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Originally published Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Huckabee book deal angered some

After two middle-school boys in full camouflage gear shot and killed four classmates and a teacher in Jonesboro, wounding 10 people and...

Los Angeles Times

JONESBORO, Ark. — After two middle-school boys in full camouflage gear shot and killed four classmates and a teacher in Jonesboro, wounding 10 people and shattering the community, it seemed inevitable someone would see opportunity in the tragedy for a book deal.

Within days of the March 1998 attack, a publisher agreed to pay $25,000 to an Arkansas writer to produce a book on youth violence.

Victims' relatives were outraged. They called the payment blood money and said the author was cashing in on their pain. They demanded the money go to the school, the victims' families or for scholarships for the wounded, not to the writer's bank account. He refused.

That the author was Mike Huckabee, Arkansas' governor at the time, made their resentment all the stronger.

"He took advantage of us," said Pam Herring, whose daughter, Paige Ann, had just turned 12 when she was shot to death. "He was out for one thing and that was money," said Mitch Wright, whose wife, Shannon, a teacher, died protecting other children. "He made money at our expense."

The slaughter at the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro was, at the time, one of the deadliest school incidents in U.S. history. As Huckabee campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, his book deal continues to aggravate many of the victims' families.

Some critics of Huckabee said the incident fits his pattern as governor of enriching himself with gifts of cash, clothes and furniture donated by supporters.

At the time of the shootings, Huckabee was under investigation for numerous ethics violations, many of them for not reporting outside income and gifts. In all, he was fined or sanctioned five times by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Inauguration funds reportedly were used to buy clothes for his wife, Janet, for instance, and the couple later set up a "wedding registry" at department stores and collected linens, toasters and other furnishings from supporters. They had been married 25 years.

Bobby McDaniel, a Jonesboro lawyer who represented some of the families, said Huckabee "never saw a gift he didn't take." Newspaper editorial writers labeled him a "money-grubbing governor" and nicknamed him "Mike the Huckster."

"It was all quite unseemly," Vaughn McQuary, chairman of the state Democratic Party at the time, said recently about the book contract. "The governor of a state should set a better example."

Huckabee's campaign did not respond to requests for an interview. Huckabee has publicly defended his book deal, saying the $11.99, 180-page paperback was planned before two boys opened fire at Westside and the tragedy would give him the springboard to air his broader views that youth culture was destroying families.

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"The book is not about Jonesboro," he insisted.

But when the book was printed a month after the shootings, it was titled "Kids Who Kill." The cover is a photo of a boy about the age of the Jonesboro killers pointing a gun at the reader. The back-cover promo states, "The quest for quick answers has robbed us of the truth (about Jonesboro). Until now."

In the opening pages is this: "Just after lunch on March 24, 1998, a sudden burst of gunfire cut through the crowded schoolyard of Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas."

Much of the rest of the book is a compilation of quotes from theologians and historical figures, and it includes transcripts of two radio addresses Huckabee gave after the shooting spree. It was one of several books Huckabee has written or co-written, all dealing with motivational subjects such as character and dieting, but none as controversial as "Kids Who Kill."

Dennis Milligan, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, who has endorsed Huckabee for president, defended the book deal. "He's entitled to whatever the specific profits were from that book. And as to why he didn't donate the proceeds, obviously it was something he wasn't moved to do."

Milligan also defended Huckabee's receiving gifts as governor, saying many were small tokens of appreciation and none helped buy anyone any special influence. Milligan mentioned, for instance, a pair of cowboy boots and a canoe, and he said Huckabee was careful to return any expensive gifts that exceeded the allowable limits.

"He is an honorable guy," Milligan said.

On the afternoon of the shootings, Huckabee was flying home to Little Rock from a speech in Washington, D.C. An air-traffic controller radioed the pilot, who told the governor. Two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, dressed in army-style camouflage and loaded with guns, pulled the school fire alarm after the lunch hour and fired at classmates and teachers as they filed outside.

Reaching the state Capitol, Huckabee called a news conference and blasted the youth culture. "It makes me angry," he said. "It's in the television programs they watch, the movies they see, the language they use, the things they are exposed to and the glorification of those things."

The next day he and his wife met in Jonesboro for about 40 minutes with many of the victims' families. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, also went to the hospital and helped families begin to work through their grief.

"I remember him and his wife coming down the hall," said David Betts, whose niece, Ashley, was among the people wounded. "They were the most compassionate people I've ever seen."

But Huckabee was not among the 9,000 people who attended a memorial service a week later at the Arkansas State University Convention Center in Jonesboro. Aides said he was away at a family vacation in the Caribbean. He sent a letter, quoting the Bible that man is saved by God and not the laws he enacts.

Herring and Wright were concerned that there were no laws preventing the shooters from profiting financially, as they were juveniles and would be released from prison when they turned 21, as indeed, they were. They said they told Huckabee they wanted assurances the killers could not write books or sell their stories to Hollywood, and Huckabee looked at them and said, "That would be blood money."

At a second meeting, Wright said Huckabee again vowed it would be "blood money" for the shooters, with Huckabee adding this time: "No one should profit."

But 10 days after the shooting, it was announced that Huckabee had signed a book deal, to be written with George Grant of Tennessee, a prolific author of Christian books. The publisher was an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in which Huckabee was ordained.

Officials at the publishing house declined to discuss the arrangements for the book. Grant did not respond to requests for an interview.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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