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    A Bible Belt Town Searches for Answers

    By Sue Anne Pressley
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 22, 1997; Page A03

    PEARL, Miss., Oct. 21óBob Menefee always made sure he inspected his daughter Christy's dates, and there was nothing, really, about Luke Woodham that put him off. The boy was quiet, and it seemed odd that his mother always accompanied the couple, but his manners were nice. He called Menefee "sir" so often that the older man jokingly told him to stop.

    Now, Menefee is struggling to understand how this boy who stood so politely in his living room, who dated his daughter for a mere three weeks last year, could have walked into Pearl High School on the morning of Oct. 1 and calmly shot Christy and another girl to death, wounding seven others. Police say that Woodham already had fatally stabbed his mother, Mary, in her bed before he left for school. He was indicted in the three killings this week.

    In the days that followed, the case grew even more disturbing, as police alleged that the 16-year-old sophomore and six other arrested teenagers had formed a demonic cult known as "Kroth" and had plotted the violence with enthusiasm.

    As residents of this normally quiet town of 22,000 continue to search for answers, Bob Menefee believes he knows why his daughter was targeted: She had taken the time to be kind to a boy who considered himself a societal misfit, "always beaten, always hated," as Woodham wrote in what prosecutors called "a manifesto."

    "Maybe he finally had found somebody who would treat him kindly," Menefee said about Woodham's apparent obsession with his daughter. "Christy was that kind of girl. She didn't make fun of him, she didn't pick on him. Maybe that was it. As far as he was concerned, she was the only girl in the world."

    The extent of Woodham's alienation was revealed through his writings released last week at a preliminary hearing for Grant Boyette, 18, a community college student and Baptist church member whom police described as the ringleader of Kroth. Woodham wrote that he "had suffered all my life" and urged others to "hate the accursed god of Christianity . . . for flinging you into a monstrous life you did not ask for nor deserve!

    "I am the epitome of all Evil!" he wrote. "I have no mercy for humanity for they created me, they tortured me until I snapped and became what I am today."

    Woodham also spewed anger and hurt about the Menefee girl, writing that, "No one truly loved me. No one ever truly cared about me. I only loved one thing in my whole life and that was Christina Menefee. But she was torn away from me."

    Police investigator Greg Eklund testified that Boyette had often "told Luke Woodham that he should just kill her and be done with it so he won't have to see her again." When Woodham walked into the high school, a hunting rifle concealed under his coat, he knew exactly where to find the popular Menefee -- in the commons area, laughing and talking, surrounded by friends.

    It is hard to square this horrific case with the seeming tranquillity of Pearl, a bedroom community just east of Jackson, the state capital. This is the heart of the Bible Belt, with 37 churches in town, most of them Baptist. The street where Luke Woodham lived with his divorced mother is typical of many, with shade trees, comfortable ranch-style brick homes, and late-model vehicles under every carport. These days, the porches and lawns are decorated with Halloween pumpkins and flying ghosts -- as well as blue-and-gold ribbons, the school's colors, mounted in sympathy for all that has happened.

    In the days after the slayings, residents feared that there was a hit list with more deaths to come. Dozens of students were kept home from school. People, shocked by Woodham's written account, released in court, of torturing and killing his beloved dog, Sparkle, inundated the town police department with calls every time "somebody's dog jumped over a fence and ran off," said Police Chief Billy Slade. Woodham described how he and an accomplice beat his dog, then set it on fire and threw it in a pond. "I'll never forget the sound of her breaking under my might. I hit her so hard I knocked the fur off her neck . . . it was true beauty," he wrote.

    But Mayor Jimmy Foster, whose teenage son, Kyle, a football player, apparently was an intended victim, said he believes residents are calming down as more details come to light. "I feel like, to start healing, we have to have some closure in the investigation," Foster said. "I think as more facts are revealed, it will settle a lot of people's minds."

    Residents, however, still seem to be having a hard time grasping how Woodham and the other boys -- all of them above-average in intelligence, from seemingly nice homes, none with past disciplinary problems -- could have descended so far into a world of darkness.

    Aside from Woodham's actions, Eklund said the group had planned to poison one of the boy's fathers in a spat over the purchase of computer equipment and had devised a hit list of enemies to assassinate. Gathering at Woodham's home in the afternoons before Mary Woodham returned from her secretarial job, police said, they would discuss their admiration for Adolf Hitler and read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who inspired the Nazi dictator and who regarded Christian civilization as decadent.

    "I'm not a big Christian person, but I believe in the devil and the good Lord above, and I guess if you don't turn to one, you turn to the other," said Robert Plunkett, 24, an electrician who lives across the street from the Woodham home. "But something else had to play a part in it. He made the comment he was mistreated, not recognized for his efforts. I get mistreated by the public all the time and I'm not going to go kill my mama and take out my classmates."

    Woodham's attorney, Leslie Roussell, said that conflicting portraits of his client have made it difficult to view him as what he is -- a troubled 16-year-old boy.

    "When this story first broke, the day after the shooting, all the news reports portrayed Luke as somebody who's been picked on, abused psychologically by his parents, basically a poor victim of society," said Roussell, who is considering an insanity plea. "Now you're reading, a week later, that he's a hit man for Satan. You're in the Bible Belt and you're mentioning Satan and Hitler in the same sentence. . . . That's the way the public sees him -- he's no longer the poor, mistreated kid -- and that first version is much more accurate.

    "You could talk to anybody who went to school there, he's been picked on since kindergarten," Roussell said. "He's overweight, he wears glasses. For lack of a better word, he fits the nerd syndrome."

    Pearl School Superintendent Bill Dodson said he believes the youths, stung perhaps by not being part of the popular crowd, saw their after-school activities as "one way to bring recognition to themselves.

    "My opinion, as far as the cults go, we do not have a pure sense of cults here in this case. There was a great deal of dabbling in a lot of things," Dodson said. "We did not see anything that would indicate this was about to happen. It was not evident because they were not troublemakers. They did not dress in black."

    One of Woodham's alleged conspirators, 16-year-old Justin Sledge, did disrupt a candlelight service at the school shortly after the slayings, when he cried out that Woodham "went mad because of society." Sledge, arrested a few days later with the five other teenagers, has been charged, like Boyette, with two counts of being an accessory before the fact of murder, which could lead to life in prison.

    To Bob Menefee, who says he still expects Christy to come bursting out of her bedroom any minute, the case has an unreal quality. Saying he decided to speak out to "humanize" his daughter, he also is asking people to donate money to a special account for school security and is pushing for a "Christy's Law," that would provide for the death penalty in Mississippi in cases where more than one person is killed. The most severe penalty Woodham could get is a life sentence.

    Menefee, who repairs restaurant equipment, described his 16-year-old daughter as "a sweet young girl, very, very outgoing, very vibrant, bubbly, tender-hearted. Christy had friends, friends, friends galore."

    The popular girl and the withdrawn boy might have seemed an odd couple, and indeed, Menefee said, they only dated four or five times in a three-week period in September of last year. He believes Christy decided to move on because Mary Woodham, 50, insisted on accompanying the pair on every date, to the movies, to McDonald's. The woman seemed nice, but "possessive," Menefee said.

    Menefee said Woodham and his daughter "had got to talking at school. She got to sitting with him at lunch. She felt sorry for him, maybe. She befriended him mainly because nobody else did. . . . We nicknamed him Luke Skywalker. We gave nicknames to all her friends."

    But soon Christy came to her dad for advice; she did not want to date Woodham anymore. "She said, `What should I do, daddy?' I said, `The first thing you want to do is be very conscious of his feelings. Make sure you let him know it was not anything he did. You can still be friends.' For a couple of weeks after that, he'd call here to the house. . . . We figured he was out of the picture."

    Luke's name did not come up again until three weeks before the slayings when Christy came home from school and announced, "You'll never guess who asked me out today. Luke Skywalker!"

    Christy said she politely declined, telling him she did not want to get serious about anybody just yet.

    "From what I could tell, he cared more about her than she did about him. He was infatuated," Menefee said. "He had written to her in a note that his life only began when he met her."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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