Va. Tech brings back Pearl shootings

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On Oct. 1, 1997, I was in the office of The Purple and White, the student-run newspaper of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Less than 15 miles away at Pearl High School, Luke Woodham was making tragic history.

Woodham, at the time 16, shot and killed two students and wounded seven others. Earlier in the morning, he beat and stabbed to death his 50-year-old mother. It was the beginning of a surreal journey for anyone who followed the story closely.

Police arrested Woodham and six other members of a so-called Satanic cult known as the Kroth. Two of the six members had ties to our college campus, so we made the decision to cover the story. In the end, only three of the six arrested would ever be convicted of crimes associated with the killings. The other four boys would be set free with all charges dropped.

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The story is well-known to many in Mississippi. It&8217;s a disturbing tale of lonely, impressionable youth gone awry. Woodham, during his testimony and in journals police confiscated from his home, claimed that he was a lonely boy, disliked by the world and abused by his mother and his estranged father.

Indeed, he was lonely and picked on. Perhaps his father was mentally abusive. But, Woodham had friends, and his mother &8212; by all accounts at trial &8212; was a caring woman who just missed the signs of a troubled youth.

Prosecutors in the case argued against Woodham&8217;s claim of insanity. They said he fell victim to normal teenage occurrences and acted in a criminal manner. He and Christina Menefee, 16, his first victim, dated for several months. Then, for reasons that never truly came out in trial, Menefee broke up with him.

Perhaps her best friend, Lydia Dew, 17, could have shed some light on the matter, but Woodham killed her as well.

So what happened? It seems that Woodham fell in with the Kroth, supposedly led by Marshall Grant Boyette Jr., then 18, and Justin Sledge, age 16 at the time. The group consisted of students much like Woodham &8212; young boys who didn&8217;t &8220;fit in&8221; and felt like outcasts.

In their minds, it seems, they studied Marxism and practiced Satanism. They had a grand scheme, according to testimony and Woodham&8217;s journals, to take the school hostage, kill their enemies and then escape, first to Louisiana, then to Mexico, and finally to Cuba.

One of the most gruesome details of the trial &8212; save for the savage nature in which Woodham murdered his mother &8212; was the description of his &8220;first kill,&8221; that of his &8220;dear dog Sparkle,&8221; he wrote, then adding, &8220;It was true beauty.&8221; Prosecutors used Woodham&8217;s description of how the boys tortured and killed the animal as evidence of a growing violent trend that proved premeditation on his part.

That killing, prosecutors successfully argued, set the stage for what happened on the morning of Oct. 1, 1997.

According to testimony, Woodham beat his mother with a baseball bat in the kitchen, breaking her jaw and smashing her skull. He then chased her into his bedroom and stabbed her to death with a knife. He reportedly cleaned some of the blood from the crime scene, washed his clothes, gathered his writings and a shotgun, and then drove to Pearl High School in his mother&8217;s car.

Once at the high school, Woodham met his friend, Sledge, and passed off his writings. Sledge supposedly fled to the library and hid while Woodham returned to his car and fetched the shotgun.

Woodham found Menefee in the school&8217;s foyer and shot her at close range. He shot Dew next. He continued to shoot, reload and shoot until he was out of ammunition.

Woodham would have fled the school, but then-Assistant Principal Joel Myrick retrieved a .45-caliber pistol from his truck and held Woodham at bay until police arrived.

Images of Satanic cults and communist ideologies dominated coverage of the trial. In the end, it was quite clear that Woodham and his friends were a mix of misfits and misguided youth. Most, it seemed, were average kids who verged too far off the right path for a little while.

For most of them, Woodham included, they were the victims of being a teenager. They just did not know how to handle the pressure. For certain, the responsibility for their actions are their own. Woodham is serving three life sentences and 20 years for each of the people he injured. He will never get out of jail.

But for the loved ones of Christina Menefee, Lydia Dew and Mary Woodham, something tells this writer that they would give anything for someone to have recognized any of the signs of troubled youth, of four or five or maybe even all seven teenagers who were reaching out for something.

We never know what lurks in the minds of others. For certain, though, growing up is hard. Being a teenager can be cruel. Everyone needs a helping hand at some point along life&8217;s path.

All I could think about when I followed the Pearl shooting cases &8212; and all I thought about when I saw what happened at Virginia Tech &8212; is whether or not the signs were there. I&8217;ve talked with teachers and students who were at Pearl High School that day, and some of them wrestle with that very question daily.

No one is to blame for what happened at Pearl High School but Luke Woodham. No one is to blame for what happened at Virginia Tech but Cho Seung-Hui.

But that does not mean we should not be diligent in talking with our young people. We need to know how they feel, and we need to teach them to be mindful of how others feel.

Growing up is hard enough to do, but for some &8212; like Menefee and Dew and the slain students at Virginia Tech &8212; it became impossible. In times of tragedy like these, we search for anything that gives us hope for better days ahead.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to His blog can be read at