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Arms & Boys

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Published On: <DATE>          Updated On: April 13, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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OF ARMS AND THE BOY

All kids battle demons. Why did these five lose?

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 confrontations..."

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 couple.

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.

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