It’s another day in America that news about a recent school shooting and conversations on gun control are dominating both traditional and social media. But today also marks 20 years since the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting—an event that was considered the second-deadliest United States school shooting at the time. Here’s a look back at the tragic incident.
Before Marjory Stoneman, before Sandy Hook, before Columbine, there was the Jonesboro massacre. Today, March 24, 2018, marks two decades since the Westside Middle School shooting—a violent event that shocked and horrified America. We’re going to give you a glimpse into that day: what happened; who the shooters were; who was killed; and what followed.
Since that terrible day, school shootings in the U.S. have hit all-time highs, with 32 major incidents in the past 20 years.
The recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day sparked an uproar. It’s pushed students, parents, and teachers to continue to speak against gun violence, asking for greater protection for the country’s children.
What Happened in 1998?
On this day in 1998, two young boys ambushed fellow students and teachers at the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, firing at them as they exited the school building, and killing five. These boys were 11-year-old Andrew Douglas Golden, and 13-year-old Mitchell Scott Johnson.
It actually began the night before, when the kids packed Johnson’s mother’s minivan with nine guns, ammunition, camping gear, and snacks.
On the morning of March 24, the boys drove the vehicle to school themselves. Johnson took the weapons to the woods by the school.
When Golden asked to be excused from class, he pulled a fire alarm. Then he joined Johnson 100 yards away from the school’s gymnasium, by the wooded area.
As students headed out of the building according to fire drill procedure, the boys ambushed them, opening fire from the wooded area.
In the hail of bullets, the young shooters killed four students and one teacher. They injured 10 others.
The boys were able to cause such harm as they were raised around guns, belonged to gun clubs, and participated in practical shooting competitions. Some of these competitions involved firing at simulated moving human targets. In preparation for the shooting, Golden reportedly shot several dogs as practice.
Justice in the Middle School Shooting?
The boys were caught before they could flee the scene of the Westside Middle School shooting in the mini van.
Authorities confiscated 13 fully loaded firearms, including three semi-automatic rifles, and 200 rounds of ammunition. The van the boys stole was stocked with weapons, including a crossbow and several hunting knives. Investigators found that the weapons had been taken from the Golden family’s personal collection.
Since the boys were minors, they could not be charged as adults in the State of Arkansas. Therefore, they were adjudicated as delinquents and sent to reform institutes.
Normally, when each of them turned 18, they could no longer be held with other minors. But since the state bought a facility in 1999 that allowed it to keep the boys in custody until their 21st birthdays, the boys were kept three years longer.
On August 11, 2005, when Johnson turned 21, he was freed.
Golden was released on May 25, 2007, on his 21st birthday.
Both boys returned to their lives with no criminal records.
However, following this tragedy, the state changed its laws, allowing child murderers to be imprisoned past the age of 21.
Of the entire century, Golden and Johnson are the only two U.S. mass shooters who are alive and walking free.
Who Is Mitchell Johnson?
Mitchell Johnson was born on August 11, 1984 in Grand Meadow, Minnesota. He is now 33 years old.
His parents are Gretchen and Scott Johnson.
Mitchell moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas with his brother and mother when he was seven, after his parents divorced.
Gretchen later remarried Terry Woodward. Their relationship might seem a bit unorthodox to some: they met in prison, where she was a guard and he was a prisoner.
Young Johnson was described as being a quiet, respectful kid by some who knew him. And he attended church, even singing in the choir.
However, he was troublesome at school and suspended in-school three times. On an even more serious note, he was criminally charged for molesting a toddler in Minnesota in 1997. However, because he was a minor, it did not remain on his record.
It’s reported that Johnson was pretty vocal about his fascination with gangs, guns, and violence in his middle school years. He’s even alleged to have threatened to kill his sixth-grade girlfriend, Kim Candace Porter, when she broke up with him.
After the 1998 shooting at his middle school, Johnson was charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of aggravated assault. He was incarcerated until age 18. He was then held on federal charges until he turned 21 in 2005.
Johnson got back into crime shortly after his release. In 2007, he was charged with drug possession and unlawful firearm possession. In 2008, he was charged with theft, fraud, and drug possession. On November 14, 2008, Johnson went away for 12 more years in prison. He was 24 at the time. The following January, he had six more years tacked on to his sentence in relation to the theft charges.
He didn’t serve his whole 18-year term. Instead, Johnson was released on probation in July 2015 and immediately put into a drug rehabilitation program.
Who Is Andrew Golden?
Andrew Golden, now 31, was born on May 25, 1986 in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
He grew up in a stable household with his parents Jacqueline and Dennis Golden. They were both postal workers.
Like many rural American youth, Golden was raised to be familiar with firearms. When he was six years old, his father gifted him his first firearm.
Unlike Johnson’s overt rebellious attitude at school, Golden lived a double life. He behaved well at school and was considered a well-mannered and cheerful boy. However, outside of class, he reportedly demonstrated violent tendencies, getting into fistfights and firing his BB gun at another child’s cat.
After being arrested for the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting, Golden was charged with murder, attempted murder, and unlawful firearm possession. Like Johnson, he was also imprisoned until he turned 18, but was held until his 21st birthday on federal charges.
After his release, Golden legally changed his name to Drew Douglas Grant. His whereabouts were unknown after he was released until he applied for a concealed weapon permit in October 2008 in Arkansas. His application was denied once the Arkansas State Police realized his true identity. It’s not known where Golden/Grant is currently living. He’s had no known run-ins with the law since.
How Did Johnson and Golden Meet?
Although the two boys worked together to commit this terrible crime, they were not life-long close friends. They met while sharing bus rides to and from middle school and apparently connected over their mutual hostility toward others.
Golden claimed that Johnson threatened him with a knife and forced him to help with the Westside shooting. But Johnson claimed that Golden was a willing participant. Based on the evidence, the justice system obviously agreed with the latter.
Victims of the Westside Middle School Shooting
Johnson and Golden killed five innocent people that day. The victims murdered in the Westside ambush were:
- Sixth-grade teacher Shannon Wright
- Natalie Brooks (age 11)
- Paige Ann Herring (12)
- Stephanie Johnson (12)
- Brittheny Varner (11)
Golden and Johnson also injured nine students and another teacher, Lynette Thetford. It’s important to note that the ex-girlfriend Johnson had threatened previously, Kim Candace Porter, was injured in the attack.
The one potential silver lining to come from this tragedy is that the shooting at the Jonesboro, Arkansas school was instrumental in driving legislative action to allow prosecutors the option to charge juveniles as adults.