LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Mitchell Johnson, who served time for helping kill five people during a 1998 ambush in a Jonesboro school yard, could only dream of California as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser on New Year's Day 2007.
Deputies allegedly found two weapons while searching Johnson's vehicle after they said they also found an ounce of marijuana in his pocket. Johnson, who got out of prison in August 2005, told authorities he and the other man in the vehicle, Justin Trammell, were moving to Carlsbad, Calif., south of Los Angeles.
Jury selection began Monday for Johnson, now 23, who is being tried in federal court on one count of possession of a firearm while either a user or addicted to a controlled substance. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
"Honest to God, I'm just trying to get to Cali, man," Johnson told deputies as they searched the loaded-down, 1980s Ford van at a Fayetteville convenience store. The incident was recorded on video.
Johnson and Andrew Golden had been convicted in juvenile court for the 1998 shootings of four classmates and a teacher at Jonesboro Westside Middle School. The pair opened fire on students and teachers after Golden pulled the fire alarm. Johnson was then 13. Golden was 11.
After the traffic stop on Jan. 1, 2007, a state prosecutor later dropped misdemeanor drug and weapons charges at the request of federal officials, who filed a more serious, felony charge.
The school shooting shocked Arkansas. Johnson and Golden stole guns from Golden's grandfather and a van belonging to Johnson's stepfather. They waited in camouflage atop a wooded hill after Golden triggered a fake fire alarm at Jonesboro's Westside Middle School.
The two opened fire as classmates and teachers left the school. Shannon Wright, an English teacher, died while shielding a student from a pair of bullets. Students Natalie Brooks, 11; Paige Herring, 12; Stephanie Johnson, 12; and Britthney Varner, 11, all died of their wounds. The boys wounded another 10 people.
State courts sent them to a juvenile prison until their 18th birthdays. But federal prosecutors swept in before their birthdays, locking them up until they turned 21.
What became of Johnson after his release from prison has been a lingering question in Arkansas. His mother has said that he might become a minister.
Johnson lived in North Carolina and California for a while. He even returned to Jonesboro over Christmas 2006, where Craighead County Sheriff Jack McCann had warned that deputies "couldn't guarantee" the safety of either him or Golden.
He received a silver 9 mm Lorein pistol as a present and practiced "target shooting" near the city.
Video obtained by The Associated Press shows that deputies staked out the van after receiving a tip it had 100 pounds of marijuana inside. A second video begins as deputies turned on their emergency lights, stopping the van as it pulls into the convenience store lot. Deputies say Trammell, the driver at the time, had drifted across the center line.
Deputies frisked Johnson, finding a bag he identified as containing an ounce of marijuana. They handcuffed him, placing him in the back of a cruiser.
The video shows he immediately acknowledged the 9 mm pistol tucked into a backpack, later groaning when he forgot about a 20-gauge shotgun inside a camouflage bag.
Only the first 10 minutes of Johnson's time in the back of the police cruiser will be allowed as evidence at his trial. Prosecutors and Johnson's lawyer made the deal because deputies did not read Johnson his Miranda rights — even after he asked at one point if he should hear them for the deputies' "protection."