Mother Of The Accused

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He didn't look real good," says Gretchen Woodard of her 13-year-old son, Mitchell Johnson. She had just seen him at the Craighead County Detention Center in Arkansas, where he and his partner, Andrew Golden, 11, are in solitary confinement, awaiting an April 29 court hearing into the Jonesboro massacre. For now, though, Gretchen is thinking about smaller matters. Her son is "thin, sallow and dehydrated, with very dry, cracked lips," she says. "I begged him to drink." But Mitch, she says, is not taken with the prison's beverage selection: tap water, milk and, on a good day, Kool-Aid. He is terrified and confused, she says, able to provide few clues to his mother to explain the horror that he and Drew Golden are accused of inflicting on the Arkansas community. Last week Jonesboro was still deep in mourning as almost 8,000 people gathered at Arkansas State University to remember the four girls and one teacher murdered on March 24.

A clear picture of Mitchell Johnson has been obscured by his disparate identities--choirboy, volatile romantic, school bully. To those images must now be added the ravages of family turmoil and rootlessness. But was Mitch the instigator of the shootings at Westside Middle School, as Drew's grandfather has cast him? Gretchen Woodard has another version. She told TIME her son says it was Drew who proposed an attack last month. Mitch had said no, Woodard says, but then on the bus ride home from school the afternoon before the fatal assault, Drew approached Mitch again. "Mitch told me he never meant to hurt anybody and he didn't take specific aim," says Woodard. "He just meant to scare 'em, I guess. But then something went terribly wrong." She learned of the shooting from two back-to-back phone calls. "Don't you know?" demanded the first caller. Then her son Monte, 11, rang: "Mom, you have to come get me. Mitchell shot some kids."

Their mother tells her story from her weather-worn mobile home on a dirt road northwest of Jonesboro. Next door is Brand Custom Hauling--the company that employs Gretchen's third husband, Terry Woodard, as a heavy-equipment operator. In the house a bobtailed cat prowls the kitchen counter while Trigger, the pet guinea pig, snoozes in its cage. "The hardest thing for me is that this was the happiest any of us had ever been," says Woodard. On the morning of the shooting, Mitch had sat at her circular kitchen table, slumped in her spindle-back chair, chuckling with his stepfather over how an old woman grabbed his ear during a visit by his church group to a local nursing home. Mitch, who had been troubled since Gretchen's divorce from his father, Scott Johnson, in 1994, had seemed happier; he had brought home A's in music, choir and phys ed in January. He had even made three different middle-school teams, becoming a Westside Warrior in football, basketball and baseball.

Gretchen chooses not to talk about another story that surfaced last week from her son's past. According to a sheriff's report in Minnesota, where the family had originally lived, Mitch had admitted sexually touching the two-year-old granddaughter of his father's fiance, during the boy's summer vacation in Minnesota last year. Mitch told his friend Andrew O'Rourke, 13, that the situation had been "misunderstood"--he was only trying to help the toddler pull up her pants after she went to the bathroom. But Mitchell also told authorities that he "put his finger inside of her once." The girl corroborated that statement, pointing to an anatomically correct doll. Mitch was ordered to undergo psychological counseling.

For his mother, even the dilapidated domesticity of Arkansas was an improvement over Minnesota. By the early 1990s, her marriage to Scott Johnson was failing, and home life had become something of a health hazard. "There was dog crap on the kitchen floor," recalls an occasional visitor to their farmhouse in Grand Meadow. "Rotting food was lying on the counter for weeks. The yard was not cleaned or mowed." As for Mitch, the visitor recalls once finding him asleep behind some paneling in the house. He says, "He didn't look like someone I wanted my kid to play with. His clothes were dirty. If I had more kindness, I would have cleaned him up." In 1993 Scott Johnson was arrested for stealing meat at the grocery where he worked, and was dismissed. He and Gretchen divorced a year later.

While her husband tangled with the law over the gross misdemeanor, Gretchen, who was a corrections officer at a federal-prison medical center in nearby Rochester, befriended Woodard, a felon who had been convicted in 1990 of drug and firearms charges. In 1995 he won a "supervised release" from a halfway house and moved to Jonesboro with Gretchen and her sons. This time around, she chose to be a homemaker, and they set up house on a county road half a mile outside Jonesboro. The Woodards' daughter Jessie was born in Arkansas.

Just how Drew Golden and Mitch Johnson became partners is still a mystery. The Goldens live 2 1/2 miles away at 210 Royale Drive, an address that asserts its respectability with a sunflower-painted mailbox and a stone squirrel poised next to a tiny fountain on the front lawn. "The families didn't know each other, and they don't know how the boys know each other," says William Howard, Mitchell's court-appointed attorney. Says Alisha Golden, who used to sit next to Drew (no relation) in English class, "Mitch and Drew were not friends. They didn't hang out." While the boys were assigned seats next to each other on the bus, the bus driver doesn't recall seeing them together often. Mitch's mother says Drew had never visited their home. "The name [Andrew Golden] had never come up," says Woodard. "As a matter of fact, the first time I heard the name was when this all happened."

Did Mitch have a penchant for violent video games? Gretchen Woodard says the family couldn't afford them. As for marksmanship, she says, real guns are barred from the household. She acknowledges, however, that both Mitch and Monte had hunter-education cards and BB guns. "We don't need to paint a rosy picture of Mitch. He knew right from wrong," says Woodard. She adds, "His punishment will be knowing what he has done and having to live with it." She must now learn to live without her son. And so must his half-sister Jessie, 2. Says their mother: "She cries at night, 'Where's my Mitchell?'"