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JIMMY FOSTER, THE MAYOR OF Pearl, Miss. (pop. 22,000), spent 23 years as a police officer and has seen more than his share of violence and mayhem. But sitting in his cluttered office, he shakes his head in disbelief over the killings that have stained the soul of his town, a blue-collar, pine-green suburb of Mississippi's state capital, Jackson. "You know the old cliché—it happens to somebody else?" he says. "It happened to us this time, and it was shocking. It cut through the heart of the community. What happened to us [that] morning was unthinkable."

In fact, the bloodshed was just the beginning. On the morning of Oct. 1, Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old sophomore, entered Pearl High School with a .30-30 hunting rifle and opened fire, police say, killing two students and wounding seven others. His 11-minute rampage was terrible enough. But police investigators claim that since then they have uncovered evidence that Woodham did not act alone. They say that six other Pearl-area teenagers—mostly good students on the social fringes—were involved in what seems a feverish plot to rid themselves of their enemies and win the respect they felt they deserved.

Allegedly known as the Kroth, perhaps a name culled from satanic verses, the group, according to police, was under the control of Grant Boyette, an 18-year-old former student at Pearl High. As authorities tell it, Boyette was a "self-proclaimed satanist," admired Adolf Hitler and fancied himself "the father," with Luke Woodham as his pawn. At a preliminary hearing last week, criminal investigator Greg Eklund alleged that "[Boyette] was the one that called the shots."

The notion of a dime-store führer inspiring apostles of terror, along with prosecution allegations that the group practiced satanism as a cult, has continued to send ripples of apprehension through the community and beyond. One neighboring school district canceled a pep rally out of fear that kids would be shot by members of the group who have yet to be arrested—though police have not suggested that there are any. Said one Pearl-area resident, Ricky Blailock, father of a 15-year-old daughter, to the Los Angeles Times: "It's the grip of evil is what it is."

Whatever else it was, Woodham's murderous foray that Wednesday morning at Pearl High was surpassingly brutal. The teenager arrived at the school around 7:55 a.m., wearing a baggy overcoat. As he strolled into the school's commons area, where students gather each morning to socialize, he walked up to sophomore Christina Menefee, 16, pulled a hunting rifle from beneath his coat and shot her fatally in the neck.

Methodically he began moving through the commons, shooting his victims as students and teachers hid or fled screaming. One of those hit was Lydia Dew, 17, killed with a bullet in the back. "He was so cool and calm. I saw him shoot a kid, and he ejected the shell," says assistant principal Joel Myrick. "He was walking along, thumbing fresh rounds into the side port of the rifle."

As swiftly and inexplicably as it began, the rampage was over. Woodham turned and headed back outside while Myrick, 36, a commander in the Army reserves, sprinted to his own truck and retrieved the .45 automatic he kept there. Spotting Woodham near the parking lot, he shouted for him to stop. Instead, Woodham got into his car and tried to drive away, but he lost control and came to a stop as Myrick raced up to him. "I could see him sitting there, holding on to the steering wheel, his knuckles white, those glasses on him," recalls Myrick. Putting the muzzle of his handgun to Woodham's neck, he ordered him out and held him until police arrived. "I kept asking him why, why, why," says Myrick. "He said, 'Mr. Myrick, the world has wronged me.' " Later, when authorities went to Woodham's home, they found his mother, Mary Ann Woodham, 50, dead. She had been repeatedly stabbed with a knife.

At first, for want of a better explanation, authorities were inclined to regard the killing spree as the work of a spurned would-be boyfriend, since, a year before, Christina Menefee had gone out a few times with Woodham. A bright, popular girl who excelled at math and biology and took part in Junior Naval ROTC, Christina apparently felt kindly toward Woodham, a solid A and B student who was frequently the target of taunting and ridicule from other classmates for his pudginess and shy, introverted manner. "Christy was always for the underdog," says her father, Bob, who retired from the Navy in 1989 and now works repairing restaurant equipment. "Luke was not a real popular kid, I guess." Adds Christina's stepmother, Annette: "It seemed to me the more the other girls said they disliked him, the more Christy started leaning toward him."

In any case, the couple dated only briefly, though Woodham was plainly infatuated. A year ago, Christina broke off the relationship, telling him she wanted to see other boys. She took care, though, to let him down gently, and afterward there was no hint of trouble.

The murder of Woodham's mother was even more puzzling. Mary Ann, who had been divorced for five years and worked as a receptionist at a food company, seemed a concerned if over-protective parent. The Menefees recall that when Luke came to see Christina, he always brought his mother, which they thought was just Southern custom. Luke seemed to suffer his mother's presence with only occasional hints of impatience. Once, when he and Christy were sitting together on the family love seat, says Bob Menefee, Mary Ann asked, " 'Do you think y'all sitting close enough?' " Luke took Christy's hand and replied, " 'We're doing just fine, Mom,' " says Menefee. "It kind of struck me as a little bit of animosity possibly, but nothing you could put your finger on."

Within a day of the killings, stories began to circulate in town of a "hit list" of kids from prominent families whom Woodham had allegedly targeted. Police denied that there was any formal list, and it appears that Lydia Dew, who came from a modest background, was herself the object of teasing from students. But Mayor Foster confirms that his son Kyle, who had gotten into a shoving match with Woodham recently, had been singled out for killing. "I wasn't really picking on him," says Kyle, a tight end on the Pearl football team. "He would pick with me, and I'd pick back at him." By a stroke of good fortune, Kyle was late for school the day of the murders.

It is unclear exactly what led police to Boyette, a first-year student at nearby Hinds Community College, but on Oct. 7 authorities rounded up him, Wesley Brownell, 17, Donald Brooks II, 17, Allen Shaw; 18, and Justin Sledge, 16, charging all of them with conspiracy to commit murder. Another teen, Lucas Thompson, 16, was arrested and held as a juvenile in connection with the killings. According to investigators, the seven youths had been talking about an attack on the school since the beginning of the year, often meeting at Woodham's home to discuss their plans.

Their motto, said investigator Eklund at the preliminary hearing, was, "We cannot move forward until all our enemies are gone," but their goal was power and money. To that end, he said, they hatched a scheme to set fires at the school using homemade napalm and to cut the phone lines. Their alleged intention was to stage the assault on the school, then escape to Louisiana and Mexico and finally make their way to Cuba. As for claims that Boyette had been fascinated with satanism since 1993, Pearl Police Chief Bill Slade is mum on whether his investigation has been able to confirm that the friends were part of a cult.

Some, however, exhibited unusually fervent religious beliefs, as well as a taste for half-baked philosophy and mythology. Boyette, for one, comes from a deeply spiritual family; his father, Marshall, who works in the computer field, and his mother, Lark, an elementary school teacher, were founding members of a local Baptist church. Boyette himself often wore a dress shirt and tie to school, explaining to friends it was the "Christian" way to dress.

Lea Ann Dew, 18, Lydia's sister, recalls that when Boyette would come into the cafeteria, usually with a buddy. Rick Brown, other students would fall silent, knowing the two were about to launch into a prayer. Even in Bible Belt Pearl, such devotion in the lunchroom was considered unusual. "They always sat at the end of the table," says Lea Ann. "Rick would mumble a few words—Praise God, stuff like that—and then everyone in the room would go back to eating."

Boyette and fellow defendant Justin Sledge reportedly took a particular interest in the works of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who devoted much effort to exploring the moral gray area between right and wrong. But, according to Brown, Boyette's real hero was Hitler. "Grant liked Adolf Hitler a whole lot and admired his tactics," Brown told the preliminary hearing, testifying against his friend. "[He liked] the way he could influence people."

As a patsy to be influenced, Wood-ham would seem to have been made to order. Shortly before his own arrest, Sledge tried to explain his friend's feelings of resentment, especially at the way athletic and social achievement counted for more at school than academics, which Woodham saw as his strength. "[Woodham] was tired of society dealing the thinkers, the learners a bad hand," Sledge told a Jackson television station, and "watching Johnny football player get the glory when in actuality he does nothing."

What's more, police say they have uncovered a manuscript, ostensibly written by Woodham, that expresses ferocious anger and talks openly about taking revenge on those he believed had slighted him. "I killed because people like me are mistreated every day," he is said to explain in one page of the document (which prosecutors are terming a "manifesto") that was given by Sledge to reporters. "I did this to show society—'Push us and we will push back.' I suffered all my life. No one ever truly loved me. No one ever truly cared about me."

At the preliminary hearing, investigator Eklund testified that Boyette had goaded Woodham into becoming the trigger man for the plot. Referring to Christina Menefee, said Eklund, Boyette had advised Woodham that "he should just kill her and be done with her so he'd never have to see her again." Eklund also maintained that Boyette had carefully prepared Woodham for the murders. The investigator cited a passage from the "manifesto" in which Woodham described, in sickening detail, the torture and killing of his own dog Sparkle.

"On Saturday of last week, I made my first kill," read Eklund. "The victim was a loved one, my dear dog Sparkle." The document tells how Woodham and an accomplice, whom Eklund testified he had reason to believe was Boyette, first beat Sparkle savagely with clubs, then stuffed her in several plastic garbage bags. "I will never forget the howl she made," read Eklund. "It sounded almost human. We laughed and hit her more." Then they doused the sack with lighter fluid and set it on fire before hurling it into a pond. The sight of the sinking bag, said the author, was "true beauty."

Lawyers for Boyette argued at the hearing that there is no evidence linking him directly to any crimes. In all likelihood, they will maintain that anything he may have said about acts of violence was mere grandiose chatter. The attorneys also produced witnesses who testified to his good character. "What I saw was a kid very smart, very shy, very obedient," said Billy Baker, who had been Boyette's Sunday school teacher at Crossgates Baptist Church. "He was more a follower-type person than a leader."

Certainly, if police accounts are to be believed, he badly misjudged his own presumed followers' commitment to violence. In the past week, three of the five other defendants arrested in connection with the plot have had their bail drastically reduced or have been released on their own recognizance. (At midweek, Thompson was still in a juvenile facility.) Police now say the three are cooperating with the investigation. Only Boyette, Sledge and Woodham, who are being held without bond, are still behind bars.

If convicted, they could face life in prison. Meanwhile, the people of Pearl are trying to sift fact from rumor and hoping to master their fears. "I don't think, as a community, we'll start healing until this case is closed and police come out and say, 'This is what happened, and this is why it happened,' " says Mayor Foster. "At that point there is some closure for it." He pauses a moment, then adds quietly, "We won't ever get over it."

BILL HEWITT
JOSEPH HARMES and BOB STEWART in Pearl

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Bob Stewart.