The making of a Mississippi school shooter
PEARL, Miss. (WLBT) - The morning of October 1, 1997, was sunny in Pearl, Mississippi.
Dew shone on the grass as students made their way into Pearl High School where they lingered in the Commons, a large open area inside the school where hundreds would congregate until their classes began.
After students left the Commons for their classrooms, the atrium with tall ceilings and multiple thick concrete columns would then convert into a cafeteria for the rest of the day.
To these students and teachers, it was an average Wednesday. They did not know that just hours earlier, miles away on Barrow Street in a ranch-style home with brown shutters, a student at their school had murdered his mother by beating her with a baseball bat and stabbing her repeatedly with a knife.
And they didn’t know that he was to arrive that morning around 8 a.m. with a .30-30 rifle in tow.
America had seen attacks on school grounds. In 1927, a man detonated dynamite at a school in Michigan, killing 45 people - the deadliest school attack in U.S. history. Another occurred in 1989 when a man killed 5 children at an elementary school in California.
What was exceptionally rare, though, was a rampage shooting: a shooting in which a student attacks their fellow classmates.
The rampage shooting at Pearl High School would be the first in a series of rampage shootings to follow, ending with the Columbine massacre in 1999.
But because the Pearl High School shooting was the first domino to fall, it would place Pearl, a city which hadn’t seen a homicide in 2 years, in the sites of the national media with talks of Satanic cults, scorned lovers and mutilated animals grabbing the nation’s attention for months to come.
A reign of terror
Jeff Cannon, the assistant band director at Pearl High School in 1997, was on duty in the Commons that morning. This involved his interacting with students and making mental notes in case a fight happened to occur, a big job when you are surrounded by three-to-four-hundred teenagers.
As he was scanning the sea of faces, Luke Woodham was entering the doors of the Commons for the second time that morning.
Woodham’s first time in the building had been spent handing his manifesto to his friend, Justin Sledge, who upon receiving the document filled with writings of grievances, amateur poetry and his last will and testament, headed towards the library where he would hide while Woodham murdered two students and wounded seven others.
Woodham had passed by Cannon that morning, with Cannon finding it odd that the boy was wearing a long blue jacket.
“That’s not normal,” Cannon thought to himself. It was a little cool outside but the high that day was to be 70 degrees. But Cannon wrote it off. It was the era of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and the grunge scene had finally found its way into Pearl High School.
When the first shot rang out at 8:06 a.m., Cannon suspected that someone in the ROTC program had accidentally fired their weapon, which they would do at football games when the Pearl Pirates scored a touchdown.
In reality, Luke Woodham, a chubby 16-year-old with glasses and short brown hair, had fired a bullet into the lower neck of Christina Menefee at point-blank range.
Menefee dated Woodham for a month the year prior. Menefee, her father would say, had felt sorry for Woodham and had become his friend because he had no others. Luke, though, had quickly become infatuated with the girl, one time writing her a note stating that his life had only begun when he met her.
Menefee died the moment she was shot.
While the blast of the rifle reverberated around the room, Cannon was searching for its origin. Once he laid eyes on Luke, and once the situation clicked in his brain, he began to scream, ordering anyone who would listen to run.
As Lydia Dew, who was standing beside Menefee when she was shot, attempted to get away, Luke aimed the rifle at her back and fired. Luke later confessed that he didn’t know why he shot Lydia, a girl remembered as a “ray of happiness, sunshine and joy.”
Lydia lived for some time after being shot, even speaking to a teacher who came to her aid.
After shooting the two girls, Luke began firing as random. According to Woodham, he had snapped: “It’s like I was there but I wasn’t.”
Stephanie Wiggins, a sophomore, took a bullet to the hip, shattering it. It would take multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy to recover.
Jerry Safely was struck in the leg while trying to protect his girlfriend. Strangely, Luke walked over to Safely after shooting him and apologized to the bleeding boy, telling him, “Oh, Jerry, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.”
Luke had mistaken Jerry for the mayor’s son, whom Luke had wanted to shoot for added shock value.
There was another student shot that day, Alan Westbrook, who Cannon believed would die.
Westbrook had tripped while running away from Luke. Luke approached Alan, who was lying on the floor, and shot him multiple times in the back. To Cannon, Westbrook’s injury looked as if someone had tried to debone the meat off of a deer.
Luke had missed Alan’s vertebra by less than an inch, but he was left paralyzed for several months afterwards.
Most of the shots fired from the rifle hit the ground, sending shards of tile from the floor and transforming them into projectiles which flew into the bodies of fleeing students. One girl who was standing beside Cannon had one of these shards sent into her stomach.
“People were laying everywhere bleeding,” is how one student described the scene in the Commons. “Everybody looked dead.”
After firing multiple rounds, Luke’s rifle jammed. After a short time of fooling with the gun, Luke gave up and ran out of the school.
When Luke was out of sight, Cannon began to follow a blood trail leading from the Commons to the band hall. There he found three of his band students who had been hit with shrapnel.
As detailed in the book If Only I Had Known, while the shooting was taking place, then-assistant principal Joel Myrick was running out of the school and towards his truck to retrieve his Colt .45 automatic.
Once at his vehicle, the National Guard combat unit commander quickly loaded the gun and ran towards the entrance of the Commons. Once there, he witnessed Luke coming out of the doors. Myrick screamed for Luke to stop, but Luke continued towards his white Chevy Corsica.
Still not listening to Myrick, Woodham climbed into the Chevy and closed the door. This closing of the car door snapped Myrick into action, for he knew that if Luke were to escape, Pearl Elementary was only a few miles away - the school that his son attended.
While attempting to drive away, Woodham got stuck behind another car parked at a stop sign. He honked his horn at the driver, then backed up and passed the vehicle in his way. As he continued down the road, Myrick stood yards away pointing his gun at the coming car.
Woodham was an unskilled and unlicensed driver. And being an unskilled driver, he had unknowingly left the emergency brake on in his car, leaving skid marks from his home all the way to the school.
Startled by the sight of Myrick and his gun, Woodham swerved off the road and, because his emergency brake was still on, lost traction in the dew-soaked grass. The car came to a stop in a embankment near the edge of the road.
“Don’t move or I’ll blow your head off!” Myrick yelled at Woodham, whose glasses now sat crooked on his face. As Myrick approached the car, he noticed how Woodham’s breathing was exaggerated, as if he were about to explode. His rifle sat in the seat beside him.
While still aiming the pistol at the teenager, Myrick ordered him to get on the ground. As Luke laid there, Myrick asked him, “Why are you killing my kids?”
“The world has wronged me and I couldn’t take it anymore,” Luke responded.
“Wait till you get to Parchman Penitentiary,” Myrick said back.
A police officer soon came and took Luke away. In Luke’s jacket pocket they found a bounty of unused bullets. In all, Luke’s reign of terror had lasted 10 minutes.
As news of the shooting made its way around the city, Myrick and Cannon both described the agony of watching the parents of students as they crowded around the school wanting desperately to know if their children were okay.
“Please tell me it’s not one of mine,” the parents asked the teachers. One of the parents in the crowd was Lydia Dew’s mother. Myrick made eye contact with her, and, after taking her hand, led her into the school to be with her daughter.
At Lydia’s funeral two days later, her mother gifted Myrick with one of her daughter’s rings. In Lydia’s casket were a teddy bear and a golden cross medallion.
Myrick and Cannon, along with many other teachers and students, had to go to the police department to make their statements of what had occurred that morning. In the room beside Myrick’s was Luke Woodham.
Luke makes a confession
Luke Woodham was dressed in a black t-shirt and dark pants while being read his Miranda rights by Pearl detective, Aaron Hirschfield. Woodham was without shoes and sat casually with one leg propped on top of the other.
What followed in his recorded confession was a rollercoaster of emotions from the 16-year-old killer.
Woodham first began by explaining the death of his mother, Mary Ann Woodham, saying that he had placed a pillow over her head and stabbed her to death. While his mother had been stabbed, this would only tell part of the story of what had occurred at his home that morning.
“She always never loved me,” Luke uttered before breaking down, his face contorting while he cried. “She always told me I wouldn’t amount to anything. She always told me that I was fat and stupid and lazy.”
He also said, through sniffles, that the “smarter I got, the more she hated me.”
But then, moments later, Woodham would seemingly express regret for what he had done, saying, “I didn’t want to kill my mother. I do love my mother. It’s just.. I wanted revenge on Christina.”
He told investigators later that the only way he could think of getting the gun to school was to kill his mom and steal her car. When they asked why he hadn’t simply tied her up, Woodham stated that the idea hadn’t come to his mind.
When discussing Christina in his confession, Luke immediately choked up. “I got her right in the heart,” he said inaccurately of where he had shot his ex-girlfriend.
Following their breakup, Luke said that Christina started flirting with other guys and would sometimes tell him which other boys she found attractive.
“It just gets to you,” he said as his lips began to quiver. “I loved her and she didn’t care.”
He then told Hirschfield of what he had done at school, recalling first handing his manifesto to Justin Sledge and telling Sledge to “give this to Grant.”
“I think I hit Stephanie Wiggins,” Luke said. “I think I might have hit her in the butt.” Alan Westbrook, Luke explained, was targeted because he was one of Luke’s bullies. “I don’t know if I killed him or not.”
Luke had written a will in the manifesto given the fact that he thought he would be killed following the shooting. He also wrote it, he said, in the hopes that someone would remember him.
“I guess the world’s gonna remember me now!” he told the detective in an excited tone. “I’m probably gonna get pretty famous.”
In Luke’s own words, he was not insane and knew what he was doing. He was just “really pissed” at the time.
It was while being booked that one officer noticed a large cut on Luke’s palm. Seeing this, he asked Luke what had happened. Luke paused for a moment before calmly stating, “Killing my mom.” He then added, “she’s probably dead by now.”
“I remember him seeming... or appeared to be very proud of what he had done when I asked him how he cut his hand,” the officer testified.
Watch Luke Woodham’s full confession below:
A lonely upbringing
Luke Woodham had been an outcast for most of his life.
The child of divorce, his earliest memories consisted of watching as his parents fought. The fighting would end, along with their marriage, when Luke was in the 6th grade.
Luke’s childhood was a lonely one and he would claim that he suffered from depression starting from the age of eight. His father, John P. Woodham, Jr., whom Luke described as “aloof,” was an auditor at the time of the shooting and was largely out of the boy’s life following the divorce.
His feelings towards his mother were complicated at best. Their relationship, in Luke’s eyes, was devoid of love and he confessed to classmates that he hated her.
Luke resented the fact that Mary Ann, who worked multiple jobs as a single mother, would go out with friends, leaving him alone at the house. He also asserted that she blamed him for her divorce and for her strained relationship with Luke’s brother, John Woodham III, who was 8 years older than Luke.
At school, Luke was the victim of constant bullying starting as early as kindergarten. Many of his classmates viewed him as “weird” and called him “chunky” and “tubby.” As his school life progressed, so did the bullying, which reached the point of becoming physical.
Luke’s grades reflected those of a student who had given up, sinking so low that he had to repeat his 9th grade year. His writing assignments also indicated a student with a dark temperament.
In one class assignment in which he was asked to describe what he would do if he were to live one day in the life of his teacher, Luke wrote that he would “go crazy and kill all of the other teachers.” After this he would “slowly and very painfully torture all of the principals to death.”
The last sentence of the assignment read: “I would get a gun and blow my brains out all over the dog-gone room and leave my house to Luke Woodham.”
The one bright spot seemed to be his short-lived romance with Christina, an oasis in what Luke viewed as the otherwise bleakness of his life.
She had first become like a sister to Luke and, in the throws of their relationship, he confessed that he loved her “more than anything on this earth... I actually had someone to love and someone that loved me for the first time in my life.”
But Luke became very controlling of Menefee, not wanting her to spend time with her other friends, which were abundant. He made it clear that he wanted Christina for himself.
Christina also found it odd that Mary Ann would accompany them on the three or four “dates” they went on, which consisted of trips to McDonald’s and the movies. She viewed Ms. Woodham as possessive and, with the added suffocation of Luke, decided to end things.
“I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t want to live,” was how Luke described his emotional state after the breakup. “It destroyed me.” He even became suicidal, going as far as sticking a gun inside his mouth.
Luke had once again found himself alone. All of this changed when he met Grant Boyette.
Luke joins ‘The Kroth’
As Luke explained it, Boyette came into his life at a time when it was spiraling out of control. Christina had just broken things off with him, and he was left to face the world by himself once more.
This was when his path would intersect with that of Grant Boyette’s, a coming together that would change the trajectory of both of their lives and end in calamity.
Boyette, once described in the Los Angeles Times as “painfully thin, with bony arms, severe cheekbones and sunken eye sockets,” was a few years older than Luke and had a head full of jet-black hair. An investigator spoken to for this article also recounted the odd length of Boyette’s arms, calling the teenager “wormy.”
Grant had a good reputation and came from a upstanding family; his parents being beacons in the community and incredibly involved in their church.
But Boyette, whose Sunday school teacher said was “a quiet, polite, Christian boy,” was, in reality, living a double life.
According to his inner circle of friends, Boyette was known to have a temper and would sometimes grab them by the neck if they made him angry, telling them “don’t make me do something I don’t want to do.”
He also had a fascination for Adolf Hitler as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work The Gay Science would be referenced in Luke Woodham’s manifesto. “Grant liked Adolf Hitler a whole lot and admired his tactics,” said one friend at trial. “He liked the way he could influence people.”
Another childhood friend of Grant’s, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that Grant was “Machiavellian” and confessed that he was not surprised when it later came out that Grant dabbled in Satanism.
Boyette, who had also been the victim of bullying, had formed a group with other misfits who called themselves “The Kroth.” The name, Boyette told his friends, had come from his real father, Satan, with Grant referring to himself as “the master of high demon activity.”
And once in the group, you were expected to stay in. As Grant warned a wavering member, “You know too much about the group. You’re either with us or you’re dead.”
But Luke did not know about Boyette’s tendency for cruelty, his affinity for dictators or that he occasionally prayed to Satan. And when Grant offered Luke an invitation to join this clique, Luke didn’t hesitate.
To Luke, Boyette was simply a doorway for companionship and the chance to hang amongst other outcasts.
This was a rare opportunity: the chance at friendship. It was an easy decision.
Luke took the bait.
The Book of the Dead
Luke’s new life in The Kroth began simply enough. The group only had 7 members, and their hangouts were not much different than those of other teens at the time. They would play video games whilst listening to Marilyn Manson and other hard-rock groups of the 90s.
They also read books, discussed philosophy and engaged in role-playing activities, including one involving Star Wars. Many of these hangouts occurred at Luke’s house, given the fact that he was home alone most afternoons.
At first, Luke’s time in The Kroth seemed to be beneficial. He began reading the works of Aristotle and Plato and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. As Luke said in court, “I went from failing the ninth grade to a few months later reading books on astrophysics․”
Only after spending some time with Luke and once he became a cemented member of The Kroth did Boyette let him in on the secret. He prayed to Satan.
“Satan’s chosen you to be part of my group,” Boyette allegedly once told Luke. “You have the potential to do something great!” And if Luke ever doubted what Grant had told him of Satan and his power and his “potential to do something great,” one event changed his mind.
According to Luke, there was one boy, a friend of a friend named Danny, who regularly “talked down” to him. Luke didn’t like this and went to Grant for advice. Grant had an idea.
Grant went over to Luke’s house and they opened The Necronomicon, or, as it’s sometimes called, The Book of the Dead. The book is filled with “myths and rituals” and Grant used it to cast a spell on Danny.
But Luke had messed up. While Grant was reciting the spell, Luke was thinking of a different boy entirely. His name was Rocky, who was a friend of Danny’s.
The next night as Luke watched Saturday Night Live, there was a knock on the door. It was a friend coming to show Luke his new Krystal uniform. Then 30 minutes later, Danny walked in. And Danny had some news. Rocky was dead.
While walking across Lakeland Drive that night, Rocky had been struck by a vehicle and killed.
Yes, there were many explanations for why this occurred. Lakeland Drive is a busy road and it was dark and Rocky had been wearing black clothes. It was classified by police as an accidental death.
But Luke saw it much differently. In his eyes, the spell had worked. This was a defining moment in his life and an experience which altered the boy’s entire worldview.
Luke Woodham was now a firm believer in Satanism.
Luke makes his first kill
As with most friend groups, the hierarchical system would ebb and flow with the decision of who was in or out strictly revolving around Grant. But Luke was quickly finding himself in the inner circle of The Kroth. Other members suspected that this was because Luke was easier for Grant to control.
It was believed by members of The Kroth that Grant had the power to summon demons and, according to the testimony of one member, Luke was a “prime target” for Grant’s demons because Luke was “evil-minded.”
The mantra of The Kroth was “we can’t move forward until all of our enemies are gone” and, for Luke, his greatest enemy was Christina Menefee. Knowing this, Grant regularly told Luke that he needed to kill her. That way, he’d never have to see her again.
Luke, at this point, was sinking further into Satanism, a belief structure that he found fascinating. He now felt, for maybe the first time in his life, that he had power and control. And he would test this new power and control in April of 1997, nearly 6 months before the shooting.
The incident was recounted by Luke in a diary entry, the first line of which reads: “On Saturday of last week, I made my first kill.” The victim, in Luke’s words, “was a loved one.”
What Luke wrote next was a disturbing and graphic retelling of how he and “an accomplice” tortured his pet dog, Sparkles, to death.
The Shih Tzu was taken to the woods, stuffed into a bookbag and beaten, its howls sounding “almost human.” The duo laughed at the dog’s pain and began hitting her harder.
Sparkles’ bones were then broken by the boys before they set her on fire. The abuse would end with Luke throwing the dog, who was trapped inside the bookbag, into a pond. “We watched the bag sink,” Luke wrote. “It was true beauty.”
Luke’s accomplice was later revealed to be Grant Boyette.
‘The Kroth’ makes a plan
Throughout the summer of 1997, members of The Kroth had been concocting a plan to terrorize Pearl High School. The plan, though, underwent a series of changes over time.
At one point, they had envisioned setting off fires in the school and cutting phone lines before targeting students on their “hit list.” Then that plan morphed into shooting students after the tardy bell rang.
Then came the final plan:
- Luke, who had been given the title of “The Assassin,” was to go into Pearl High School and open fire.
- Then he was to leave and target the junior high school only a few miles away.
- After this, members of The Kroth were to meet up in Jackson and, from there, drive to New Orleans and then head to Mexico.
- From Mexico they were to catch a boat to Cuba.
Some Kroth members told detectives that they thought of these outlandish plans as make-believe, akin to the role-playing games they participated in at Luke’s house. “They talked all kinds of s***,” one member said. “But it was all talk.”
But in the minds of other Kroth members, it wasn’t simply talk. As Luke wrote in his manifesto, “Wednesday 1, 1997 shall go down in history as the day I fought back.”
Luke commits matricide
“I’m going to kill my mom in the morning,” Luke whispered to Lucas Thompson during a phone call the night of September 30, 1997.
Luke had to whisper, according to Thompson, because Mary Ann was also in the house.
To Thompson, who was one of the youngest members of The Kroth, Luke sounded strangely calm. Luke even described how he was going to do it. He was going to stab her to death.
As he went to bed, Thompson didn’t quite know what to make of the strange conversation. He didn’t want to believe that his friend, whose house he would spend the night at often, could be capable of doing such a thing.
But Luke was already plotting. Sometime that evening, Luke unplugged the landline to the phone in his mother’s room, hiding it in a closet in the kitchen. He did this, according to an investigator, so she would not be able to call 911.
It was early the next morning when Luke began the attack. Ms. Woodham’s alarm clock went off around 5:30, and as she walked down the hallway, Luke appeared and began striking her with a baseball bat.
The blows landed on her face, with one hitting below her right eye and another hitting her right cheek. Another hit would break her jaw. Somehow Mary Ann would make it back to her room and shut the door, only for Luke to break it down.
From there she found herself on the bed with her son stabbing her over and over again with an Old Hickory butcher knife. Altogether, she suffered 7 stab wounds and 11 slash wounds.
The slash wounds on her palms and fingers were characterized as “defensive posturing injuries.” These are instinctual responses to ward off attacks to the face, neck and chest.
Three of the seven stab wounds proved fatal. One to her right lung, one to her left lung and one to her heart.
According to Dr. Steven Hayne, the state medical examiner at the time, Mary Ann would have reached a point of irreversible hypovolemic shock due to blood loss 20 to 30 minutes after suffering these injuries. Death would follow minutes later.
After stabbing his mother to death, Luke placed a pillow over her face. This, an investigator revealed, is a common modus operandi used by killers and is commonly viewed as a sign of remorse.
Later that morning, after waking up, Lucas called Luke to ask if he had actually gone through with it. Luke had to click over to Lucas because he was speaking with someone else at the time: Grant Boyette.
Luke, who sounded “teary-eyed,” told Lucas that yes, he had killed his mom. Still, Lucas didn’t completely believe him until he saw police cars headed toward Pearl High School hours later.
In the time between killing Ms. Woodham and leaving his home for the final time, Luke sat down and scribbled his manifesto. And at 7:50, he grabbed a gun and headed for school.
On his bed he had left several items, including a bloody knife, a baseball bat, a camouflage gun cover and a Marilyn Manson CD.
Justin Sledge makes a scene
The community, as well as the country, was in a state of shock after Luke Woodham’s attack on Pearl High School. Aside from terrorizing the city, the rampage at the school had also cancelled classes for the duration of the week.
In the aftershock, Grant Boyette was seemingly trying to distance himself from his friend. He told a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger that he sometimes played video games with Luke but described him as “very intelligent” and a lover of philosophy.
Another member of The Kroth was taking a different approach, using any opportunity to attempt to explain the inner workings of Luke’s mind.
The same day as the shooting, Justin Sledge sat down for an exclusive interview with WLBT’s Maggie Wade. While wearing a suit and tinted glasses, Sledge admitted that Woodham had handed him his manifesto minutes before the rampage.
Sledge also read portions of the manifesto to the camera.
“[Luke] says that the world has s*** on him for the final time,” Sledge said while staring at Luke’s manifesto, which was nearly illegible. “He is not spoiled or lazy, for murder is not weak and slow-witted. Murder is gutsy and daring... I do this to show society: push us and we will push back.”
Luke’s assault on the high school, Justin said, was not solely due to his breakup with Christina, but that it was, instead, a “scream in sheer agony [that if] I can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through display of intelligence, I’ll do it with a bullet.”
Sledge, like Boyette, was highly intelligent, deeming himself a scholar of philosophy and natural science and practiced alchemy in his spare time.
But Sledge had a melancholy disposition and seemed to view his intelligence as more of a curse than an asset. In one English paper, Sledge wrote that his heart was like a dark, cold night that never ended.
This according to Dr. William H. Dodson, former superintend of Pearl Public Schools and author of If Only I Had Known.
“I must be realistic,” Sledge pondered in the paper, “who would love such a learned wretch? When people comment, I wish I were as smart as you, I wish I could tell them of the massive sacrifice I have made for my mentality.”
Upon reading this, his English teacher complimented Sledge due to the obvious intelligence dripping from the page. But she also confessed, “Much of this I do not understand.”
Justin would again seek to explain Luke’s actions at a candlelight vigil for the shooting victims the next day. It was here that Sledge told attendees that Luke simply “went mad because of society.”
Because of his erratic behavior at the vigil, Sledge was suspended from school for five days.
Watch Justin Sledge’s interview below:
‘I am not insane!’
Below is an excerpt of Luke Woodham’s manifesto written the morning of the shooting. It ends with the statement, “Grant, see you in the holding cell!”
The ‘Satanic Panic’ reaches Pearl
It was not long after the shooting took place that police found out about The Kroth. Though, at this point, police only knew them as “The Group.”
As authorities pieced together who was part of this group, investigators began plucking members out of their classrooms at Pearl and started asking them questions about what they did and did not know. Grant, being the oldest member of The Kroth, was attending Hinds Community College by this time.
And five days after the shooting, the six remaining members of The Kroth were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Following the charges came whispers of what “The Group” had been up to, including rumblings of Satatic rituals and “devil cults.” Many around the city found these developments extremely concerning.
After the shooting, the entrance of Pearl High School had transformed into a memorial, with students leaving words of hope and stuffed animals. One large poster read: “God help us heal.”
But one note left at the memorial had, instead, caused fear. It had been scorched around its edges and read, “Luke is God. From your friends at Pearl High School.”
Weeks later, former-Rankin County District Attorney John Kitchen proclaimed that “the conduct engaged in by those charged is so anti-Christian and anti-society that it is revolting.” He also said that his investigation had lead his office to believe that there was “Satanic activity” occurring in his county.
This had some validity.
Around a month before the shooting, a person had stumbled upon a strange scene off a wooded walking trail near the Reservoir. The area had been disturbed, and sitting on a tree log were multiple candles. The person who found it called the police.
Greg Eklund, an investigator for Rankin County at the time, described the sight as something out of The Twilight Zone.
The 80s and 90s had seen an explosion of alleged satanic-linked crimes, including, most notably, the case of the West Memphis Three in which three teenagers were accused of killing three children as part of a satanic ritual.
This period became known as the “Satanic Panic” and left many people in America sensitive to allegations of satanic activity, including the residents of Pearl.
Eklund recalled one specific interaction between him and a Pearl High School student that brought this into perspective.
The student told investigators that the night of the shooting, she had looked out of her window. The sky, she said, was red and she had spotted a cloud that was in the shape of a skull. Upon seeing this, she “knew it was Grant.”
“That’s the kind of mentality we were dealing with,” Eklund said.
Luke takes the stand
Luke Woodham had two separate trials, one for the school shooting and another for the murder of his mother. Neither his father nor his brother would attend either of the two.
In the trial for the murder of Ms. Woodham, hosted in Neshoba County due to the notoriety of the case, Luke weaved a web of reasons as to why he had committed such heinous acts, laying most of the blame at the feet of Grant Boyette.
He went into the genesis of their friendship and described the incident of placing a spell on a boy whose friend was later hit by a car. And how, after this, he and Grant had started a “satanic group.”
He accused Grant of being the one who killed Sparkles and said that Grant had assigned each member of The Kroth a demon to do his bidding.
On cross-examination, Woodham told Assistant District Attorney Tim Jones that he could not remember stabbing his mom to death.
“Y’all don’t know what I went through,” Luke lamented. “You’ve never been in my shoes. And you sit here and condemn me for something that y’all don’t even know that I did. I— it’s not right.”
After being pressed by Jones, Luke told the prosecutor “you make me sick” before bursting into tears.
“Sir, I’m sorry,” Woodham said. “I can’t help that I went to school and did that... I wasn’t in control of myself when I did it...”
According to Luke, he woke up the morning of October 1 and “had seen the demons.” These demons, he said, told him that he would be nothing if he didn’t “get to that school” and “kill those people.”
And while hearing the voice of Grant in his head, he lifted the knife above his mother’s body, closed his eyes and “followed myself.” Upon opening his eyes, he discovered his mother dead. “That’s all I know.”
After saying this, he again began to sob.
“Stop crying for me,” one of his lawyers told him, to which Luke replied, “I’m trying.”
An unknown follicle
But it wasn’t only Luke striving to tie Grant to his deeds. Luke’s attorneys also made an effort to implicate Grant at every turn, even, at times, attempting to place Boyette at the scene of the crime.
This was due to the fact that in Mary Ann Woodham’s bedroom, investigators had discovered a blood sample on the wall. And stuck in this sample of blood was an “unknown follicle” of hair.
The hair could not be traced back to either Luke or Mary Ann. Detective Aaron Hirschfield was on the stand during this line of questioning.
Hirschfield testified that, in his opinion, Luke was in complete control of his actions and told the court that Luke did not mention Grant anywhere in his confession.
But when asked if Grant was on Barrow Street the morning of Mary Ann’s murder, Hirschfield was more vague.
“Did you ever suspect that Grant Boyette may be in the home of Luke Woodham on October the first?” Hirschfield was asked.
“Yes, sir, I did,” the detective responded.
“And you still believe that?”
“I’m not for certain...” Hirschfield said. “It’s a possibility.”
A very psychologically disturbed youngster
It was also during this trial that a psychologist from New Mexico would explain how, from his point of view, a 16-year-old boy could kill his mother and then proceed to commit a school shooting.
Dr. Mick Jepsen had conducted interviews with Luke months after the shooting. Jepsen reported to the court that Luke had told him of seeing demons starting in the summer of 1997, portraying them as red-cloaked beings with spikes on their heads and glowing eyes.
Luke told Jepsen that the demons commanded him to kill people.
Upon a series of tests, which included Rorschach testing, Jepsen came to the conclusion that Luke had problems with both perceptual accuracy and reality and suggested that the test results indicated someone with borderline personality disorder.
It was also his opinion that Luke, who he described as a “very psychologically disturbed youngster,” was exploited by Grant, thus leaving Luke’s reality distorted and rendering him “helpless to judge the appropriateness of his behaviors...”
While Dr. Chris Lott, who was brought in by the prosecution, did agree that Luke had behavioral issues, he did not see someone with borderline personality disorder. Instead, he viewed Luke as having narcissistic personality traits: someone who feels special and smarter than others.
While conducting interviews with Woodham, Lott also interviewed Lucas Thompson, the Kroth member Luke called the night before killing Mary Ann. Thompson told Lott that Luke and Grant both viewed themselves as smarter than the other boys, to the point where they excluded members of The Kroth.
Lucas didn’t get the sense that Luke was delusional.
Lott also touched on the demons Luke was allegedly being harassed by. He did not believe that Luke actually saw these spiked-headed creatures or that he was being influenced by them.
This and other factors made Lott conclude that Luke was not suffering from any severe mental illness at the time of the murders. Luke, he said, was able to understand the difference between right and wrong.
“He’s just— he’s not right,” Lott said about Luke. “He’s not normal. He has problems... But he is not so ill that, in my opinion, he has any major mental disorders...”
A dark courtroom in Neshoba County
It was dark when Luke was found guilty of murdering his mom.
The twelve jurors deliberated for about 3 hours on a stormy Friday afternoon in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They would return to a quiet courtroom, the electricity being cut off because of the weather.
And in the dark, Luke stared at the jurors, some of whom were crying, as the verdict was read: guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Luke was ushered out of the courtroom, escorted by a small army of police officers and donning a bulletproof vest. Once out in the open, he was swarmed by the press.
“Heaven or hell, where are you going now?” one journalist asked Luke as he walked to the police car.
“I’m going to heaven now,” Luke answered. “This is God’s will.” And when asked for any last words, Luke responded, “God bless you all.”
One week later at a trial in Hattiesburg, Luke was found guilty of two counts of murder and seven counts of aggravated assault for the school shooting. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and seven 20-year sentences.
It was at this trial that Christina Menefee’s grandmother labeled Luke a “genetic waste” and accused the teenager of being responsible for initiating a chain of events across the country that “wreaked havoc on our children.″
After being sentenced, Luke told the courtroom, “I am sorry for the people I killed and hurt. The reason you see no tears anymore is because I’ve been forgiven by God.”
In February of 2000, Grant Boyette pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy after initially being charged with three counts of accessory to murder.
Because of this charge, Grant had to attend the Regimented Inmate Disciplinary Program at Parchman and served five years of supervised probation.
The charges against the other Kroth members were dropped at the request of District Attorney John Kitchens, who said their charges of conspiracy would be too difficult to prove.
‘That’s your villain’
It’s been nearly 24 years since the shooting, but some are still coming to terms with what happened on that October day. One of those people being Christina Shores.
Shores recalls Luke as being meek and “kind of different.” “He just didn’t relate to a lot of kids,” she said, “which, in that time, made him a target.”
Shores’ mother, who drove the school bus that Luke would ride and who was “very, very, very anti-bullying,” made Luke sit behind her as she drove due to the bullying he would often encounter anywhere he went. She would even sometimes gift him with the occasional Blow Pop.
Some days Luke would remain perfectly quite the entire bus ride, but other days Shores and him would talk. They would discuss Gilligan’s Island and, if it was a particularly hot day, Luke would express concern for his dog, Sparkles, saying that she needed a haircut and worrying if she had enough water.
Shores still finds it hard to square the shy boy on the bus who would talk about TV shows and his dog to the school shooter he would become.
The day of the shooting has been crystalized in her memory. She headed for school after watching Gilligan’s Island which went off at 8. She knew she could make it to class before the tardy bell rang. As she approached Pearl High School, she noticed the seemingly infinite number of police cars and their glowing blue lights and headed back home.
“I can’t tell you what I did last week, but I can tell you what it felt like to walk in the door, and you could see the live footage from my school and my mother is in front of the TV and she’s just squalling,” Shores recounted. “And she grabbed me... and she said, ‘Luke went to school and he shot somebody.’”
After the shooting, Shores said many people wondered if Luke had gone through with it because of something they had done or if they somehow could have changed things. She thinks the reaction would have been different if Grant Boyette was the one in prison.
“That’s your villain,” she stated. “That’s the one who did all of this, in my opinion.”
She remembers Grant as a quiet boy. A very smart boy. A church-oriented boy. And a boy who would get caught drawing Nazi symbols. She now also sees him as maniacal.
To her, Grant was someone with influence in Luke’s life; someone older and someone Luke looked up to. She thinks Luke was so afraid of losing his friendship with Grant that he did whatever Grant asked him to do. Even if that meant murder.
“If [Grant] was given any control and power, he’d be where [Luke] is,” she said. “He got control over this little group and you see what happened.”
In retrospect, Shores believes that the authorities didn’t complete their job. In her opinion, the media’s obsession with The Kroth and the subsequent “devil worshipping BS” got too much attention and focused the lens away from what was actually wrong with Luke.
This, in turn, led to Luke never getting the mental help he obviously required.
“I just feel like they were ready to nail him to the cross and be done with it,” Shores said. “[...] I just don’t feel like he’s where he’s meant to be. I don’t think it’s fair.”
The town that survived
Beneath the flag pole in front of Pearl High School and surrounded by flowers lie two plaques dedicated to Lydia Dew and Christina Menefee.
But most of the reminders of the morning of October 1, 1997, remain out of sight. Like Luke Woodham, everyone in the Commons that day received a life sentence.
For Jeff Cannon, the nightmares still come every year around October. He still sees the lifeless faces of Lydia and Christina all these years later. He can still walk you to the exact spot where the two girls were standing when they were killed.
But that, according to Cannon, isn’t the point of the story. The true message of that awful day is how the city of Pearl overcame it.
The greatness of Pearl was shown when the parents of the students at Pearl High School demanded that the doors to the school open days after the shooting occurred. “We’re not letting these people take our school,” the parents said. “Every day we’re closed is a victory for them.”
The greatness of Pearl was shown by students who forced themselves back to normal even after witnessing a tragedy most people could never comprehend.
The greatness of Pearl was shown when two weeks after the shooting, the high school band went to the state band competition and was met with a ten minute standing ovation.
That, Cannon said, is what should be remembered about the Pearl High School shooting - the town that stood resilient in its wake.
“Concentrate on the fact that the community overcame it,” Cannon told me. “The school overcame it and we don’t allow it to define us, except for the fact that we overcame it.”
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