LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A teenager who helped shoot and kill five people during a schoolyard rampage at his middle school reached his 21st birthday yesterday and was expected to walk out of a federal detention center.
Federal authorities would not confirm Mitchell Johnson's release, saying privacy laws prevented them from commenting because Johnson was a minor when he and another boy gunned down four classmates and a teacher behind Jonesboro Westside Middle School.
Because of a since-closed loophole in the state's juvenile justice system, there was no legal way to hold Johnson and Andrew Golden beyond their 18th birthdays. Federal prosecutors used weapons laws to keep the boys locked up until age 21.
State Representative Dustin McDaniel, who represents the northeastern Arkansas town, said yesterday that Johnson's expected release was a painful reminder of the violence.
''This young man should not be walking free today, but there was nothing at the time under the law to allow for any other scenario," said McDaniel, who is running for attorney general as a Democrat.
In the Arkansas court system, Johnson emerges with no criminal record after a juvenile court judge branded him a delinquent. He will not have to check in with a probation officer, deputy prosecutor Mike Walden said.
On March 24, 1998, Johnson, then 13, and Golden, then 11, stole high-powered rifles from Golden's grandfather. Dressed in camouflage, they waited in the woods behind the school until the lunch hour, when Golden ran into a hallway to trigger a fire alarm.
As classmates and teachers filed out of the buildings, Johnson and Golden opened fire. Children ducked or scrambled while teachers tried to herd pupils back into the building. Four students and Shannon Wright, an English teacher, were killed; 10 others were injured.
Johnson, on his 14th birthday, admitted his part in the slayings and offered an apology.
''I really thought that no one would actually be hurt. I thought we would just shoot over everyone's head. When the shooting started, we were not shooting at anybody or any group of people in particular," he said.
Jeannie Williams, Wright's mother, said it was wrong for Johnson to walk free.
''We just hate to see him released because he did such a bad thing," Williams told The Jonesboro Sun newspaper. ''I've been dreading this day for a long time."
The Jonesboro shootings came amid a number of schoolyard assaults. Thirteen died, along with two shooters, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a year after the Arkansas shootings. Luke Woodham killed two students in Pearl, Miss., in October 1997 after killing his mother, and Kip Kinkel killed two teenagers and wounded more than 20 at Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents in May 1998. Woodham is in prison for life; Kinkel is serving nearly 112 years.