OF ARMS AND THE BOY
All kids battle demons. Why did these
By JOHN CLOUD /SPRINGFIELD
We're not much for Satan these days. He's too black and
white for a world of grays. But there were moments in the past school year
when it became difficult not to imagine a Supreme Evil One dancing behind
the eyes of the kids who decided to solve their problems with guns.
Imagine 15-year-old Kipland Kinkel in rustic
Springfield, Ore., chatting with two buddies on a three-way phone call May
20--probably while his father's corpse lay on the floor, a bullet drilled
through his skull. Kip said he couldn't wait to see the new South Park
that night, according to Tony McCown, 15, who phoned him. "I wonder
when Mom's gonna get home," he fretted. When she finally arrived, he
allegedly said, "I love you, Mom," and then unloaded his weapon
into her. It was around 6 p.m., and Kip presumably stayed with the bodies
the rest of the night (and took in South Park, the episode in which Kenny
falls into a grave and gets squashed by a tombstone). At some point, Kip
apparently decided to shoot up his high school in the morning. What
exactly did he think about in the darkness, as his parents' remains grew
cold? To know is surely to see the face of Satan.
Religion professor Elaine Pagels' 1995 book The Origin
of Satan has been floating around a nearby library in recent days, as
though the people of Lane County were searching its pages for answers.
"What fascinates us about Satan is the way he expresses qualities
that go beyond what we ordinarily recognize as human," Pagels writes.
"... In his frustrated rage he mirrors aspects of our own
But what calls Satan forth? Was it something about the
four communities where the kid killers lived--in Springfield as in Pearl,
Miss., West Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark.? If police are right,
together these five boys--Kinkel, Luke Woodham of Pearl, Michael Carneal
of West Paducah, and Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden of
Jonesboro--murdered 15 people and wounded 44 others. Were they simply bad
seeds, genetic and spiritual misfits born without the brain chemistry that
produces compassion--and, indeed, without souls?
Or was nurture to blame? Is America's gun culture at
fault? Or did the kids kill because they were molested by perverts, beaten
by parents, rejected by girlfriends, despised by classmates or revved up
by "role-playing games, heavy-metal music, violent cartoons/TV [and]
sugared cereal," as Kip himself suggested on the Internet profile he
wrote well before the shooting, foreshadowing with eerie prescience the
debate to follow?
Of course we can't know for sure, but there are clues in
each of these four places, common denominators among five boys headed
toward the brink. It's now possible to try to reconstruct their
motivations--a task made more urgent by the saturnalia of lawmaking under
way. Mississippi has made murder on school property a capital crime, and
Oregon may begin requiring a 72-hour holding period for kids who bring
guns to school, as Kinkel did the day before the shooting. Members of
Congress are pushing a bill that would crack down on dealers who sell
firearms to children, and the President wants to spend a billion dollars
on after-school programs, on the theory that if Kip had been at a
"21st Century Community Learning Center," he wouldn't have been
blasting away with the .22-cal. semiautomatic Dad had got him. Will any of
these policies work? As Pearl and West Paducah, Springfield and Jonesboro
know, there are no easy truths. Only grim ones.
Boys everywhere are frustrated, abused, and saturated
with media violence. But not all of them live in places where guns are
available. Says Tom Furth, a former lawyer for Mitchell Johnson: "In
Jonesboro, there are little militia boys that have guns, and you have an
environment that is particularly conducive to what happened. This would
not have happened in Minnesota," where his ex-client was originally
from. "Mitchell might have snapped there too, but in a different
context." Mitchell's partner, Drew Golden, 11, was Arkansas-raised
and had reportedly attended a militia camp in California.
Kip Kinkel begged his parents for guns so often that the
schoolteacher couple, partial to tennis and not gun people, finally
relented. His father "felt that Kip was going to get a gun one way or
another," family friend Rod Ruhoff told the Eugene, Ore.,
Register-Guard, so why not do it under parental supervision? Another
friend recommended a single-shot weapon, but Bill Kinkel bought his son a
semiautomatic rifle. Later, he surprised Kip with a Glock pistol. Just
down the road from the Kinkel home--nestled along a rural road that feels
more Ozark than Pacific Northwest--a sign warns NO HUNTING OR SHOOTING.
The other boys also had experience with firearms.
Carneal learned to shoot at summer camp and on a shooting trip with his
neighbor's dad (from whom he stole the murder weapon). Woodham kept a map
on his wall with the bilious slogan "One Nation Under My Gun."
But a mix of boys and guns isn't an automatic formula
for mayhem. Indeed, a student hailed as a hero for stopping Kinkel's
rampage belongs to the National Rifle Association. There is something else
at work, a toxic combination of biology and environment. However lonely or
teased or poisoned by culture, the accused boys all seem to share a
deep-seated--perhaps "inherited," as a Kinkel family friend put
it--sense of rage. Investigators think Kip shot his father as they argued
over his dad's plan to send him to a National Guard program for troubled
youths. Kip had been expelled that day for taking a gun to school, and his
dad was at his wit's end. It seems that Kip was too.
Geneticists predict that a simple blood test will one
day tell which tykes become terrors. For now, though, there is more
folklore than science. Some kids, it is said, are simply born twisted.
It's possible that these five boys possess some murderer gene within, but
a look at their upbringing and surroundings yields plenty of old-fashioned
misery, both within and without.
TIME examined court-ordered psychological reports on two
of the boys, Woodham and Carneal, who both claim to be mentally ill. Last
month jurors rejected Woodham's insanity defense and found him guilty of
murdering his mother and two students in October, when he was 16. Last
week, Carneal's lawyer disclosed that his client would plead guilty but
seek a lenient sentence in light of his purported illness. Were Woodham
and Carneal driven by madness? The three psychologists who examined
Woodham disagreed over his sanity (two said he was able to distinguish
right from wrong), but they agreed he had problems--narcissistic traits
(which include, clinically speaking, lack of empathy and hypersensitivity
to insult) and erratic coping skills. "Luke's head is apparently
filled with craziness about his world...and himself," wrote defense
psychologist Mick Jepsen, who believes Woodham suffers from a serious
depressive disorder. Woodham talked of visiting demons. "The glowing
one with the red cloak came to me" the very night before the
shootings, he told a court-appointed psychologist. A few hours later,
Woodham went after his mother with a baseball bat and an Old Hickory
butcher knife, and then his schoolmates with a rifle.
Carneal's psychiatric evaluation reveals a fluttery
14-year-old so afraid that people might see him naked that he even covered
air vents when he was in the bathroom. He sometimes heard voices calling
his name and possible predators tapping on windows. He slept on the
family-room couch to be closer to his folks. "I always think people
are talking about me," he said.
Whether Woodham and Carneal are ill, they doubtless
shared with their three counterparts crushing feelings of isolation. The
boys felt particularly isolated from family members and girls. "She
always told me that I wouldn't amount to anything," Woodham said in
his confession, speaking of his mother. "She always told me that I
was fat and stupid and lazy." His 24-year-old brother, he said,
"used to pick on me--beat on me--when I was little." His
parents' marriage ended in acrimonious divorce. Police believe Luke's
mother tried hard with her son and that he exaggerates her abusive
behavior. (Neither Woodham's father nor brother have spoken to police or
reporters. His brother even refused to talk to the psychologist evaluating
Luke for the defense.)
For his part, Mitchell Johnson of Jonesboro apparently
had never felt close enough to his parents to tell them that a
neighborhood boy had sexually abused him repeatedly for at least four
years. His parents had divorced, and they bickered over whether Mitchell
needed counseling. Mitchell seemed to yearn for male approval.
"Mitchell always wanted to prove to me that he was a tough guy,"
his dad, Scott Johnson, told TIME. The boy both feared and admired his
tattooed stepdad, an ex-con. "Mitchell thought it was cool to be in
prison," Johnson says.
The Kinkels weren't divorced, nor were the Carneals, but
both Kip and Michael may have resented their accomplished and popular
older sisters. Kristin Kinkel wasn't just a pretty cheerleader--she was
the 100-pound spitfire who got tossed into the air to delight crowds at
Hawaii Pacific University, which gave her a scholarship. Kelly Carneal
graduated from Heath High just last month--only six months after her
brother apparently killed three girls in the school's prayer group--as
Heath's valedictorian. After the shooting, Michael told a psychiatrist
that everyone talked about his sister, not about him.
Kip and Michael faced struggles in school. Family
friends say Kip showed signs of intelligence but had trouble in the
classroom. His parents put him on Ritalin for a time and, when he was
later diagnosed with depression, Prozac. "He was a different
kid," says family friend Berry Kessinger. "He was kind of hyper.
He could actually be really obnoxious."
Carneal, meanwhile, cultivated a reputation as a
jokester but was depressed. Boys flicked water on him in the school
bathroom and stole his lunch. Students said he had "Michael
germs" and baited him relentlessly. He didn't cotton to the Boy
Scouts or the karate classes he briefly tried, leaving him to stew over
his indignities alone. The week before his rampage, he told an evaluator,
a couple of boys threatened to beat him up in the band room. When he
pulled a .22-cal. handgun in response, he recalled, they taunted him:
"You couldn't hurt anybody with that."
Four of the five boys were rumored to have some kind of
girl trouble--most seriously Woodham, who was by all accounts
"crushed," as a classmate told police, when Christina Menefee
broke up with him. (Significantly, her father says Luke's mom was so
overbearing she "drove them apart... If they went to get ice cream,
she was there.") After the split, Luke testified at trial, "I
didn't eat. I didn't sleep. It destroyed me." On D-day, Christina was
apparently his primary target; she died of her wounds.
Students say Carneal had a crush on one his victims,
Nicole Hadley, who didn't feel the same way about him. It was also
reported that Mitchell Johnson lashed out because Candace Porter had
broken up with him. But though Mitchell had talked of suicide after
another girl spurned him, Johnson's attorney Furth says Mitchell denies
Candace was his girlfriend. ("She's a fat pig!" Mitchell blurted
to Furth when told of the idea.) Finally, students say a classmate had
also broken up with Golden. Ironically, kids had even called Drew and the
girl, Jennifer Jacobs, "Bonnie and Clyde" when the two were a
In their isolation, the boys seemed to suffer an erosion
of self-esteem. Partly it was their physical awkwardness: Michael and Kip
were small for their age; Mitchell and Luke were pudgy. Furth describes
Mitchell as "a sensitive, soft 13-year-old"; in Arkansas, where
little boys are taught to be flinty and stoic, softness is a handicap.
Luke and Michael were teased about their physical appearance (both were
called "gay," the latter in the school paper).
They responded by overcompensating. Mitchell's father
calls him a "gang banger wannabe." Kip bragged about his guns.
Though a friend says it's a myth that he was voted "Most Likely to
Start World War III" by schoolmates, one gets the sense that Kip
wouldn't have minded the tag. In fact, according to people close to the
investigations, after their arrests both Luke and Michael expressed a
morbid appreciation of their infamy.
The boys shared a fascination with forms of
"alternative" popular culture. Yes, this is fraught territory:
the links between pop culture and behavior are tentative and indirect at
best. Still, academics who study such things widely agree that exposure to
media violence correlates with aggression, callousness and appetite for
violence--even among adults, to say nothing of kids, who have a harder
time distinguishing real from vicarious. (And on some TV shows--say,
Cops--there is no difference.) These studies were primarily completed
before the spread of cable, Nintendo and the Internet into many a
14-year-old's bedroom. As social critic Sissela Bok writes in her new book
Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment: "These sources bring into
homes depictions of graphic violence...never available to children and
young people in the past."
What of it? Listen to some of the words on Kip Kinkel's
favorite CD, Nevermind, by Nirvana: "Death/ With violence/
Excitement/ Right here/ Died/ Go to hell ... Take a chance/ Dead."
It's not completely clear what Kurt Cobain had in mind with these lyrics,
but they are lush with nihilism. Luke Woodham listened to goth rocker
Marilyn Manson, and Mitchell Johnson to rapper Tupac Shakur. One doesn't
have to support censoring any of these artists to see that hurt, isolated
kids may not understand any intended symbolism.
There were other cultural loves. Woodham had implicated
himself in a role-playing game at the behest of an older boy, Grant
Boyette, now 19. "Grant said he knew I had been hurt by Christina,
and he said there was a way to get revenge," Luke told a
psychologist. "He said Satan was the way." He said Boyette
introduced him to Hitler and Nietzsche, beat and burned his pet dog and
eventually led him to a Satanic group believed to be called the Kroth
(initially named the Fourth Reich). The Kroth played an interactive game
called Star Wars--sort of Dungeons and Dragons on drugs--that involved
loaded guns and threats to blow up the school.
While Mitchell Johnson's mother has said her kids didn't
have Nintendo, Scott Johnson says his boys rented gruesome games like
Mortal Kombat (and played them at Wal-Mart). Finally, Carneal told a
psychiatrist that he liked to play Quake and Doom, two gory video games.
Bok believes that media violence undermines kids'
resilience and self-control, psychological mechanisms that allow people to
bounce back and to count to 10 before they lash out. Some
biologists--Harvard's E.O. Wilson has pioneered this thinking--believe
there is a genetic component to these traits, that kids like Luke and Kip
simply lack the DNA that keeps their fingers off the trigger. In the end,
Satan is certainly the easier explanation, if less intellectually
satisfying. As Kurt Cobain once sang, "Now the people cry and the
people moan/ ... And try to find some place to rest their bones/ While the
angels and the devils/ Fight to claim them for their own."
--With reporting by Julie Grace/West Paducah, Sylvester
Monroe/ Jonesboro and Timothy Roche/Pearl.