MISSISSIPPI GOTHIC

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This is a twice-told tale, and the second telling magnifies the terror of the first. It takes place in Pearl, a town of 22,000 outside Jackson, Miss., flustered for years by an unwelcome reputation as the state's unofficial capital for double-wide-trailer salesmen. Two weeks ago, however, true infamy was visited on Pearl.

At 8 a.m. on Oct. 1, Luke Woodham, 16, bookish and overweight, drove a white Chevy Corsica up to his high school. That was already a sign of trouble: the young man had poor vision and was driven to school every day by his mother. But three hours earlier that morning, Mary Ann Woodham, 50, had been stabbed to death with a butcher knife in the home she shared with her son. Luke Woodham walked into Pearl High's commons, an enclosure created by the school's buildings. He then took a .30-.30 rifle from beneath his blue trench coat and opened fire, wounding seven schoolmates and killing two, Lydia Kaye Dew, 17, and Christina Menefee, 16, a girl he once dated. He was subdued by assistant principal Joel Myrick, who pulled a .45-cal. pistol from his car and ordered the gunman to the ground. "Mr. Myrick," said Woodham, "I was the guy who gave you the discount on the pizza the other night." Woodham had been hoping to make the assistant manager's program at the local Domino's.

As Woodham was charged with the murders of his mother and two classmates, his hometown went into deep mourning, stunned at the rampage. But was it just the work of one man? Last week a second tale wrapped itself around the first, to the greater dismay of Pearl. Six friends of Woodham's were arrested on Oct. 7 on murder-conspiracy charges. Two of the suspects, Donald Brooks II, 17, and Marshall ("Grant") Boyette Jr., 18, were accused of plotting to murder Brooks' father, a local fire fighter. The police gave no reasons for that subplot, and after his father pleaded for him, Brooks was released on his own recognizance. Two other suspects, Wesley Brownell, 17, and Delbert Shaw, 18, posted bail at week's end. The seven friends appear to have formed what they called "the Group." Several members of the Group belonged to the Junior Classical League, which studied Latin. Some apparently had a penchant for black clothing and for the broodings on nihilism of the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

But what kind of conspiracy was it? The authorities have been vague. On Tuesday, Pearl's mayor, Jimmy Foster, told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson that his son Kyle, 17, was one of Woodham's intended victims "for the shock value of shooting the mayor's son." During the shooting spree, Woodham had allegedly turned to one of the injured boys to apologize, saying the bullet was meant for Foster.

The shooting had its philosophical veneer. Justin Sledge, 16, a friend of Woodham's, not only disrupted a prayer vigil for the victims but, dressed in a black trench coat, black shirt and dark glasses, also distributed to the media a page allegedly copied from Woodham's notebook. In an apparent reference to Boyette, the note instructed "Grant" to read a passage to the public from Nietzsche's 1887 book, The Gay Science, a section containing the philosopher's famous declaration, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."

Woodham specifically mentioned the Nietzsche character who declares God's death: "the madman," an enlightened being whom the rest of the world perceives as lunatic. The madman declares, "I have come too early ... My time is not yet." In his note, Woodham purportedly wrote his own rant: "I am not insane! I am angry. This world s___ on me for the final time. I am not spoiled or lazy; for murder is not weak and slow-witted; murder is gutsy and daring. I killed because People like me are mistreated every day... I am malicious because I am miserable." He then said, "Grant, see you in the holding cell!"

Sledge explained that Woodham's actions were not the result of a "boyfriend-girlfriend thing" or the breakup of his parents' marriage five years ago. "He did it because society as a whole put down the thinkers and the true geniuses of the world." Sledge was among the six arrested last week.

Pearl is rife with rumors: that others--maybe some adults--helped plot the conspiracy, that a map exists assigning each suspect to a point in the commons in a plan that would have resulted in greater bloodshed, that the Group was inspired by The Secret History, a best-selling novel about New England college students and murder. Notes have been pasted up declaring, in Greek letters, "Luke is God." The stories are overwhelming the town. "We don't know what the motive was," says Mayor Foster, who says there is no proof of a hit list or of cult activity. "But there's no way to justify this. It's made me sick. I'm just sick."