On October 1, 1997, Luke Timms Woodham went on a school shooting spree after murdering his mother. Before this event, the 16-year-old from Pearl, Mississippi, had never been in trouble with the police or at school. This school shooting is noteworthy for several reasons: because it was the first of several such shootings that plagued the United States in the late 1990s, because so many people were shot, and because it involved a conspiracy investigation. The possibility of cult activity in this case sparked the national media’s attention, but in the end the allegations were unproven. Only two of the seven students arrested were sentenced: Luke Woodham, the only gunman, will remain in prison for the rest of his life, and friend Grant Boyette, who pleaded to a lesser charge, is now on supervised probation after serving time in a boot camp-style prison program.
Although a troubled early life does not justify violence, Woodham certainly did not have an easy childhood or adolescence. His parents, Mary Ann and John Woodham, split up when Luke was seven years old. Mary Ann, who had always been very particular about her children’s clothing and activities, became even more overbearing. Luke’s older brother, John Jr., began staying away from home as much as possible, so Mary Ann assigned more chores to Luke. She also micro-managed what he ate and did while they were home together and was verbally abusive, calling him fat and saying that he would never amount to anything. When John Jr. was around, he would pick on Luke. With an absent father and brother, Luke was left to fend for himself against an abusive and emotionally needy mother. Although Woodham resented the situation, he mostly tried to please his mother when he was younger and silently protested against chores or meals only when he got older.
As an awkward, overweight adolescent with few friends, Woodham’s school experiences were no better. Mary Ann insisted that he wear thick glasses, unstylish clothing, and an outdated hairstyle. Also humiliating for someone his age was his mother’s daily ritual of driving him to school and making him kiss her on the cheek–actions that provoked jokes. One time Woodham retaliated when an incest joke was directed at him and may have seriously injured his tormentor if other students had not pulled him away. His luck began to change, however, when he turned 15 and a new girl named Christina Menefee moved to town.
Menefee was kind and seemed to appreciate Woodham’s gentle manners; they went on three dates over the course of one month. Mary Ann always tagged along, something the Menefee family noticed and thought odd–Mary Ann even supervised the couple once while they sat on the couch. Christy broke off their relationship, confiding to a friend that Luke had gotten too controlling and that she found it embarrassing to have his mother present during dates. The breakup devastated Woodham.
In early 1997, Woodham began working at Domino’s as a pizza delivery boy, where he was praised as a courteous employee destined for manager training. He also made a friend. Donald Brooks invited him to participate in a role-playing game group to which he belonged. The group of misfit teenagers, led by an older teen named Grant Boyette, formed their own family and called themselves the “Kroth.” The boys were capable students who came across as good Christians, two important attributes in evangelical Pearl, Mississippi. Boyette was especially considered devout, attractive, and charismatic, but he actually had a dual identity. When with his friends, he was fixated on Hitler, Satan, and spell books. With Woodham, he cast spells on his perceived “enemies.” Woodham believed that Boyette had special powers and the pair formed a close relationship. Friends within the Kroth must have noticed escalating signs of violence, but only Brooks did anything about it.
Teachers, neighbors, and fellow students were among those who may have seen indicators of a disturbed teen. Woodham wrote several suspicious in-class essays, one stating that he would go on a killing spree if he could be teacher for the day. The teacher did not report these disturbing pieces of writing. Other school officials doubtless witnessed some of the bullying that continue to plague Woodham. Still other events leading up to the matricide and school shooting should have drawn some attention, too. In the year between his breakup with Menefee and the school shooting, Woodham twice threatened to commit suicide. Each time, a classmate stopped him, but it is unclear if either of the students reported the incident to an adult.
Neighbors had long ago stopped inviting the Woodham boys over to play because of their over-aggressiveness, but one neighbor witnessed Woodham and Boyette viciously beat Sparkle, the Woodham family’s Shih Tzu. In April 1997, this neighbor watched through his fence as the boys beat the dog with a stick until she could barely walk. Later, John Jr. noticed Sparkle limping and told Luke to bring her to the veterinarian. Instead, Woodham and Boyette beat her again, put her in a bag, set her on fire, and threw her into a pond while she was still alive and whimpering. Rather than show remorse for what he had done to his “dear … loved” family dog, Woodham was pleased. He wrote in his diary about his “first kill” and described how satisfying the experience had been.
Because of the pleasure these two boys got from killing, several members of the Kroth distanced themselves from the group at this time. Brooks was among them, especially after Boyette suggested that Brooks kill his father for grounding him. Brooks reported the discussion to the authorities, who did not take the threat seriously. When Woodham told his role-playing friends how upset he was that Menefee would not date him again, Boyette suggested he kill her. Unlike Brooks, Woodham this suggestion seriously. Regardless of who masterminded the plan, Woodham was the one who carried it to its conclusion despite his arguments during his trials about the amount of influence Boyette had over him. Woodham wanted to get back at those who had hurt him, to be remembered forever, and to convince would-be bullies not to pick on others.
On October 1, 1997, Woodham’s alarm clock went off at 5:00 a.m. and his violent plan began. He snuck down to the kitchen, got a butcher knife, retrieved a baseball bat from his room, and walked toward his mother’s bedroom. He had planned to kill Mary Ann while she slept, but she was in the hallway about to go for a jog. The attack began there and ended in her bedroom, where Woodham forced his way in and stabbed and bludgeoned his mother repeatedly. He finally suffocated her with a pillow and cleaned up both the scene and himself. In taped interviews with police, Woodham said that he had “stopped caring about anything” the night before the murders. He lied in his confession, saying that he had brought a butcher knife into his mother’s bedroom, put the pillow over her head, and stabbed her to death. In court he also asserted that demons spoke to him that morning and that he remembered getting the knife and pillow but not the actual murder.
Operating under the assumption that he would die in a shootout with the police, Woodham wrote a last will and testament (which the media later labeled his “manifesto”), called Boyette, retrieved his father’s .30-.30 hunting rifle from the attic, and drove himself to Pearl High School. Woodham arrived around 8:00 a.m., just when students were milling around the commons area before class. He found friend Justin Sledge and handed him the notebooks, which included his will, to be passed along to Boyette. Sledge guessed what was about to happen and herded some close friends into the safety of the library. Woodham retrieved his rifle from his car, placed it under his trench coat, and returned to the commons area. He walked directly to Menefee and shot her and her friend Lydia Kaye Dew, killing both. Woodham then turned and calmly shot and injured seven other students. His poor eyesight and inexperience with a gun likely saved many from harm. After an 11-minute rampage, Woodham was first tackled by another boy and then fled to the parking lot. Assistant principal Joel Myrick went to his own car, retrieved a gun he had in his glove compartment, prevented Woodham from driving away, and held him until police arrived.
When officers were bringing Woodham to the police station, they noticed his bandaged hand; the youth said that his injuries were incurred while killing his mother. Police sent cars to her home straight away and discovered her body. Woodham was charged with three counts of murder and seven counts of aggravated assault. He waived his right to counsel, wrote a confession, and agreed to a videotaped interview. He confessed to killing his mother in a calm, straightforward voice. However, when he spoke of his motives–that she never loved him and the various things he had to endure from her–and insisted on his sanity, he became emotional. He accurately detailed what he had done from the time he left the house until he was arrested, recalling whom he shot and how he was arrested.
On October 2, Justin Sledge fanned the community’s fears by pinning a note to the door of the school that said the Kroth’s numbers were diminished but the group was still strong. He tried to defend Woodham’s actions by blaming society, and went as far as interrupting a candlelight vigil. People, among them Woodham’s neighbor who witnessed the incident with Sparkle, came forward with information that made the police think that the Kroth was a cult that believed in spells, worshipped Satan, killed animals, and planned a takeover of the school and escape to Cuba. By October 7, 1997, police had arrested six of Woodham’s friends on conspiracy charges; cult rumors kept both the townspeople’s fears and the media’s interest alive for months.
Woodham was tried twice, first for the murder of his mother and then for the school shootings. Each case was heard in county court in an effort to obtain an unbiased jury. Experts for the defense diagnosed Woodham with borderline personality disorder; experts for the prosecution insisted he was mentally capable of standing trial. During the first trial, which ended on June 6, 1998, the jury rejected Woodham’s insanity defense and found him guilty of first-degree murder. This trial was very dramatic, with Woodham openly weeping, the power failing, and the jury giving their decision in the dark. Woodham accepted the sentence as God’s will and, by the start of the second trial the following Monday, he appeared with Bible in hand and claimed a religious conversion.
Woodham’s attorneys–and his own testimony–portrayed him as a victim of the influential Boyette, but Woodham was still given a life sentence for each of the two murders, plus 20 years for each of the seven counts of aggravated assault. He again apologized to the families of those he had hurt but said he had no more tears because God had forgiven him. Woodham is currently serving out his sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where he feels remorse about starting the school shooting trend.
The district attorney dropped charges against five of the boys who were arrested in conjunction with this case. The sixth boy was tried in juvenile court and his records sealed. In October 1998, Grant Boyette and Justin Sledge were charged as accessories to murder before the fact, a serious felony. Sledge was freed but Boyette, who had gotten much attention during the trial, accepted a plea bargain from the district attorney. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge–interfering with a principal’s ability to perform his duties–and was sentenced to six months of prison-based boot camp, followed by five years of either prison or supervised probation.
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- Fast, J. (2008). Luke Woodham: Socialization into extreme violence. In Ceremonial violence: A psychological explanation of school shootings (pp. 138-171). Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
- Roche, T., Berryman, A., Barnes, E., Barnes, S., Harbert, N., Liston, B., et al. (2001, May 28). Voices from the cell. Time, 157(21), 32-37.