While police would say nothing about a motive in the shooting, in which four pupils and one teacher died, anger over a romance gone wrong as well as a new affiliation with a local gang emerged as the best explanation for the minutes of terror visited on the Westside Middle School, on the outskirts of Jonesboro, a small university and farming town in north-west Arkansas.
The girlfriend was reported to be 12-year-old Candace Porter. She was named as one of 10 others hit in the lunch-hour fusillade who survived and who yesterday were still being treated for their wounds. She was said to be in a stable condition and out of danger last night.
The two accused, cousins Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, were charged at the county detention centre where they have been in custody since Tuesday.
The local prosecutor, Brent Davis, said that under Arkansas law the pair could be tried only as juveniles. This would imply that even if they were found guilty and served the strictest sentence they could walk free on their 18th birthdays.
While teachers suggested that both boys had had good records of obedience in the 250-strong school, it seemed that Mitchell Johnson had boasted recently of joining a gang.
He had reportedly been involved in a knife fight on Monday and had spoken to several friends that day about his murderous intentions. No one, however, took him seriously.
"He told us that tomorrow, you will find out if you live or die," one pupil, Melinda Hanson, told reporters.
Another, Charles Vanoven, added: "He told me yesterday that all the people who broke up with him, you know, he's going to come to school tomorrow and kill them. I thought he was just kidding around."
Mr Davis attempted yesterday to damp down speculation over the motive, however. "I don't think logical explanations or reason will fit this type of situation," he said.
Anticipating public outrage at the likely leniency of an eventual sentencing, Mr Davis added that he would "explore all options" to try the boys in a manner to keep them behind bars beyond 18. That would imply intervention in the case by the federal courts.
The Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, visited the school yesterday and expressed his dismay over the shooting. "It makes me angry, not so much at the individual children that have done it as much as angry at a world in which such a thing could happen."
Myriad questions remained unanswered last night. Who, for instance, was the owner of a white van found parked near the crime scene on Tuesday with a stash of weapons inside? And how did the boys get hold of some nine weapons they used to fire off their bullets? In Arkansas there is no law forbidding minors from owning and using rifles. Only handgun ownership is illegal for children. And here, hunting is the unofficial state sport. "Hunt with your children," a local saying goes, "so you don't have to hunt for your children."
The four children killed were identified as Natalie Brooks, 12, Paige Ann Herring 12, Stephanie Johnson, 12, and Brittany Varner, 11. They died along with their teacher Shannon Wright, 32, who was shot as she tried to protect a pupil.
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