- ON VIDEO: Mitchell Johnson, in a still from 2007 deposition.
Everything about the video is cold. Cold blue/gray backdrop. Cold lighting. Cold, unblinking eye of the camera. Mitchell Johnson sits center frame. Watching the video, it's not hard to see why Bobby McDaniel — the Jonesboro attorney who was asking the questions that day in 2007 when the deposition for ongoing litigation was taken — says he often found himself wanting to leap across the table and punch Johnson in the mouth. Johnson, McDaniel said, talks about mass murder as if he were explaining how he lost a button off his shirt.
On the morning of March 24, 1998, Johnson, then 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, pulled a fire alarm at Jonesboro's West Side Middle School. They then fell back to cover, shouldered high-powered rifles almost as big as they were and watched for their prey to emerge.
A hunter from an early age, Johnson would have known to wait until his teachers and classmates were out of the building. Only then would he have flicked off the safety beside the trigger. Johnson the man claims he remembers almost none of it, but Johnson the boy killer knew how to shoot with a scope. He would have drawn a breath and held it, the gun stilling in his arms. The mannish child who had often spoken of becoming a minister would have willed himself not to flinch at the rifle's hard, good kick. That moment, hanging in space, would be the dividing line between so much, for so many.
Though the cold details of the Westside Middle School Massacre have long been known, it's only in the past two years that Bobby McDaniel has had success in his decade-long quest on behalf of the families of the victims to get Johnson and Golden's account of that day on the record. With Johnson's deposition now in hand, McDaniel recently gained approval from a judge, over the strenuous objections of opposing counsel, to take the no-questions-barred deposition of Golden (see sidebar). The judge ruled that McDaniel couldn't release that deposition to the public until the lawsuit against Golden comes to a conclusion, but at this writing, McDaniel is closer than ever to finally being able to compare the two killers' accounts of that day.
In the video of Johnson's deposition, Johnson — then 22 years old and almost two years released from a federal prison in Memphis, where he was held in secrecy and released in secrecy on his 21st birthday — speaks of emotion, but rarely shows any. It's tempting to read something sinister into that, to see a brooding, arrogant sociopath. Any thinking person, however, knows that a deposition is only a stone's throw from an interrogation, and the last place in the world you want your emotions to get the better of you. Lawyers devour overly emotional witnesses.
Still, watching, it's hard not to want that — the moment when Mitchell Johnson pauses, reflects, then asks heartfelt and tearful forgiveness for his crimes.
Given the rigid, age-driven caste system found in your average middle school, it's not really surprising that Mitchell Johnson wasn't exactly friends with his cousin Andrew Golden. Golden was two years younger than Johnson. The only reason they talked to each other was because they rode the same school bus.
By the time Golden approached Johnson with a plan to scare some of the people who had picked on him at school, Johnson was already a kid on the road to someplace bad. He was smoking pot, he told Bobby McDaniel, and was frequently on suspension from school for behavior problems, including one incident in which he punched a hallway heater so hard that the metal cover came off. His parents were divorced, and Johnson hated going to visit his father in Minnesota. By the time of the shooting, Johnson was self-mutilating, cutting his own arms with a knife. He wrote in a diary that after school he liked to take his shotgun, head into the woods, and shoot squirrels while pretending they were the teachers who gave him in-school suspension. Shortly before the shooting, his girlfriend had broken up with him. After his arrest, he told investigators that he had recently recalled being sexually molested by a male acquaintance of his family.
Harder to believe are Johnson's accounts of life “in the streets” — claims that he was a member of a Bloods-affiliated gang called the “Treetop Piru” The idea that a white, 13-year-old kid living on the outskirts of Jonesboro was accepted by and in frequent contact by phone with hardcore gangsters from Little Rock, Memphis and Minneapolis seems more like a fantasy than anything else — the dark dream of a socially awkward boy who wanted respect more than anything else in the whole wide world.
Just before Christmas 1997, Johnson told McDaniel, Andrew Golden approached him with a plan. “He was, like, ‘I've been thinking about doing some scaring of some people because I'm really tired of them playing with me,' ” Johnson said. “And he wanted to prove a point.”
McDaniel personally doesn't buy the idea that the Golden was the ringleader and mastermind of the crime, but Johnson told the attorney that Golden said he wanted to shoot over the heads of teachers and students as they filed out. Nobody, Golden assured Johnson, would get hurt. He wanted Johnson, who had bragged about his gang connections, to secure a vehicle and act as a getaway driver.
At first, Johnson said, he told Golden that he had to be out of his mind. But when Golden brought up the idea again during spring break, Johnson was ready to sign on. According to Johnson, Golden had recently been suspended from school for telling another student about his plan to bring a gun to school. Johnson, meanwhile, had been put in detention and in-school suspension several times since Christmas, including one instance in which a teacher took away a prized Nike hat. Both boys had reached an emotional boiling point.
If Johnson could get a car, Golden told him, he knew where they could get the guns.
As seen in photos taken by investigators at the time of the shooting, Doug Golden's kitchen was anyone's definition of a home arsenal. On a custom built, 12-foot rack that ran the length of one wall, Andrew Golden's grandfather had rifles lined up cheek to cheek, all of them oiled and cleaned and polished. To his credit, Doug Golden had taken steps to secure his guns, running a length of aircraft cable through their trigger guards, with one end secured to the wall and the other with a heavy padlock. Andrew, however, knew where to find the key.
That Tuesday morning, Mitchell Johnson stole his family's mini van and then drove to Andrew's house. In the back, Johnson had a small backpack full of clothes, and a jacket. When he and Golden had last spoken about the plan, Golden had told him that after the shooting, they would go live in the woods in a place Golden knew about. When Johnson asked him what he needed, he said Golden told him: “Just pack your stuff. You probably won't be coming back home.”
Once Johnson got to Golden's house, the boys loaded the rear of the van with camping gear, including sleeping bags, a bow and arrows, a machete and a blowtorch. After the van was packed, they went into the house and attempted to break into a gun safe owned by Golden's parents. That failed, Johnson said, but Golden was somehow able to produce several pistols. Leaving Golden's house, the boys then drove to three stations before a clerk would sell them gas for the van. Then they went to Doug Golden's house, only a few blocks from Westside Middle School. After breaking into a basement door with a crowbar, Johnson said he acted as lookout while Golden went upstairs and raided the gun rack. By the time they got back in the van, they had a cache of 10 guns and several large, fixed-blade hunting knives. In addition to four pistols, Johnson selected a Remington 30.06 semi-automatic with a telescopic sight — a solid, all-purpose hunting rifle that could drop a bull moose at a hundred yards.
Even as they were driving to the school with their weapons, Johnson said, he still believed that no one would be killed. “He told me solely that it was to scare people,” Johnson told McDaniel. “He didn't tell me that he went there to kill anybody. And I specifically told him I have a brother and sister that went to middle school. They're friends of mine, but I call them my brother and sister, and I didn't want anyone getting hurt.” When they were almost there, Johnson said, Golden suddenly changed the plan, telling Johnson that instead of waiting in the van, he wanted him to come along to the ambush site. Johnson agreed.
After parking the van in the woods, the two boys went to a grove of trees and brush that overlooked the school. Putting down his own rifle, Andrew Golden went to pull the fire alarm. Soon, the students began to file out and form into lines, just as their teachers had taught them in drills. Though ballistics matching later proved that bullets from Johnson's rifle struck three victims that day, including delivering one of the wounds that killed teacher Shannon Wright, Johnson said the only shot he recalls firing was purposefully aimed into the air. Seconds after Golden began shooting, Johnson saw 11-year-old Natalie Brooks drop, struck in the head. After that, Johnson claims, it all goes blank. From the deposition:
McDaniel: How did you select which person you put the crosshairs on, and which person you didn't put the crosshairs on?
Johnson: I didn't. Again, I don't remember shooting after the first — I don't remember pulling the trigger after the first shot. I remember Andrew shot twice first. I shot once in the air, and I looked, and I seen Natalie get hit in the head. And I don't remember anything else after that, besides Andrew coming back to get me, telling me we're on the run.
By that time, the scene at the school was a hell of blood, bodies, screaming and panic. Natalie Brooks and Shannon Wright were dead, along with Brittheny Varner, 11; Paige Ann Herring, 12; and Stephanie Johnson, 12. Nine other students and one teacher were injured. When the shooting stopped, a man working on a roof at the school spotted the two boys as they fled. When he began to shout at them, Johnson pulled a .38 caliber pistol and fired twice in his direction. Perhaps finally overcome by the gravity of what they'd just done, Golden lagged behind, then began telling Johnson to stop. Johnson, the .38 still in his hand, snubbed the gun to Golden's head.
“You got me into this,” Johnson said, “and we're getting out.”
That was enough to get Golden moving again, and the two boys ran into a street near the school. They were nearing their getaway van when a police car roared into the narrow lane and squealed to a stop in front of them. The officer inside jumped out, leveled his pistol, and told them to drop their weapons.
Just like that, Golden and Johnson's dreams for the future — two murderous Huck Finns, lit out for the territories — disappeared like smoke.
Considering their ages at the time, Johnson and Golden went down as hard as the law allowed in 1998. Convicted as juveniles, they were sentenced by the state to be imprisoned until they turned 18, and were eventually shipped to Alexander Youth Services Center southwest of Little Rock. Just before their state time was up, both were convicted of the federal crime of bringing a gun to school. At age 18, they were transferred to federal prisons until they turned 21. Johnson went to a prison in Memphis. It's unknown at this writing where Golden was held, but the rumor mill at the time said he was incarcerated somewhere in the American West, possibly in Montana or Wyoming. (Whatever the case, Golden was released from custody on May 25, 2007. Prior to being issued a gag order in the case, Bobby McDaniel told Arkansas Times that Golden had returned to Arkansas, where he has been living and working under an assumed name.)
On Aug. 11, 2005, Mitchell Johnson was released from federal custody, his record cleared. After staying in Memphis for a few days with his mother, a friend he'd met in prison came to Tennessee, picked him up, and drove him to what he thought would be a new life of anonymity in Columbia, S.C. Once in South Carolina, Johnson worked for a landscaping company, began attending a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and started thinking seriously again about his childhood dreams of becoming a minister.
After eight months, Johnson decided to go visit his father, Scott, who had by then moved to Waterloo, Wis. Johnson worked at a nursery in Wisconsin for three months, then came home to Arkansas to see his mother, Gretchen Woodard, who was living near Jonesboro. Soon after, Johnson told McDaniel, he wound up having a long conversation about the Westside massacre with Brandy Foreman, the stepsister of Natalie Brooks. In one of those moments of grace and fate that even a novelist probably wouldn't feel comfortable writing, Foreman was, at the time, dating Mitchell Johnson's brother, Monte. From the deposition:
Johnson: Natalie Brooks' sister or stepsister, Brandy Foreman, dated my brother for about five months, and I met her in July last year. And at first she didn't want to meet me, obviously, for obvious reasons. And one day she came home with my brother, and I happened to be there and run into her, and we sat down and talked all night.
McDaniel: What did you tell her? What do you remember telling her?
Johnson: How regretful I was, how sorry I was that she had to lose her sister. How, you know, I deal with this every day of my life. Every day I wake up, you know, I think, you know, this should have never happened, you know?
McDaniel: Tell me how you deal with it.
Johnson: Just try to pray, “Lord, forgive me. Bless those who are lost. Bless those who remain.”
After staying with his mother a few weeks, Johnson moved to Fayetteville, where he stayed on North Leveritt Street with a friend he'd met while at Alexander, Justin Trammell. Trammell, incidentally, pleaded guilty in 2000 to killing his father with a crossbow during a family argument, and was one of the first minors in Arkansas to be sentenced under the new, stricter juvenile sentencing guidelines put into place after the Westside Massacre. Johnson and Trammell were together on Jan. 1, 2007, when police stopped Johnson's van for a minor traffic infraction. A search turned up marijuana and a loaded pistol. In January 2008, a federal jury convicted Johnson of the seldom-used charge of possessing a gun while being a user of or addicted to a controlled substance. On Sept. 5 of this year, Johnson was sentenced to four years in federal prison on the charge. Last month, he was sentenced to 12 years on state theft charges for using a customer's credit card stolen from the convenience store where he worked.
These convictions were in the future, however, when McDaniel sat down with Johnson in April 2007. In the weeks before the deposition, Johnson told McDaniel, he had been fired from his job in the photo-processing department at Wal-Mart after his boss discovered that he was one of the Westside killers. His crimes, Johnson said, follow him. From the deposition:
McDaniel: You do not portray yourself as a victim here, do you?
Johnson: As far as?
McDaniel: Well, you don't portray yourself as an innocent victim in this shooting, do you?
Johnson: No, sir, not necessarily, no.
McDaniel: Do you somewhat portray yourself out to be an innocent victim?
Johnson: I don't look at myself as a victim. I look at myself as, you know, having done a crime. I paid the price. At that price, I've lost my childhood. At that price, I'm now struggling every single day to support myself because I can't find a job. No one will hire me. You know, I struggle every day that I get people staring me in the face, calling me a murderer to my face. And, you know, I struggle with the fact that, you know, like you said, my deity, my God, you know, yeah, he has a problem with that, you know. Murder is a sin, you know. And, yes, it says Christ will forgive you, and I believe that, you know, but at the same time, I did lose my childhood. It was a choice I made, OK, and I'm not saying I'm a victim, but I did lose my childhood, and I've lost a lot of valuable time. And as far as getting back on my feet, I'm still not on my feet. I don't have a job, you know. I worked at Wal-Mart for a couple months. They found out who I was. Fired on the spot. I worked at Glad for one day, the Glad plant in Rogers, for one day. A guy [from] Jonesboro run into me, found out who I was, went and told them who I was. Fired on the spot. “Come see me. You're done.” And I asked him, “What did I do?” “Who you are.” “Who am I?” “You're a murderer. You're gone.” “Yes, sir. I appreciate your time. Thank you.” And I left, you know. So this follows me every day. Am I a victim? No. I made a mistake I chose to do wrong, and now it follows me.
Later, near the end of the deposition, McDaniel took a minute to ask Johnson if he had anything he wanted to say to the victims of the Westside shooting and their families. Though you can often hear McDaniel's disgust with the man across the table from him, at this point on the tape, the attorney's voice is almost fatherly. At long last, a fleeting shred of emotion seems to swim up like a ghost through the dark pool that is Mitchell Johnson.
Johnson: I'm really sorry for the losses. I am sorry that they had to go through knowing that their little girl will never come home again, that they'll never experience marriage, and they'll never experience childhood for themselves. And I was wrong. From the deposition:
McDaniel: Do the events of that day flash back in your mind?
Johnson: A lot.
McDaniel: When you're flashing back in your mind and the shooting is actually taking place, what thoughts were going through your mind when the shooting was taking place?
Johnson: All I remember is seeing Natalie getting hit. And that keeps replaying, keeps replaying, keeps replaying. In my dreams, sometimes during the day.