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Painful Burials Begin in Grieving Arkansas Town

March 28, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JONESBORO, Ark. — 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.

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