West Paducah, KY

Heath High School Mass Shooter Eligible for Parole in November

A.W. Naves

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Deceased Victims of the Heath High School Shooter(Photo: WPSD Local)

Before there was Columbine, there was Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. On December 1, 1997, fourteen-year-old Michael Adam Carneal brought a Ruger MK II .22 caliber pistol to school and fired at schoolmates, killing three and injuring five more.

The pistol wasn’t the only weapon Carneal carried that day. He and his sister, who drove him to school that day, arrived at school at 7:45 a.m. He had a shotgun and a rifle wrapped in a blanket. He claimed that the objects he had enclosed in the blanket were for an art project. The Ruger pistol was in his backpack.

As soon as he stepped into the school, he put in earplugs and removed the pistol from his bag, rapidly firing ten rounds into a group of young students gathered in a circle for morning prayer. Three girls died and five other students were wounded. Carneal never fired the other weapons, instead placing the gun on the ground and giving himself up to the school principal, Bill Bond. A member of the group named Benjamin Strong said that Carneal told him, “Kill me. Please. I can’t believe I did that.”

Among Carneal’s victims were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. All three girls died of their wounds later that same day. Seventeen-year-old Shelley Schaberg, 15-year-old Melissa Jenkins, 16-year-old Kelly Alsip, 14-year-old Hollan Holm, and 15-year-old Craig Keene were all wounded.

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Michael Carneal, Then and Now(Photo: WPSD Local)

In the weeks leading up to the attack, Carneal stole a .38 caliber from his parents and tried to sell it at school. Another student forced the teen to hand over the gun, threatening to tell police if Carneal didn’t hand it over. Carneal also told other students at the school that “something big was going to happen on Monday.” No one thought he was serious about doing anything.

On Thanksgiving Day, Carneal broke into a neighbor’s garage and took four .22 rifles, a 30-30 rifle, ammunition for .22 and 12 gauge weapons, and earplugs. He returned at some later point and took a Ruger .22 pistol and several .22 magazines. Carneal continued to steal firearms from home too, including two shotguns from his father’s closet, hiding the weapons under his bed.

Carneal never gave a clear explanation for why he shot his schoolmates. He expressed feeling unloved by his parents. He said that he had issues with school bullying and false accusations that he was gay, but he didn’t target any particular student who had taunted him in his attack. He claimed that he didn’t even know who he was shooting at or who he had hit until he saw their names in the paper after the fact. A search of Carneal’s locker after the shooting revealed that he had a copy of the Stephen King novel Rage which had been published in 1977 under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. When King learned that the book had some association with the tragedy, he asked his publisher to remove it from future printings for fear it would inspire other school shooters.

According to psychological reports, Carneal suffered from anxiety, depression, and severe paranoia. He was known to cover up vents and windows while in the bathroom, as he was convinced someone was spying on him while in there.

Mental health evaluations conducted after the shooting resulted in a diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder and dysthymia. Kathleen O’Connor later changed the diagnosis to paranoid schizophrenia while treating Carneal at the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center. Carneal’s diagnosis was later changed by Dewey Cornell and Diane Schetky to just schizophrenia. His mental health issues have continued during his incarceration, resulting in several hospital stays attributed to psychosis. He takes the anti-depressant Zoloft and an anti-psychotic called Geodon as part of his ongoing treatment.

Due to Carneal’s mental health issues, prosecutors offered him a plea deal. Under the plea arrangement agreed upon in October 1998, Carneal would serve a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He served his time at the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center until he turned 18. He was moved to the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange on June 1, 2001.

Carneal will be eligible for parole on November 16, 2022. A hearing is set for September 19 and 20 via Zoom to determine whether 39-year-old Carneal will be released in November, leaving the victims and families to agonize over bad memories they’d rather not rehash and the fear of what might happen with Carneal back on the streets.

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Freelance Writer. Author. Alabamian. I write about true crimes, unsolved cases, and macabre mysteries.

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