When 12-year-old Michael Barnes saw his classmates being gunned down in an ambush outside his school, he dropped to the ground and crawled into the gymnasium, reciting the 23rd Psalm as comfort to get him through.
Why, he wondered, would anyone murder a bunch of kids?
That question was on most everyone's mind as this rural town began trying to make sense of a bloody shooting spree that left five dead and 15 wounded.
Today, two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and his 11-year-old friend, Andrew Golden, were charged with capital murder after allegedly luring their classmates outside their middle school with a fire alarm and then gunning them down as they emerged into the schoolyard.
Golden's grandparents said in an interview late this evening in their home that they are mystified about the shootings. Andrew Golden, whose parents are postmasters, has spent much of his time since infancy with his grandparents. They said the boy has admitted he pulled the fire alarm that sent the students and teachers outdoors; he also admitted firing shots but said he did not remember shooting anyone.
Today's classes at Westside Middle School were canceled and a steam machine had already washed the sidewalk of the blood from the ambush. Ten pockmarks in the clean, sandstone-painted cinder-block walls were the only remaining evidence of the previous day's violence.
Over and over, people asked what had gotten into the two boys charged with the murders; school principal Karen Curtner said she had never received any reports of discipline problems about either one.
But the students at the school knew a different Mitchell Johnson, one who was quick to fight, whether in sports or on the school bus. Several said that Mitchell was angry over the breakup with a girl, who was among the wounded.
Although Michael Barnes himself was not hurt in the gunfire, he was struggling with the horror that Mitchell Johnson had warned him that he was angry and going to make people pay.
"He told me he hated everybody, and was going to do it," Barnes said. "I didn't believe him. Nobody believed him. Why should they? He's a little 13-year-old boy."
Doug and Jackie Golden said they were surprised to hear that the two boys had acted together, since their grandson had told them that Mitchell had threatened him on the school bus just a week before. The Goldens believe Andrew fell under the influence of the older boy. "He always told us stuff," Jackie said. "That's why I can't believe he done this."
Doug Golden, a gun collector, said his grandson had shown an interest in guns throughout his childhood and had gone recreational pistol shooting with his father last weekend. The boys, Andrew's grandparents said, stole Mitchell's mother's van Tuesday morning and drove it around to the back of the Goldens' house, where they broke into the basement and stole seven guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Then they drove to the Johnson house and unsuccessfully tried to use a blowtorch to break into a gun vault. They grabbed three guns that were not under lock at that house and headed back to the school.
Jackie Golden said she saw her grandson privately at jail. "He said he loved me," she said, fighting back tears. "Don't paint him black. He's not a killer."
Andrew Golden stood expressionless at his arraignment today. But his 13-year-old friend, Mitchell Johnson, stood red-faced and teary in his orange jail jumpsuit as the charges were read before Juvenile Court Judge Ralph Wilson Jr.
At the beginning of the proceeding, according to local reporters allowed into the courtroom, the judge noted that Mitchell Johnson's biological father had returned to town for the hearing and offered the two a rare chance to visit. Father and son went to a corner of the courtroom and embraced, according to people who were present.
Authorities did not release the names of the two boys because they are juveniles, but many friends identified them as Johnson and Golden.
The Washington Post ordinarily does not name juveniles accused of crimes unless they are charged as adults. But the paper decided to identify the Jonesboro boys because their names and photographs were published in their hometown paper and in many other newspapers around the country, and were broadcast by the major television networks. "Our usual policy is to protect the privacy of juvenile offenders, but that goal cannot be achieved by withholding the names in this case," said Robert G. Kaiser, The Post's managing editor.
The two boys are being held at the county jail and are scheduled for trial April 29. Arkansas law prohibits trying anyone under 14 as an adult, but prosecutor Brent Davis said "there are options that we're looking at," perhaps including removal to federal court, where other rules may apply.
Both boys were hustled from their cells into the courtroom and surrounded by a tight knot of sheriff's deputies, blocking them from the view of the reporters crammed against the building's glass doors.
The tragedy comes as a visceral shock for tight-knit Jonesboro, usually a placid town about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock that would seem to epitomize the kind of environment where people want to raise children: murders are rare and the economy has been flourishing. Jonesboro Sun assistant publisher Bob Troutt calls it "the Oasis of the Delta."
"You wouldn't think nothing like this would ever happen here; you'd think things like this would happen in big cities," said Deborah Gibson, a Salvation Army volunteer helping today at the middle school, where parents and children streamed in and out all day for counseling.
Gibson said that a friend was talking with her grandson, who had been in the group of attacked children, and he said, "Like flies, Nana. They were dropping like flies." The boy, who hit the ground quickly and was unhurt, slept with his mother Tuesday night.
Jonesboro resident Larry Russell was walking his two young sons -- one a Westside student -- along the sidewalk leading up to the site of the massacre today. "He's going to have to come back here sooner or later," Russell said, adding that he wanted his children to understand that "there's nothing to be scared of."
Debbie Hazlewood got out of bed this morning at 4:30, unable to sleep, and sat down at her computer to type a poem, "It never should have happened." Today she was at the middle school with her husband, John, and her 14-year-old son, Brandon, still wondering why.
John Hazlewood said the answers to understanding the violence are easier than they might seem. "This is not the kids' problem, it's the way we're raising them today. They only know what you teach 'em," Hazlewood said. "If they hadn't taken prayer out of school, this never would have happened."
Debbie Hazlewood added: "There was a lot of prayer in this school yesterday." CAPTION: Leaving Arkansas detention hearing are Jackie and Doug Golden, grandparents of ambush suspect Andrew Golden, 11. CAPTION: Third-grader Corey Hallet is escorted by his mother, Holly, and Elvis Poe to a program to help classmates cope with loss. CAPTION: Andrew Golden, left, and his friend Mitchell Johnson allegedly lured classmates from Westside Middle School with a false fire alarm and then opened fire, killing four girls and a teacher. CAPTION: In an undated video image, Arkansas school ambush suspect Andrew Golden holds a pistol. He and Mitchell Johnson, 13, are charged with capital murder.