Painful Burials Begin in Grieving Arkansas Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under darkening skies that mirrored this town's emotions, Jonesboro began burying its dead Friday--two little girls who were among the victims of a shooting rampage at their own school.

The funerals--the first of five to be held for those who died Tuesday, gave voice to the grieving of a community racked with pain and anger.

More than 500 mourners attended a morning service for 12-year-old Paige Ann Herring, so many that the crowd flowed in a darkly clad wave out of the Farmers Union Chapel and onto the sidewalk.

Inside the low-slung brick building, the song "My Heart Will Go On," from the movie "Titanic," was played--a song that, as for countless girls her age, was Paige Ann's favorite. The small coffin was carried into the church by her teammates on Westside Middle School's volleyball team.

Later in the day, the town said goodbye to Natalie Brooks, 11. People held hands to sing and cry through "Amazing Grace." Jonesboro schoolchildren attended both services, some wearing red and white, the school colors.

Stephanie Johnson, 12, Britthney Varner, 11, and 32-year-old teacher Shannon Wright will be buried today.

The dead, along with 10 others wounded, were victims of a shooting spree allegedly committed by the most unlikely of aggressors--their classmates. Just after lunchtime Tuesday, according to police, a fake fire alarm drew Westside students and teachers out into the parking lot, where they were sprayed with gunfire by two boys who were lying in wait in a line of trees about 200 yards away.

Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, are each being held on five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery.

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Police said Friday that the boys had more than 500 rounds of ammunition and used "hunting-style" rifles designed to bring down 280-pound deer. Between them, officials said, they fired 22 shots. Ten weapons, including three rifles, were recovered: four from Andrew, five from Mitchell and one on the ground on a wooded hill near where police said the pair had waited for classmates and teachers to leave the school.

Seven of the guns had been stolen from Andrew's grandfather and the other three belonged to his father.

Police also said they recovered 325 bullets and shells from Andrew and 199 from Mitchell.

The Justice Department announced Friday that it would not bring federal charges against the boys. That avenue had been explored because, while Arkansas law forbids trying children age 13 and under as adults, federal law allows it under certain conditions.

The scenario of children murdering other children, and the use of an arsenal of rifles and handguns, has made this quiet farming community in northeastern Arkansas the lightning rod for an international debate about violence, guns and what the world is coming to. But few here have the emotional stamina to raise their concern beyond the borders of this town of 50,000.

President Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, sent his condolences and announced Friday that he would meet with the victims' families when he returns from South Africa. The families of the boys accused of luring their schoolmates and teachers to their deaths also sent condolences to the families of those slain.

School was not in session Friday because of a regularly scheduled day off, but the students and staff had returned Thursday for counseling. Crisis counselors from as far away as Houston have arrived, offering their services.

Many of those same students and teachers attended various memorial services Thursday night. At Paige Ann's service, her school athletic jersey was draped across an open, pink-lined coffin. There was a closed coffin at the service for Natalie, who was shot twice in the head.

The services, spread out over several days, have left Jonesboro's citizens emotionally bereft.

"Last night and now today . . . all I can say is that I'm numb, I feel nothing but deep fatigue," said Celeste Tinsley, a Spanish teacher at Westside High School.

Tinsley had just emerged from the service for Paige Ann and sat unmoving in her car with teacher Tami Goodrich. Neither had been able to get into the church, but they joined the overflow crowd that stood in silence throughout the 45-minute service.

The mourners emerging from the church held each other for support as they were buffeted by a cold, gusty wind. Cars with headlights burning stood in a long line, white ribbons snapping from the antennas. Escorted by a fleet of vehicles and motorcycles from the Arkansas State Police, Craighead County sheriff's deputies and Jonesboro police, mourners turned from the church parking lot onto a two-lane blacktop road and joined a stream of cars and muddy pickups stretching to the horizon--a scene repeated after Natalie's funeral.

With media from around the world encamped for days, Jonesboro is bursting. There were no hotel rooms here and space is scarce in nearby towns along Highway 63. Officials at Arkansas State University announced Friday that the school would open dorm rooms to any family members in town for the funerals who failed to find a place to stay.

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Many townspeople have let the media know they have worn out their welcome. No reporters attended Friday's services, being allowed only to observe from across the street. People in cars and trucks drove by both churches, shouting "Shame on you!" to reporters and flashing homemade signs demanding privacy and peace.

While the former is attainable, the latter will be more problematic. Talk of healing and closure during Friday's services seems abstract to a community faced with the prospect of burying four of its children and a beloved teacher.

There have been lurching attempts to close communal wounds, but anger at the two accused boys clouds even the most charitable outlook.

"The healing cannot begin until we forgive," the Rev. Gary Creemans counseled during Paige Ann's service.

This tightly knit and conservative community, struggling to cope with the killings, has been finding solace in traditional places: a Baptist church has established a telephone "prayer hotline" and nearly every business has a jar on the counter with a taped-on plea: "For the families of the children." The florists in this town festooned with white ribbons have been scrambling to fill a backlog of orders.

Twelve-year-old Steve Yant milled around with a small crowd outside Emerson Funeral Home during Natalie's service. The boy, his father and sister were drawn, like many, in the hope that such proximity might provide answers.

"I feel like I have a spot in my life that's empty right now," said Yant, who knew all the victims, as well as the boys accused of killing them. "My close friends have been shot and killed. I really don't understand it. I don't know why this had to happen."

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Steve's 15-year-old sister, Brandy, had spent the previous two days composing a poem she dedicated to the five victims.

"I had to write it," she said. "It came to me from God."

It read, in part:

All the halls were quiet

Then the fire alarm rang.

The children got up and formed a line . . .

If only they knew what was beyond their school walls

They would have stayed safe inside the halls . . .

This is real.

This is not a dream.

Just think to yourself

That they are all in a better place.

Angels are all around them now,

And they will forever be safe.

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The Weapon Count

The weapons reportedly found on Mitchell Johnson and Drew Golden included hunting rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Police say the guns had been stolen from the younger boy's father and grandfather. Among the items seized by authorities:

Allegedly Found on the 11-Year-Old

1 Universal .30-caliber carbine

1 Davis Ind. .38 special 2-shot

1 .380 rifle

1 Ruger Security Six .357-caliber revolver

1 pocketknife

1 Safariland holster

19 .44-caliber shells

67 .357-caliber shells

49 .380-caliber shell

16 .38 special shells

6 .30-caliber shells

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Allegedly Found on the 13-Year-Old

1 Remington 742, .30-06 caliber

1 Smith & Wesson .38-caliber pistol

1 Double Deuce Buddie 2-shot derringer

1 Charter Arms .38 special pistol

1 Star .380-caliber semiautomatic

2 pocketknives

60 .38-caliber shells

13 .30-06 shells

2 .30-60 clips

2 speed loaders (loaded with .38 shells)

6 .22-caliber shells

10 .38-caliber "Rat Shot"

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