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Student Opens Fire on Prayer Group, Kills 3

December 02, 1997|STEPHEN BRAUN and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PADUCAH, Ky. — A group of students was praying, hands clasped silently in the high school lobby Monday, when a 14-year-old freshman extracted a .22-caliber handgun from his backpack and fired--killing three and wounding five.

The shooting occurred just before classes were to start at Heath High School in a main lobby crowded with students. As the firing began, witnesses said, teenagers ran screaming down the halls, diving into classrooms for cover.

"Everybody was so calm at first," said Trent Mathis, 17, a senior who was less than 20 feet from the prayer group when the staccato of gunfire echoed through the lobby. "And then you could see the fear on everyone's faces. That's when I knew it wasn't a joke."

The boy, identified as Michael Carneal, carried into school a .22-caliber handgun with three spare clips of ammunition, two rifles and two shotguns. He wrapped the rifles and shotguns in blankets, telling classmates they were props for a science project.

The young gunman fired his clip in steady succession, witnesses said, until his pistol had one bullet left. The boy had three more 11-bullet clips in his pack.

Then, at the urging of one of the prayer group's leaders, Ben Strong, a minister's son, the gunman suddenly dropped his weapon.

The school's principal, Bill Bond, rushed up to the youth, picked up the gun and led the student to his office. Bond later said that the youth said only, "I'm sorry."

"He acted just like he had been caught with some minor offense," a perplexed Bond told the Associated Press.

Carneal was charged as a juvenile with murder, attempted murder and burglary--allegedly his means of obtaining the gun--according to Karen McCuiston, a spokeswoman for the McCracken County school district.

Stunned students said that when the youth entered the lobby, he calmly stuffed his ears with plugs as if he were preparing to fire at target practice. Then he pulled the handgun out of his backpack and turned it on more than 40 students who had gathered for their daily informal prayer.

"All the kids were in a circle, hushed and holding hands," Mathis said. "Then I saw one of them go down, bleeding from her head. That's when I started running."

"Only the first three shots could have been aimed," Bond said. "After that, it was just as fast as he could pull the trigger. It was just random shooting."

About 30 students regularly attend the informal prayer sessions, organized two years ago by Strong, son of an Assembly of God pastor.

Carneal had been noticed loitering for about a week near the worshipers, said Ben Heady, a 17-year-old Heath High senior.

On Monday, Heady was standing at his locker, about 10 feet and a flight of stairs away from the lobby, preparing to enter the history class that was going to start in 12 minutes.

"I heard 10 shots in a row," Heady said. "I didn't know they were gunshots at first. Then I heard a kid saying, 'Hit the floor!'

"I saw kids' bodies on the floor. I still didn't know they'd been shot. I went to one kid and I looked at his head and I saw a bullet in it. That's when I lost it."

Nearby, Sergio Rodriguez, 17, was turning a corner when he heard noises that "sounded like those bad firecrackers, you know, M-60s? And then everyone started running and screaming and I saw bodies." Rodriguez ducked into a full classroom and slammed the door. When he told the students inside what was happening, they began screaming.

"I thought there was some crazy old guy going through the school, mowing kids down," Rodriguez said. "I couldn't imagine it was a kid."

Afterward, the school dismissed its 600 students for the day, as did middle and elementary schools nearby. Scores of horrified parents descended on the schools, adding to the gridlock of police, medical and rescue vehicles.

Kayce Steger, 15, died at Lourdes Hospital in nearby Paducah about 45 minutes after the shooting, said hospital spokeswoman Kathy Rutherman.

At Western Baptist Hospital, Jessica James, 17, died during surgery, and Nichole Hadley, 14, was pronounced dead late Monday after being on life support for several hours, hospital spokeswoman Chastity Wilson said.

Also at Lourdes, Misty Jenkins, 15, and a 14-year-old not yet identified were in serious but stable condition, and a 17-year-old boy was treated and released. A 16-year-old girl wounded in the shoulder and a 15-year-old boy hit in the neck were in fair condition at Western Baptist.

A woman, who identified herself as Mrs. Carneal, said the family would not have a statement Monday but might today.

McCracken County Sheriff Frank Augustus told the Associated Press that the boy got the handgun during a Thanksgiving Day home burglary.

"Really, the main question is, 'Why,' " Augustus said. "He stated there was no personal vendetta against anyone. It was just a random shooting."

Carneal had never been suspended or disciplined for "any serious offenses," the school district said.

Students told Bond after the shooting that the boy had said last week that "something big's going to happen," but they thought he had meant a prank.

But acquaintances of Carneal said he had at times been teased by older high school students--among them some of the teenagers in the prayer group and on the school's football team.

Carneal, a skateboarding and alternative music devotee, "got it bad from some kids, but not as bad as some other kids get it around here," said Mathis, who knew the suspect because both played in the school band. "He never said anything about getting revenge or anything like that. It was just the way things were, and it didn't seem like he let it get to him."

Braun reported from West Paducah and Pasternak from Chicago. Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this story.

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