Stan Harrell swears he’ll never fuss at his daughter, 16-year-old Kelly, for being late to school again. If she had been on time on Wednesday, Oct. 1, she would have been in the line of fire when the shooting started.
Last Thursday night, Stan overheard his daughter in her room. Like many in this largely Baptist community of 22,000 people, she was praying.
What folks here are wondering now is just who some of the other kids in town may have been praying to.
In the aftermath of the killings and arrests, there is dark talk of a satanic cult, of a clique of misfit teens who dressed in black and called themselves “The Group.”
Prosecutors and civic leaders seem to think there may be something to it.
Bordering the city of Jackson, Pearl is a peaceful-looking town of red-brick, one-story ranch houses, most with flower gardens out front and welcome signs on the small front porches where people sit after dinner. The houses line narrow streets lush with large oaks and willow trees. On the outskirts, beyond clusters of rusting house trailers, 8-year-old Pearl High School sprawls across a pristine campus of manicured lawns and athletic fields.
Last Friday, police found a sheet of scorched paper, its edges burned, taped to the school wall next to the main entrance. On it, someone had drawn a skull and crossbones and an Iron Cross, and written the words: “Luke is God. From your friends at Pearl High School.”
Luke would be Luke Woodham, the 16-year-old who is charged with slashing his mother to death with a butcher knife and then opening fire on his classmates with a rifle. He is accused of killing Lydia Dew, 17, and his former girlfriend, Christina Menefee, and wounding seven other students, leaving them bleeding on the polished floor of the school cafeteria.
Roy Balentine, the principal, dashed out of his office when he heard the first shots.
“I ran out to see if something possibly malfunctioned,” he said. “I was hoping that’s what it was, but I knew it sounded like gunshots.”
He saw Woodham, about 15 or 20 feet away, wearing a big, blue coat and holding a rifle. Balentine dangled both arms to show how Woodham held the rifle low out in front of him.
Fearing Woodham would come for him next, Balentine ran to his office to call the police. As he dialed, more shots rang out. More students fell.
Minutes later, Assistant Principal Joel Myrick chased Woodham down outside the school, held him at bay with a .45-caliber automatic pistol he kept in his truck in the school parking lot. He forced Woodham to the ground and put his foot on the youth’s neck.
“I think he’s a coward,” Myrick said. “I had my weapon pointed at his face, and he didn’t want to die.”
It seemed an open-and-shut case - a single young gunman.
But then, a week later, six other teens, described as Woodham’s friends, were taken to jail on charges that they had conspired to murder Pearl High School students and some of their parents.
There had been whispers that some kids in town may have been toying with the occult. In the aftermath, townspeople have latched onto the rumors as an explanation for the seemingly unexplainable.
“On the street, they’re talking about some devil cults, and I’m sure there’s good reason for that,” said Mayor Jimmie Foster, whose son was allegedly targeted by Woodham, but was late for school that day.
Foster, a former Pearl police officer, said that over the years, there have been scattered signs of cult activity in town. “Cult signs, maybe a couple of pets missing, but we never found the carcasses,” he said.
The Rev. Martin Ruane, whose St. Jude’s Catholic Church is just a few homes away from where Luke Woodham’s rampage began, said he counseled a local teenager last year because he had “some involvement in this devil-type thing.” But he said he doubts that 17-year-old Wesley Brownell, a parishioner who was among those arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder, was involved in such things.
Prosecutor John Kitchens, Rankin County’s district attorney, his investigation “has led us to believe that there is satanic activity occurring in this county.” He said he has not ruled out the idea that the youths arrested this month are involved.
Ed Rainer, attorney for one of the youths, Grant Boyette, 18, of nearby Brandon, called the demonic rumors nonsense. But the talk is everywhere.
A 19-year-old Pearl High graduate who only gave his first name, Chris, talked darkly of “a devil worship church” by a gated road in the woods north of the school.
Dried bones of small animals are scattered about the area, but there is also a lot of other garbage there empty buckets, old wire spools, worn-out tires and rotting shoes. Satanic church or unofficial garbage dump?
But Woodham’s friends have offered police an alternative explanation for the shootings - one that has nothing to do with devil worship. They say Woodham told them he was just plain angry because he was sick of being picked on.