LITTLE ROCK – Somewhere in the United States, Andrew Golden will likely step outside of prison Friday for the first time as a free man since being arrested as an 11-year-old after he and another boy killed four classmates and an English teacher at a Jonesboro middle school.
Golden, the younger of two boys who used deer rifles to kill five people at the Jonesboro Westside Middle School in 1998, turns 21 Friday. With that, he should be eligible to leave an unidentified federal prison where he served a sentence for what likely was a federal firearms conviction.
The uncertainty rests from the closed hearings and sealed court filings that led to his federal incarceration — such as those that also imprisoned accomplice Mitchell Johnson until his 21st birthday Aug. 11, 2005.
U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin said Thursday he couldn't confirm whether Golden would be released on his birthday. However, when asked about Golden's sentencing, Griffin said "he got as much as time as he could under the law."
"Under the law, that time has run and as a result, he is getting released," Griffin said.
Golden would leave prison with a clean record and face no parole supervision. A lawyer for the families of those killed says he wants Golden to offer a deposition in a lawsuit aimed at preventing him and Johnson, 22, from profiting from the shooting.
We're "waiting a little while to see if he comes forward, and if not, we'll do what we can do to track him," said lawyer Bobby McDaniel, father of state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. "It took us two years to find Mitchell Johnson, but we eventually got him and we'll eventually locate Andrew Golden."
On March 24, 1998, the boys skipped school and stole several rifles and semiautomatic pistols from the home of Golden's grandfather. Dressed in camouflage, Mitchell, then 13, waited as Golden, then 11, pulled a fire alarm at Westside Middle School. As the students streamed out of the building, Golden and Mitchell opened fire.
Killed were students Natalie Brooks, 11; Paige Herring, 12; Stephanie Johnson, 12; and Britthney Varner, 11. Shannon Wright, an English teacher, died while shielding another student from a pair of rifle shots. The boys wounded another 11.
Police say they captured the boys as they ran toward a nearby getaway van, taken from Mitchell's home.
At their trial later that year, Mitchell admitted his guilt. Andrew, 12 at the time, was found guilty after his lawyer acknowledged his crimes. They served time at a state facility before being transferred to federal custody.
Johnson was released from federal custody in 2005 when he turned 21, which Golden does Friday.
"I know the people of northeast Arkansas are saddened his sentence was so short, but it was all the criminal justice system would allow at the time," Attorney General McDaniel said Thursday.
Johnson and Golden fired deer rifles capable of bringing down 280-pound animals at their classmates.
Johnson described the shootings in a videotaped deposition April 2.
"I don't remember pulling the trigger after the first shot," Johnson said. "I remember Andrew shot twice first. I shot once in the air, and I looked, and I seen Natalie (Brooks) get hit in the head. And I don't remember anything else after that besides Andrew coming back to get me, telling me we're on the run."
Johnson also claimed Golden and his drug abuse led him to pull the trigger. That's something Bobby McDaniel doesn't believe. However, when the time comes for a deposition of Golden, he hopes to be able to parse truth from what he considers the lies of killers.
"I doubt either one of them are going to tell the complete truth," the elder McDaniel said. "But probably the real truth lies somewhere in between and in some of the details, you gather information."
On New Year's Day, police arrested Johnson with Justin Trammell, who was convicted as a juvenile of killing his father with a crossbow. Officers found a loaded gun and 21 grams of marijuana in the car. During his deposition, Johnson claimed the gun as his own.