two weeks and was not in Pearl at the time of the shootings. “He knew all those children who were shot and was just devastated,” she said.
Leslie Roussell, Woodham’s attorney, also cast doubt on the confession his client gave police last week. “Put three police officers in a dark room with a 16-year-old and you could probably get him to say he was on the grassy knoll in 1963,” he said.
Slade would not say what he believes motivated the teens--and how deeply involved in the planning each may have been. But the arrests alone provided enough raw material for countless wild rumors, from a devil-worshipping cult of kids to a “hit list” of students the cult planned to kill. At the local waffle restaurant, at the supermarket, wherever a TV was on, people talked in troubled whispers about good boys gone mad, wondering aloud if the danger had passed.
It’s been a long time since people in Pearl, a town of 22,000 near the state capital of Jackson, didn’t feel safe walking the streets.
“I’ve had 10 parents call and ask, ‘Is my child on the hit list?’ ” Slade said with a heavy sigh, adding that police have no evidence that such a list, or a cult, exists.
But fears have been heightened by Slade’s refusal to rule out the possibility of more arrests, and the refusal of Rankin County Dist. Atty. John Kitchens to publicly dispel reports of Satanic worship being part of the conspiracy.
Rev. Don Malin, of Clinton, Miss., a local expert on religious cults, said he had studied the “manifesto” Woodham wrote shortly before the shootings, a manifesto that alleged group-member Sledge made public just after Woodham’s arrest. Malin, one of the few people to have seen the manifesto, said it contains nothing cult-oriented.
“I am not insane,” Woodham wrote. “I am not spoiled or lazy, for murder is not weak and slow-witted. Murder is gutsy and daring. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I do this to show society, ‘Push us and we will push back.’ I suffered all my life. No one ever truly loved me. No one ever truly cared about me. I only loved one thing in my life and she was Christina Menefee but she has gone away from me.”
Menefee, 16, was one of two students who died in the shootings. The other was 17-year-old Lydia Kaye Dew. Menefee and Woodham dated last year, school officials said, but Woodham and Dew seemed not to have any special relationship.
“All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated,” Woodham wrote. “Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do? Yes, you will. The ratings wouldn’t be high enough if you didn’t, and it would not make good gossip for all the old ladies.”
Assistant Principal Joel Myrick, who disarmed Woodham minutes after the shooting, brushed aside the theory that Woodham was a teen who snapped after years of being teased, because one of Woodham’s victims was the epitome of the picked-on student. In fact, Lydia Dew was such a special case, a girl with so few friends and such awkward social skills, that Myrick said he often felt the need to take extra time with her. Days after Dew’s funeral, her mother presented Myrick with the girl’s ring, a token of appreciation for all he had done. Just describing the gesture on Wednesday, Myrick became teary-eyed.
Few people in town are as shaken by the shooting and subsequent arrests as Myrick, an Army reservist and National Guard commander who said he saw Woodham firing his rifle in the school’s common area, made eye contact with the boy, then ran and got his .45-caliber pistol. When Woodham jumped into his mother’s car and steered toward the exit, Myrick said he sprinted to meet him at the long, tree-lined road that leads away from the school.
On Wednesday, Myrick recalled how he ordered Woodham out of the car and on the ground.
“Why?” Myrick asked him, his gun touching Woodham’s neck. “Why did you do this?”
“Mr. Myrick,” Woodham said. “I’m the guy who gave you a discount on your pizza the other night!”
Again, Myrick asked Woodham why he had done such a thing, adding “You killed my kids.”
“Well, Mr. Myrick,” Woodham said. “The world has wronged me, and I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“You think the world has wronged you now,” Myrick told the boy, “wait till you get to Parchment.”
Parchment is a Mississippi state prison.