Days after the Pearl High school shootings, prosecutors and law officers sketched out what they claimed was a sensational conspiracy of a cult-like group of teens involved in the slayings on Oct. 1, 1997. The group, known as "the Kroth," dabbled in satanism and had plotted to overthrow the school, then flee to Cuba, an investigator said. In the end, however, prosecutors convicted two of the seven former Pearl High students charged: triggerman Luke Woodham and the supposed leader Grant Boyette.
Boyette, 20, who prosecutors once claimed had put Woodham up to the slayings, pleaded guilty to conspiring to prevent a principal from doing his job. He had been scheduled for trial on murder-accessory charges Feb. 28 in Biloxi.
"That sounds like to me it was a way to sweep an unpleasant case under the rug and still save a little face in the process," said Woodham's attorney Leslie Roussell of Boyette's plea.
Said Boyette's attorney Ed Rainer: "That gave prosecutors and law enforcement a way to save face. Ultimately, law enforcement went too far." But Rankin County District Attorney Rick Mitchell pointed out that it was Boyette's attorneys who asked for the plea.
"Let's review the score card here. Who is sitting in prison? These guys are acting like they won. If that is winning, I don't want to be represented by either of those guys."
Still Rainer maintains, "This group of boys never imagined, never dreamed anyone would carry out what they had talked about.''
Of course, Woodham, then a 16-year-old sophomore, did carry out the shootings, the first of what became a rash of similar high-profile shootings across the country.
Woodham walked into the school's commons area, pulled a hunting rifle out from under his trench coat and opened fire, killing two students and wounding seven others.
Killed were: Christina Menefee, 16, whom Woodham once dated, and Lydia Kay Dew, 17.
Hours earlier, Woodham stabbed his mother Mary Woodham, 50, to death with a hickory-handled knife while she was in bed at their 323 Barrow St. home. Convicted in June 1998, Woodham is serving three life sentences, plus 140 years for seven counts of aggravated assault, at the state Penitentiary at Parchman.
Boyette was sentenced to a boot camp-style program called Regimented Inmate Discipline, or RID, which lasts up to six months at Parchman, and five years' supervised probation. He maintains his innocence, despite the plea. Today, most residents in the city of about 20,000 are simply tired of hearing about the case.
"I'm as tired as anybody else of talking about it,'' said Pearl Mayor Jimmy Foster, whose son, Kyle, was believed to be one of Woodham's targets the day Woodham opened fire at school. "It's more of a "Let's move on type of thing. Let's get on with our life.' "
When Boyette entered his guilty plea in Rankin County Circuit Court in Brandon late in the afternoon Tuesday, many parents and students were more interested in other things.
Hiring a football coach and appointing a new superintendent are among the top issues at Pearl High, Pearl School Superintendent Bill Dodson said. Boyette's trial was among the top, he said.
"Who's going to be the next football coach is No. 1 on that list," Dodson said. "Boyette was No. 2, maybe even No. 3."
Dodson is retiring at the end of the school year. "Time does diminish the pain of it somewhat," Dodson said.
However, Foster and Dodson still share their experience. They still receive calls, some from as far away as Germany, asking about how the school, how the community has fared in the wake of the tragedy.
Both men see it as a duty, a responsibility to share with others what happened in their city.
The charges of conspiracy, threaded together with bits about black magic and appreciation of Adolf Hitler, hit at the very soul of a community known for its parks and churches.
To what extent, if any, cult-like activity took place among the accused former students remains murky.
However, the claim alone forced many in the community to look inward, to make more of an effort to reach out to their children. "We've done very, very, well as a town," Foster said. "It was something that could happen anywhere, and as we've seen, it happens. It's a nationwide problem."
Rainer disputes the more sensational claims, such as casting spells and worshipping the devil.
However, Rainer acknowledges, there's some truth in the description of the teens as outcasts who never quite fit in any cliques at the school. "They banded together and became friends because of the common thread of being picked on," Rainer said.
Within the group, Boyette was respected and seen as a leader, Rainer said
"They relied upon each other to feel better about themselves. They commiserated about their pain," Rainer said. "He (Boyette) was the master of the games because of his imagination."
The group, Rainer said, played Star Wars role-playing games. Boyette, Rainer said, had become bitter about the world, seeing himself as an outcast.
Boyette did talk with Woodham about causing trouble at the school, but never believed Woodham would go through with it, Rainer said. "They began talking about doing bad things, like teenagers do," Rainer said.
His client's discussions with Woodham were immoral, but they were not illegal, Rainer said.
In Woodham's two separate trials - one in the death of the students and the other in the death of his mother - lawyers argued that their client was under the influence of Boyette and not responsible for the slayings. "Woodham was ultimately the responsible party and he's being punished," said Rankin County Assistant District Attorney Timothy Hutson Jones.
Until prosecutors dropped the murder-accessory charges, they made a similar argument saying Boyette had some responsibility because he put Woodham up to the stabbing of his mother and the school shootings. Still, the conviction on the lesser charge was important, Mitchell said. "It sends a message that we're going to take this kind of thing seriously," he said.
Prosecutors would have tried Boyette on the more serious charges but said they didn't believe they had as strong a case as they would have liked. Boyette and his family did not want to gamble on a trial. "He's really a good kid who got caught up in a bad thing," Rainer said. "He's not blaming anyone else for the talk, the bragging. He had no idea that it would every result in someone dying or being hurt."