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Michael Adam CARNEAL






The Heath High School shooting
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (14) - School shooting
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: December 1, 1997
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1983
Victims profile: Nicole Hadley, 14; Jessica James, 17; and Kayce Steger (students)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Paducah, Kentucky, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years on December 15, 1998
photo gallery

The Heath High School shooting occurred at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, United States, on Monday December 1, 1997. Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of praying students killing 3 girls and wounding 5 others.

The shooting

On December 1, 1997 Carneal wrapped a shotgun and a rifle in a blanket and took them to school, passing them off as an art project he was working on. He also carried a loaded .22 pistol in his backpack. Carneal rode to school with his sister and arrived at approximately 7:45 a.m. When he arrived, he inserted earplugs and took the pistol out of his bag. He fired eight rounds in fast succession at a youth prayer group. Three girls died while hospitalized and five others were wounded.

Member of the prayer group, Benjamin Strong, testified that Carneal dropped the gun of his own accord when he was finished. Carneal placed his pistol on the ground and surrendered to the school principal, Bill Bond. After dropping the gun, Carneal said to Strong: "Kill me, please. I can't believe I did that."



  • Nicole Hadley was a fourteen-year-old freshman. Nicole was kept alive until 10:00pm the evening of the shooting. Nicole played in the school band and on the freshman basketball team. She was a member of the Heartland Baptist Worship Center and the Heartland Baptist Youth Group. Her family had moved to Paducah from Nebraska the year before the shooting. Her parents received praise for their decision to donate Nicole's organs, a decision they said their daughter supported. President Clinton cited the family's "courageous decision" in his Proclamation 7083 on National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week in 1998.

  • Jessica James was a seventeen-year-old senior. Jessica died in surgery at Western Baptist Hospital Monday afternoon.

  • Kayce Steger was a fifteen-year-old sophomore. Kayce died at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah about 45 minutes after the shooting. Kayce played clarinet in the school band, played on the softball team, and was a member of the Agape Club. She was an honor student, worked at Subway, and attended 12th Street Baptist Church. She was a member of Law Enforcement Explorers Post 111 and hoped to be a police officer. Her parents reported that Michael Carneal had asked her out on a date a little over a month before the shooting.


  • Shelley Schaberg, 17 at the time, was described by the principal as the school’s best female athlete. Voted Miss Heath High School by the senior class, Shelley was homecoming queen. Though her injuries from the shooting prevented her from playing basketball, her college honored her basketball scholarship and she went on to play college soccer.

  • Melissa “Missy” Jenkins, age 15 at the time, was president of the Future Homemakers of America. She was paralyzed from the chest down in the shooting. Missy has appeared on numerous national and local television shows, talked to newspaper reporters and is appearing in two TV commercials for Channel One, an educational channel that reaches schools throughout the country. A video interview of her was featured on the home page of on April 22, 2007. Melissa Jenkins video interview

  • Kelly Hard, 16 at the time, was a member of the softball team and the Future Homemakers of America. She transferred to the local Catholic school the year after the shooting.

  • Hollan Holm, age 14 at the time, was a member of the Academic Team, the Spanish Club, and the Science Olympiad. In his valedictory speech at the class of 2001 graduation, he reminded his class that they had lost not one but two members on December 1, 1997,: Nicole Hadley and Michael Carneal. Holm has been involved with an organization that urges students to speak up if they know of threats against schools or students.

  • Craig Keene, age 15 at the time, was a member of the Agape Club, the band, and the basketball team.


Possible motives

Because of his small frame and physical weakness, Carneal was frequently bullied. He would bring items to schools and sell them in an attempt to make friends. Carneal's name was published in a middle school paper gossip column claiming that he had feelings for another male student. This led to more name-calling, with students now calling him names such as "homo" and "faggot" among others.

School performance

Carneal was a B-student at Heath High School. He was also said to be a good student with no discipline problems.

Warning signs

Weeks before the incident, Carneal stole a .38 handgun from his parents' room and attempted to sell it. A student took the gun, threatening to tell police if Carnael didn't give it to him. The student promised to pay Carneal later, but never did.

Additionally, Carneal had told students that "something big is going to happen on Monday" but no-one took him seriously.


In the weeks before the shooting, Carneal stole several firearms from both his own home and a friend's home.

Friend's home

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day Carneal went to a friend's home and broke into the garage, taking:

  • Four .22 rifles

  • A 30-30 rifle

  • .22 and 12 gauge ammunition

  • Earplugs

Later, he also stole:

  • A Ruger .22 pistol

  • Several .22 magazines

Own home

Presumably sometime after Thanksgiving Day, Carneal stole two shotguns from his father's closet and hid them under his bed.

December 1, 1997: Shooting at Heath High School

On the 1st of December, Carneal wrapped two shotguns and two rifles in a blanket and took them to school, passing them off as an art project he was working on. He also carried the loaded .22 pistol in his backpack. Carneal rode to school with his sister and arrived at approximately 7:45AM.

When he arrived he inserted ear plugs and pulled the pistol out of his bag. He fired 8 rounds in quick succession at a youth prayer group. After seeing that he had fatally injured a friend of his (Nicole Hadley), he placed his pistol on the ground and surrendered to the school principal Bill Bond.


Carneal was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences for 3 counts of murder and an additional 120 years for 5 counts of attempted murder and burglary.


In early 1999, the parents of three victims represented by Jack Thompson filed a $33 million lawsuit against two Internet pornography sites, several computer game companies and makers and distributors of the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries. They claimed that media violence inspired Carneal and therefore should be held responsible.

The case was dismissed in 2001. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was "simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen to shooting people in a classroom."


Kentucky v. Michael Carneal

Kentucky school shooter sentenced to life in prison with parole

Dec. 16, 1998

PADUCAH, Ky. (Court TV) After an emotional confrontation with his victims' families and friends, Michael Carneal, the Kentucky high school student who opened fire on a group of his classmates last December, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years.

Carneal received three concurrent life sentences for the murders of Kayce Steger, Jessica James, and Nicole Hadley on Dec. 1, 1997. He also received an additional 120 years for five counts of attempted murder and burglary. During his sentencing, Carneal did not make a statement and mostly sat with his head down, refusing to face the relatives and classmates of the people he killed and wounded.

The parents of the girls killed during Carneal's shooting spree urged Judge Jefferey Hines to give Carneal the maximum sentence and said that Carneal had changed their lives forever.

"We've all been sentenced to a prison sentence to which we have no probation," said Gwen Hadley, whose daughter was killed by Carneal. "I urge you, Judge, to do the same to Michael Carneal."

Students who witnessed Carneal's shooting rampage cried as they relived the events and spoke directly to Carneal. One thought that a life sentence was not stern enough for the 15-year-old Carneal.

"I don't care if you're sorry," said Kelly Hart, the victims' classmate. "I know you can't get this sentence here, but I would love to see you get the death penalty. So what if you were called a few names? We never did anything to you. The girls you killed did not deserve to die. To me, you chose the death penalty for them."

On Oct. 5, Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally ill to three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and first-degree burglary. At his sentencing, clinical psychologist Dewey Cornell testified that while Carneal showed signs of schizophrenia and paranoia, he still was aware of the sentence he was about to receive. Cornell said that Carneal was tormented by his crimes and was ready to receive the maximum punishment because he believes he deserves punishment.

After the shooting, Carneal told investigators that he had seen his crime portrayed in the film "The Basketball Diaries. In the film, the lead character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, dreams of shooting a teacher. Carneal falsely remembered that the character shot five students while other students cheered.

Carneal has said he felt like he was in a dream when he fired on the group of students who had just finished an informal prayer session in the hallway. On the day of the shooting, he brought five guns to school after he had wrapped them in a quilt and told his mother they were props for a science experiment. The guns — a pistol, two rifles and two shotguns — were stolen from a neighbor's garage on Thanksgiving Day.

Misconduct charges have been filed against Michael Breen, the attorney for the families of the slain girls, for releasing the results of Carneal's mental evaluations to the press. The reports say Carneal understood the criminality of his behavior, despite claims that he never intended to kill anyone. Carneal is cited saying he planned to wave the guns around and maybe wound someone, but believed a .22 caliber bullet wouldn't be fatal.

"It is my opinion that Michael Carneal, although mentally ill, did have an appreciation [for] the criminality of his behavior and the capacity to restrain himself when he killed three students at his school and injured five others," concluded Diane Schetky, M.D. in her forensic evaluation of Carneal.

Judge Hines could offer little consolation to Carneal's victims after the sentencing. He only hoped that they found a bit of comfort in their victim impact statements.

"It is unusual for the court to allow several statements to be read into court like they were here," Hines said. "I can't imagine the pain that all of you have had to live with and continue to endure everyday. God bless you all."


Michael Carneal

In what's becoming frighteningly commonplace, on December 1, 1997, a high school freshman went on a deadly rampage killing three fellow student and wounding five others.

Michael Carneal, a self-professed atheist, shot 11 rounds at a morning prayer circle in the lobby of his Paducah, Kentucky, high school.

The boy, who had three spare clips of ammunition and four other guns, surrendered when Ben Strong -- a pastor's son and leader of the prayer circle -- talked him into putting the gun down.

Afterward, in what could be the understament of the year, Mike told Heath High School Principal Bill Bond that he was sorry. "He acted just like he had been caught with some minor offense." The principal said he locked the freshman inside his office with a teacher to guard him until police arrived. The teen-ager told English teacher Tobe Dulworth after the shootings, "It was like I was a in dream, and I woke up."

The killer teen showed up to school with an arsenal -- a .22-caliber handgun with three spare clips of ammunition, two rifles and two shotguns -- he had stolen from a neighbor's garage on Thanksgiving Day.

He wrapped the rifles and shotguns in blankets and told curious classmates they were props for a science project. Apparently the lethal atheist, who had heckled at the prayer group in previous occasions, waited until group was finished their morning prayer 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." Mike kept firing until he had one bullet left.

According to friends, the 14-year-old boy skateboarder and alternative music fananatic warned last week that "something big's going to happen," but they all thought he was planning some kind of prank. "They saw him as a jokester," a local reverend 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 Mike was short, emotionally immature and was sometimes picked on by the older football players. "He got it bad from some kids, but not as bad as some other kids get it around here. He never said anything about getting revengeor anything like that," said Trent Mathis, who knew Mike from playing in the school band together.

An examination of Mike's school essays and short stories done by Principal Bond revealed that the bespectacled 14-year-old felt weak and was constantly teased and picked on by, among others, Ben Strong. "He's a very intelligent young man," the principal said. "He had some minor problems, but he's never been suspended from school."

Heath High School, just west of Paducah, has an enrollment of about 600 students in grades nine through 12. Classes were dismissed for the day at the school and an adjacent middle school as distressed parents arrived. Even though the memories and the pain of the rampage were still fresh, Heath High School held classes the day after. Principal Bill Bond said it was important to go back to classes to show, "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."

Prosecuting attorney Timothy Kaltenbach said that Hollywood was to blame for Mike's lethal outburst. Especifically the 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio movie Basketball Diaries. The film -- based on the life of Jim Carroll, a high school basketball player who turned to drugs and violence -- includes a dream scene, in which Carroll shoots classmates and a teacher.

Mike made a passing reference to the movie under questioning by investigators. "They asked him had he ever seen this before, ever seen anything done like this, and he said, 'Yes, I have seen this done in Basketball Diaries,'" Kaltenbach said. Steve Elzer, vice president of publicity for New Line Cinema, which released the movie, said the studio had no comment. Author Jim Carroll said he was "extremely saddened by the recent events... What happened in Kentucky was a product of the pernicous violence of our time and the act of an unbalanced individual," and not a result from his book.

Mike also told investigators he talked with friends about taking control of his school and shooting students for over a year. Understandably, no one took him seriously. However, authorities began interviewing his classmates. One student reportedly quickly retained a lawyer.


Teen lives out murderous dream

By Lisa Popyk, Special to The Post


PADUCAH, Ky. - He stood in the center of the school corridor. His head up, back straight and hands wrapped around the handle of a .22-caliber semiautomatic Ruger. All around him, people were running in panic.

Just a few feet away, Kelly Carneal barely recognized her little brother. She had never seen him ''look so big.''

For a withdrawn 14-year-old accustomed to living in fear and cowering from confrontation, it was a dream become reality. Finally, Michael Carneal (left) was the one in control.

Until now, each rustle in the tree, knock at the door or shadowy movement in the corner was cause for alarm. And every youngster's transgression or teen's teasing was an indefensible assault on his soul.

A siege on Heath High School was to be his chance ''to be more powerful and better than'' those who made fun of him.

But the surge of omnipotence lasted precious few moments on Dec. 1, 1997. After a series of ''pops,'' friends and classmates were screaming, five were wounded and three were dead. The respect he'd come looking for had turned to horror.

Michael dropped his weapon and crumpled. ''Kill me, please,'' he said. ''I can't believe I did that.''

Down the hall, Kelly was sobbing. Her sensitive little brother - who still wanted to be tucked in bed at night, who wept over the plight of street people and winced at the thought of anyone being injured - had just opened fire on their friends.

''None of us could believe that Michael had been involved,'' said family friend, Rick Walters. ''He was just your typical kid.''

To everyone else, maybe. But not to Michael.

His world - according to a series of interviews Michael and his family have had with police, counselors and investigators - wasa place where he didn't fit in and couldn't find a friend. A place where he had no control.

Over the years, Michael had grown so focused on his perceived abuse by classmates and teachers, that he'd begun to see spies in the air vents and assailants in every shadow.

In his mind and in the stories he wrote for class, he created scenarios where an enemy would attack him or his family and he would battle them to the death, emerging the victorious hero. In one essay, the slain villains were the school ''preppies.''

Heath High School Principal Bill Bond said Michael's writings were filled with ''pent-up frustration'' and hatred.

''He tended to dwell excessively in his world of fantasy to make up for the control and power he felt he lacked in his real life,'' said Forensic Psychiatrist Dianne Schetky, who evaluated Michael for the prosecution following the slayings.

''He began to perceive the world as a dangerous place where people were out to harm him and his thinking became paranoid. His paranoid views of the world, in turn, reinforced his need to ...defend himself.''

Michael told Ms. Schetky that his earliest childhood memories were of being left out during preschool play periods and of spending time in first grade with the teacher's toys ''because I didn't have any friends.''

In second grade, his only friend was another outcast, Jacob, who was teased because he was poor. And in third and fourth grade, he developed a friendship with Jessica Brown, who rode the bus with Michael and whom he would later kill. Although Jessica once stabbed Michael in the hand with a pencil, Michael said he ''didn't have any choice except to be nice to her because she was the only person I had to talk to.''

Each year of his childhood, his strongest memory was of some incident of torment. Students putting frog parts on his shoulder during dissection class, someone tossing his prize class project on the roof, classmates hitting him for no reason and a teacher failing him for a creative idea to build jails underwater.

''He hoarded these perceived injustices and dwelled on them rather than letting go of them as many kids would,'' Ms. Schetky said in her report.

''Most adolescents turn to peers, athletics, extracurricular activities or academics to help them negotiate the passage of adolescence, lessen their ties to parents and develop a sense of self and autonomy.''

But Michael struck out in baseball, at 5-foot-2 was too small for most other sports and couldn't compete with his straight-A sister in school. ''He said he'd been trying hard to live up to her, but that he keeps getting into trouble,'' Ms. Schetky said.

Developing autonomy at home also didn't work as it was the only place Michael truly felt welcome, loved and secure. ''I didn't think anybody really cared about me except my sister and parents,'' Michael said.

Kelly described her brother as ''a baby'' at home, who still liked to be cuddled and put to bed at night. His parents, seeing that he lacked the self-confidence of his popular sister, gave him extra attention. His father, John, an attorney, said a special prayer for his son every night.

Michael also was extremely sensitive by nature and had an unflinching sense of right and wrong. His parents said that even as a child, he ''could never deal with inequities.''

He cried when he saw home less people and quit the Boy Scouts because he ''disliked the authority thing,'' where higher- ranking scouts had more say in activities. He also dropped out of karate after accidentally kicking his partner in the face, causing a nosebleed.

His preoccupation with fair play only made the taunts by classmates more painful.

''Like many teen-agers, he was hypersensitive to his classmates' statements about him,'' said de fense attorney Charles Granner. ''He felt inadequate, unworthy, unloved, unrespected and unac cepted by his peer group.

''At 14 years of age, Michael's peer group was critical to his self-esteem. Michael felt as if he were a massive failure, doomed to be different and ...a nobody.''

Always, Michael's response was to shrink back, try harder, be nicer. His sister said Michael wanted desperately to fit in and tried joking around and trying to help others. His efforts, howev er, were interpreted as signs of weakness by his classmates, whose teasing escalated into name calling and then labeling Michael as ''gay'' and a ''fag.''

Michael told investigators that he often would find himself sobbing and not knowing why.

He'd unleash his frustrations on a steel drum kept in the back yard. And in seventh grade, he contemplated suicide because he ''had no friends for two years.'' A year before the slayings, he sliced his arm with a sewing nee dle when his efforts to befriend a group of classmates backfired and they, too, began teasing him.

By middle school, he began to see himself as a target for abuse everywhere. In two psychiatric evaluations, Michael was de scribed as paranoid.

When he showered, Michael covered the bathroom air vents with thick towels because ''peo ple might be looking ... people might climb into the vents through the basement to look.'' When he'd finish, he would wrap himself in three to four more towels and make a quick dash for his bedroom. Sometimes, he told investigators, when he heard a knock on the window, he thought people were trying to get to him or his family.

Often, he would jump up, grab his pocketknife and go check on his mother, Ann, to make sure she was all right.

A month before the slayings, his mother found a stash of kitchen knives under Michael's mattress. Michael said he was collecting them for protection. ''If someone came in, maybe I could stop them.''

His imaginary fears also kept Michael from sleeping in his own room. Frequently, he would slip out to the family room couch so that he wouldn't be so far away from the rest of the family.

That fall, Michael's grades slumped and he began rocking while sitting at the dinner table. He also started talking to classmates about a movie he'd seen a year earlier, ''The Basketball Diaries,'' which featured an academic outcast taking a gun to school and slaying his teacher and classmates, to the applause of his friends.

The idea of using a gun to win respect hit a chord with Michael. He began telling students that he, too, was ''planning something big.''

He fantasized with classmates about ''pulling guns in school and seeing everyone run away.'' He and the other boys joked about being able to take over the library, steal the computers and talk on the intercom system.

The other boys laughed about it, but Michael took it seriously. He began taking his father's revolver to school, tucked in the bottom of his book bag. ''It made him feel safe,'' said Dewey Cornell, director of the University of Virginia Youth Violence Project, who also interviewed Michael.

One day, he took a .22-caliber Ruger he'd stolen from neighbors. He pulled it on two classmates but they were unimpressed, saying it wasn't very powerful. On December 1, he came with an arsenal: two shotguns, two rifles, two handguns.

In the days preceding the slayings, Michael warned some students who had ''been nice'' to him to stay away from an early morning prayer group that met before the start of classes in the front hallway.

The prayer group, according to Mrs. Carneal, was a closed one - one that Michael had never been invited to join.

On Thanksgiving Day, Michael stole the guns he would use to kill his classmates. He climbed in through a neighbor's window, taking along a duffle bag he had hidden earlier in the woods. He took five guns from their display case and boxes of bullets.

After slipping from the house, he climbed the fence, crossed a field and stole into an old barn to examine his cache. Holding them up to the light of the late afternoon sun, he said they made him feel ''powerful.''

Once home, he snuck into his parents' bedroom, took his dad's double barrel shotgun, then hid all the weapons in a crate in his bedroom closet.

Two days later, he wrapped the weapons in paper, then a bed sheet. The .22, he put in his book bag.

Monday morning, he loaded the package into the trunk of his sister's car, and told her it was ''an English project - props for a play.''

Once inside the building, he joked with students who asked him if he had guns in his curious package, then made his way to the front lobby.

There, he set the rifles down and put in two bright orange hunting ear plugs. Methodically, he pulled the Ruger from his book bag and the clips from his pocket, positioned himself just to the side of the prayer circle, and began squeezing the trigger.

When it was over, Michael said he'd imagined it all differently. He thought he'd fire one shot, everyone would take off running and he ''could run around and do stuff and take over the school.''

He also expected to return to school the next day, and ''everyone would be nice to me then.''

Michael Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally ill on October 5 in McCracken County Circuit Court to three counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder. Facing at least 25 years in prison, he will be sentenced on December 16.



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