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Classes Being Held Today at Kentucky High School, a Day After a 14-Year-Old Boy Shoots Three

December 2, 1997

Classes Being Held Today at Kentucky High School, a Day After a 14-Year-Old Boy Shoots Three Classmates to DeathBy TED BRIDIS

WEST PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) _ Walking in groups and hugging one another, students gathered in the lobby of Heath High School before classes this morning to silently pray for three friends shot to death during a prayer meeting 24 hours before.

``There was very little being said. It was mainly quiet and kids praying,″ guidance counselor Allan Warford said this morning. ``It’s a very somber scene inside.″

Moments after 35 Heath High School students murmured ``amen″ Monday morning in their informal hallway session, eight of them were shot. Three of the survivors remained hospitalized today.

Authorities immediately arrested a 14-year-old freshman identified by his friends as Michael Carneal, a self-professed atheist who would sometimes mock the daily prayer group but who was not considered a danger by his classmates.

Shortly before the start of the school day, Principal Bill Bond explained the decision to reopen the school immediately. He said counselors would be on hand but teachers would attempt to hold regular classes, too.

``This is a terrible tragedy but I still believe in Heath High School,″ Bond said. ``I still believe in public education. And we can’t let one mixed-up person destroy our society. If someone believes in anarchy and we let that anarchy control us, then he is in control of us. And I don’t believe in letting someone control me, so we will go about our business.″

``I feel like the students need to be with other students and they need to grieve together,″ he said.

Warford said the students were doing their best to make sense of a senseless situation.

``We’re going to be looking at long-term counseling for some of these students,″ he said.

Witnesses gave differing descriptions of Carneal’s behavior after the shootings. Bond, who arrived at the scene shortly afterward, said the boy said he was sorry but ``acted just like he had been caught with some minor offense.″

But Heath High senior Ben Strong, the leader of the prayer group, said when he grabbed Carneal, ``He was, like, ’I can’t believe I’d do this,‴ Strong said. ``Because he shot one of his friends who was just a few feet away, because he wasn’t aiming at any person. And he said, ‘Kill me now’ or something like that.″

Strong, a pastor’s son who won praised for his bravery during the shootings, said Carneal had told him last week to stay away from Monday’s circle _ a mysterious warning that had worried him all weekend.

``When we got done praying, I kind of thought everything was going to be OK,″ Strong said. ``And I just heard a pop and I spun around. And I ... was like, ’Mike, what are you doing? And then he just let a bunch of them go.″

Strong said Carneal squeezed off 11 shots before he knew what was happening.

``Then I seen some people fall, and I seen blood,″ Strong said. ``And I just ran over there. ... I was just telling him to be calm, drop the gun, whatever. And he just kind of slouched down and dropped the gun.″

By then, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, Jessica James, 17, and 14-year-old Nichole Hadley were fatally wounded.

Two other students were hospitalized in serious condition, one was listed in good condition and two were treated and released.

Carneal was charged as a juvenile with murder and attempted murder and also with burglary for allegedly stealing the pistol used in the shootings and four other guns last week. The homeowner didn’t know the weapons, taken on Thanksgiving Day, were missing until deputies called after the shootings.

Authorities did not identify Carneal as the suspect, but friends and others at the scene confirmed his name to The Associated Press. Sheriff Frank Augustus said authorities would seek to have the boy tried as an adult; a Dec. 10 hearing was set.

As families mourned, dazed school officials and authorities began piecing together a picture of Carneal, the son of an attorney in this small western Kentucky community.

Bond described him as a ``very intelligent young man″ who had had ``some minor problems″ but had never been suspended from school. He described him as short for his age and emotionally immature.

Strong said Carneal had been picked on, but no more than other students. He said Carneal hung out with people who said they didn’t believe in God _ some would even occasionally heckle the informal worship group.

``It was pretty much making fun of, stupid little things like that,″ said Michael Zink, a 16-year-old student who identified his friend Carneal as the gunman. He said Carneal and others who called themselves atheists were ``just trying to be rude and obnoxious.″

The Rev. Kevin McCallon, who visited witnesses and victims’ families, said no one believed Carneal was a genuine threat.

``They saw him as a jokester,″ McCallon said. ``Even when he pulled the gun, they thought it was a toy. They had no idea he was capable of any of this.″

Bond said Carneal had warned friends last week that ``something big’s going to happen″ and they chalked it up as a potential prank. But authorities said there was no indication of a specific motive, and Carneal didn’t mention religion to investigators.

Witnesses said he waited until the prayer group was finished before calmly inserting earplugs and pulling the pistol out of a backpack.

``As soon as they said amen, he opened up on them,″ Bond said. ``Only the first three shots could have been aimed. After that, it was just as fast as he could pull the trigger.″

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