Funerals begin for victims of Ark. shooting Father of one suspect concedes son's guilt, conveys his remorse


JONESBORO, Ark. -- As her family, neighbors and classmates said goodbye to 12-year-old Paige Ann Herring in the first of two funerals yesterday, a man in blue jeans stood in the foyer of the packed Farmer's Union funeral home, his arms wrapped tightly around his weeping 7-year-old daughter.

A tiny gold cross glinted in the neckline of the girl's simple blue dress, one more sign of the faith this city has, and will need, as the funerals continue into the weekend.

Later yesterday, some of those same mourners moved a few blocks over to Emerson Funeral Home to hear another preacher, another prayer, in the funeral of 11-year-old Natalie Brooks. Natalie was supposed to be baptized tomorrow.

Today, the funerals go on, with Stephanie Johnson and Brittney Varner, both 12, and one of their teachers, Shannon Wright.

But it began with Paige, the sixth-grader who had burned up the court in basketball, played fierce volleyball and turned ponytails into a fashion statement.

Like the four others, she had been shot at lunchtime in the schoolyard of Westside Middle School, when an 11-year-old classmate and his 13-year-old friend allegedly opened fire on them with powerful hunting rifles and handguns from a copse of trees.

Easing collective pain

The presiding minister, the Rev. Gary Cremeens, read from Revelation 21: 4, trying to celebrate the life of the little girl, and ease a collective pain that, some people here say, will never XTC really go away.

"He will wipe every tear from their eyes," the minister quoted. "There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. For the old order of things has passed away."

If not passed, at least, much has changed.

As Paige's funeral began with the taped voice of LeAnn Rimes singing "How Do I Live Without You," Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, sat on their bunks in the juvenile detention wing of the Craighead County Jail, one reading a Bible, the other staring out a window.

They are charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery in a shooting spree that classmates said was prompted when Johnson was spurned by a girl he liked.

Through their son's lawyer, Andrew's parents reached out to Paige's family and the other victims, offering sympathy, but no explanation for a thing that most people here say they cannot really believe.

A 'horrific tragedy'

The two suspects are so young that there are not laws on the books in Arkansas to punish them beyond incarceration in a juvenile detention facility until their 18th birthdays. But the lawyer came short of conceding his client's guilt.

"At this point, Mr. and Mrs. Golden simply do not have all the answers," said Val Price, the public defender who is representing Andrew in juvenile court proceedings.

"They would like to explain and make it clear for everyone, to take away the pain of those who are suffering, but they cannot. They, too, are asking why Andrew, their 11-year-old baby, could allegedly be involved."

But Scott Johnson, the father of Mitchell, conceded his son's guilt.

"As hard as it is for me to say, my son is guilty," he told CBS Radio yesterday.

"This is a horrific, horrific tragedy," he said.

He added that his son is remorseful about what he did.

What punishment will come, must come from the state.

Federal officials have dropped plans to pursue charges against the boys.

Forgiveness urged

In Jonesboro, some people want justice, some revenge, and some do not know what to demand from a crime so unsettling.

In the Farmer's Union funeral home, a gleaming white casket, closed, sat covered with a spray of pink carnations and white daisies.

A red shirt from Westside Middle School was draped across it, near a photograph of Paige in her basketball uniform, surrounded by trophies.

Cremeens urged the people in the chapel to hold on to their faith as they try to understand how this could have happened.

"God did not leave Jonesboro on Tuesday," he said.

"God wants us to be a beacon of hope, light and love to a world that needs it so badly. The healing cannot begin until we forgive."

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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