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COLUMN ONE

The Only Sense Is of Loss

Michael Carneal can't explain why he shot his classmates five years ago. Missy Jenkins, now paralyzed, goes on with life but can't go back.

December 02, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

The flashbacks start, for Missy Jenkins, with "Amen."

She is holding hands with friends in the lobby of her high school, praying. It is the Monday after Thanksgiving. She skipped church the day before to see a movie. But she never misses morning prayer circle.

"Amen."

The three dozen students drop hands.

Then Missy sees a girl, a friend, crumple. She hears a pop. Nicole is on the floor, limp, bloody. Missy can't make sense of it. A prank, she thinks. Man, she thinks, man, is someone going to be in trouble. She hears screams. She sees students whirling, a blur of motion. Another pop.

Missy feels herself sliding to the floor. Her twin sister, Mandy, dives on top of her. The screaming is so loud. She can't think. And then, she can. And then, she knows.

"Mandy," she says. "I can't feel my stomach.

"I can't feel my stomach! What does that mean?"

*

The flashbacks start, for Michael Carneal, with chipped plaster.

He can't make sense of it.

He remembers, as through a mist, loading two shotguns, two semiautomatic rifles and 700 rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his sister's car that morning, the whole arsenal wrapped in blankets. An English project, he had explained. He remembers lugging the bundle into school. He remembers chatting about nothing with his friends. He remembers pulling a fifth gun, a revolver, out of his backpack as morning prayer circle broke up.

And now he's staring at this gouge in the wall, at plaster knocked loose by a bullet.

Michael looks around. He sees kids on the floor, crying, screaming. His friend Nicole is down there. She's still. Then he sees another student walking toward him, a boy, approaching slowly through the noise.

"What are you doing?" the boy asks, calm.

"Shooting people," Michael hears himself answer.

"What for?" the boy asks. He draws closer.

Michael answers: "I don't know."

*

The flashbacks come again and again and again.

Five years ago, Michael Carneal, a skinny freshman, opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. He killed three classmates: Nicole Hadley, 14, who marched with him in band, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 17-year-old Jessica James. He also wounded five. Most of the injuries were minor. Missy Jenkins' was not.

The bullet entered just below her left collarbone, slammed through her -- nicking her lung, her spinal cord -- and came out by her right shoulder blade. She is paralyzed from the chest down.

The bloodshed in the working-class river town -- the young girls gunned down in the Bible Belt as they prayed -- rattled the nation. Exactly two months earlier, a 16-year-old boy had stabbed his mother to death, then killed two classmates at his high school in Pearl, Miss. But that tragedy had not grabbed national attention the way the shootings in western Kentucky did.

Carnage in other schoolyards would follow, all too often: in Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., in Conyers, Ga., and Fort Gibson, Okla., at Santana High School near San Diego and at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Michael Carneal would hold himself responsible for inspiring such rampages.

Missy Jenkins would make it her mission to prevent them.

He would feel guilt ripping at him, through the flashbacks. She would shake off each nightmare with fresh resolve. Neither one wants that shattering morning to define them. But it has.

*

"I think about it all the time," Michael Carneal says.

He slouches into his chair in a conference room at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. He is 19 years old now -- tall, pudgy, pasty, with a scraggly beard and clunky square glasses. It's hard to see in him the scrawny, skittish freshman who pulled out a .22-caliber Ruger, pressed foam plugs in his ears and opened fire that Monday morning.

It's hard even for Carneal.

He knows he shot his friends. He remembers planning it. He remembers thinking the night before, after a game of chess with his dad: "Tomorrow, I go to prison." And now he is in prison, told when to shower, what to wear, his biggest treat the microwave popcorn he earns by keeping his cell tidy. It still does not feel real.

"I know it was me," he says, "but it doesn't fit my character. I'm not a violent person. A lot of people think I'm evil because of what happened. That's not true. I made a mistake. A big mistake."

He is on the psychiatric ward at the state reformatory, mellowed by 11 pills a day. The medications push away the monsters he used to see leering at his windows.

The monsters came often in the months before the shooting. Carneal would cover up the vents in the bathroom so the bad guys could not grab him. At night, he felt them clutching his legs. He lived in terror. Yet he told no one. He played baritone in band. He played pranks on his friends. His parents noticed nothing.

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