In Aftermath of Deadly Day, Mississippi Town Faces Fear

The Washington Post/October 11, 1997
By Donald P. Baker

Pearl, Miss. -- The blood has been scrubbed off the interior courtyard of Pearl High School, the spent cartridges from a rifle have been recovered and a banner promises "PHS Will Survive."

Nevertheless, armed police patrolled the hallways and parking lot today, and one-fourth of Pearl High's 1,100 students were absent, as this blue-collar suburban community of 22,000 struggled to deal with the reality of mass slayings and the very fear here of the unknown.

"We're trying to contain the hysteria within the community," said Pearl School Superintendent William H. Dodson, who each day in the last week and a half has had to quash rumors of bomb threats and other mayhem. "Every time we make some progress, something else happens."

Ten days ago, according to police, a bookish Pearl High School student named Luke Woodham slit his mother's throat with a butcher knife, then drove to school, where with a rifle he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her best friend and wounded seven other students, leaving an astounded town in his wake.

The stunned feelings turned to fear and disbelief this week, when the police picked up half a dozen pals of Woodham, 16, and charged them with conspiracy to murder fellow students. Two of the boys were charged with plotting to kill the father of one of them.

"It's real scary," said Darlene Slater, whose daughter, Stephanie, 14, is a sophomore at the school a few miles east of Jackson. "I don't know what to think. I just know I'm spending a lot more time in prayer. At a time like this, you've got to have a lot of faith in your faith."

Especially when someone out there is defending the alleged killer anonymously.

Two nights ago, a Gothic-lettered sign bearing religious symbols plus a skull and crossbones, and proclaiming "Luke is God," was taped to the front of the school. It was signed, "From your friends at Pearl High School."

Shortly after the killings, police began picking up rumors that Woodham and his friends, whom classmates and teachers described as brainy loners who called themselves "The Group," were involved in everything from animal sacrifices to embracing in bizarre form the anti-Christian views of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

After announcing the latest arrests, Rankin County District Attorney James Kitchens said "the conduct engaged in by those charged is so anti-Christian and anti-society that it is revolting."

Don Malin, a Presbyterian minister in Clinton, Miss., who has worked in a counter-cult ministry, said the sign may have been a prank by students "trying to perpetuate rumors," but it also may have been posted by "those who acknowledge and approve what he did. I'm sure there's some cultic, or occultic, connection."

Yet friends and lawyers of those arrested said the alleged conspirators are, for the most part, regular churchgoers. "The only thing my client can be accused of is attending Crossroads Baptist Church too much," said Ed Reiner, lawyer for one of the alleged conspirators, Malcolm "Grant" Boyette, 18, who graduated from Pearl High last year. (The five others are current students.)

Woodham's most vocal defender has been Justin Sledge, 16, one of the alleged conspirators.

After the shooting spree, Sledge provided police with three or four notebooks of Woodham's philosophical writings, song lyrics and poetry. At a prayer vigil for the dead girls the next night, Sledge interrupted the program to tell 400 fellow students that Woodham "went mad because of society. We, as a society, must change."

Sledge, who was suspended from school for four days for that outburst, later told reporters that Woodham's alleged actions were unrelated to a "boyfriend-girlfriend thing" or to his parents' recent divorce, two motives attributed to the suspect by others.

"The reason I think that he [Woodham] did it," Sledge went on, "was because society as a whole puts down the thinkers and the true geniuses of the world and replaces them with men whose strength is physical strength and physical abilities."

Woodham has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bond in the Rankin County Jail. The district attorney said Mississippi law prevents him from asking for the death penalty for the youth, but that he will seek to imprison him for life.

Of Woodham's six arrested friends, three are being held under $1 million bond, two have been detained as juveniles, and one, Donald P. Brooks II, 17, was released without bond Thursday.

The six -- Brooks, Boyette, Wesley Brownell, 17, Delbert "Alan" Shaw, 16, Daniel "Lucas" Thompson, 16, and Sledge -- have been charged with conspiring to murder unnamed students between January and this month. Brooks and Boyette also are charged with conspiring this past May to kill Brooks's father, Pearl Fire Lt. Donald P. Brooks Sr.

"I'm sick to my stomach about this," said Mayor Jimmy Foster, who has more than a professional interest in the case. A 23-year police officer before he was elected mayor four months ago, Foster said one of the shooting victims, Jerry Safley, told him that after Woodham shot him in the leg, he apologized, saying he had mistaken him for the mayor's son, Kyle, a 17-year-old senior.

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