It is commonly referred to as the Jonesboro school shooting, but the actual incident took place at Westside Middle School in rural Craighead County, Arkansas - near the community of Jonesboro. It wasn't the first school shooting in America, nor was it destined to be the last, but this particular shooting at a school was especially memorable due to the ages of the shooters.
On March 24, 1998, 11-year-old Andrew Golden, a kid described by one of his teachers as "sneaky," and his friend, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, got in a car owned by Johnson's mother and drove to a secluded wooded acreage near their school. They had packed the car with camping equipment and several weapons that they had stolen from the home of Golden's grandfather, a conservation agent. The also had over 2,000 rounds of stolen ammunition.
They parked the car in a wooded area next to the school, and Golden ran into the school and pulled the fire alarm - and then hurried back to join Johnson in the woods. As the teachers and students marched outside and gathered next to the school, the two heavily armed boys opened fire on the crowd. It was a real life shooting gallery. When the carnage ended, five were dead - four students and a teacher - and nearly a dozen others were wounded.
It was an appalling act of barbarism that had been carefully thought out and executed by children. At the time of the shooting, "Jonesboro" was the second deadliest school rampage in American history. Now, sadly, less that twenty years later, it is in a five-way tie for ninth place.
Much was written about the backgrounds and family lives of these two cold-blooded killers. Both boys lived in households in which guns were commonplace fixtures. Mitchell Johnson and his brother had moved to Arkansas from Minnesota with their mother a couple of years before the shooting when his parents divorced. Johnson's mother, a prison guard, later married one of the ex-convicts who had been serving time at her prison.
Andrew Golden, the younger of the two shooters, lived with both of his natural parents, a pair of postal workers, and his grandfather, the conservation agent, lived nearby. He had what appeared to be a loving and stable home life. But then photos of young Andrew began making their way into national publications - pictures of a little boy holding and aiming guns. One iconic picture of little Andrew - at around the age of two - clad in cammo and holding a rifle - even made its way onto a cover of Time. It was becoming apparent that Andrew had grown up steeped in a gun culture.
The boys, who had seemed to be planning to live somewhere in the woods after they atrocity, were instead quickly captured and jailed. They were adjudicated as juveniles and sentenced to incarceration in Arkansas reformatories until the age of eighteen. The federal government added weapons charges to the legal mix, and the lads' time inside was lengthened until their twenty-first birthdays.
Both young men were released at the ages of twenty-one. Mitchell had served over seven years of juvenile incarceration, and Golden had served more than nine by the time they were allowed to re-enter society. Both adopted assumed identities and continued living in Arkansas. Mitchell worked for awhile at convenience stores in northwest Arkansas before again running afoul of the law with charges of theft and the illegal possession of controlled substances and guns. He was sent to prison for a term of eighteen years, but has recently been released.
Golden attended a community college for a period of time. His new identity and location became known after he tried unsuccessfully to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Both young men still face civil lawsuits filed by the relatives of their victims.
Of all of the school shooters in American history, and sadly there are many, only two, Golden and Mitchell, are today free citizens.
(More on "Jonesboro" tomorrow from popular media of the times.)