A man who as a teen helped shoot and kill five people in a schoolyard ambush was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison on an unrelated federal weapons charge.
U.S. District Judge Jimm Larry Hendren expressed dismay that Mitchell Johnson had not taken advantage of the second chance he received upon his release after years in custody. Now 24, he was 13 at the time of the 1998 shootings at Jonesboro's Westside Middle School.
While his trial contained no reference to the shootings, they were a key element of Johnson's sentencing hearing Thursday. Hendren agreed to go beyond sentencing guidelines after prosecutors argued that the guidelines did not take into account the severity of the shootings, which aside from those killed left 10 people wounded.
"No matter what I do today, you will have a life to live," said the judge. "Those who died in 1998 will not."
Johnson had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after being convicted in January of possessing a firearm while being a user of or addicted to a controlled substance. Johnson also was sentenced to three years of supervised release.
Johnson already was being held at the Benton County jail on separate state charges, accused of taking a debit card left by a disabled man at a Bentonville gas station where Johnson worked.
Johnson rocked back and forth in his chair, his hand clasped in his lap. When asked if he had a statement, Johnson told the Fayetteville courtroom that "not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened" — nearly the same comments he made to Washington County deputies who arrested him during a traffic stop Jan. 1, 2007.
At the time, Johnson was traveling with Justin Trammell, who had been found delinquent after shooting his father to death with a crossbow in 1999. Johnson and Trammell were roommates.
'Very, very worrisome'
Deputies had received a tip the duo's van carried 100 pounds of marijuana. Deputies found only 21 grams of the drug but also found a nickel-plated handgun and a 20-gauge shotgun. State prosecutors later turned the case over to federal prosecutors.
Hendren said the fact that Johnson was found in possession of firearms, despite the shootings of a decade ago, was "very, very worrisome."
In 1998, Johnson and classmate Andrew Golden stole guns from Golden's grandfather and a white van belonging to Johnson's stepfather. They waited in camouflage atop a wooded hill after Golden triggered a fake fire alarm.
They opened fire as classmates and teachers left the school. Shannon Wright, an English teacher, died while shielding student Emma Pittman 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 federal government had held Johnson and Golden until age 21 after the Jonesboro shootings. At the time of the schoolyard massacre, Arkansas had the means to hold Johnson and Golden only until age 18.
After his release, Johnson spent time in several states before returning to Arkansas to work at a Wal-Mart. The night of his traffic-stop arrest, he told deputies he planned on moving to California to start his life over.