Tragedy In A Small Place

"The Basketball Diaries" MAY not have been 14-year-old Michael Carneal's favorite movie. But one scene in particular stayed with the awkward Paducah, Ky., freshman: a young character's narcotic-tinged dream of striding into his school, pulling a sh otgun from a black leather coat and opening fire. The real-life scene in the bloodied halls of Heath High School last Monday was a long way from Hollywood. Unlike handsome actor Leonardo DiCaprio's dramatic entrance in 1995's ""Diaries," skinny, bespecta cled Michael bummed a ride to school that day from his 17-year-old sister, Kelly. Instead of cinematically kicking down a classroom door, Michael quietly followed Kelly into the school through the band room, where he told a curious teacher that the four guns bound together with duct tape and wrapped in an old blanket were ""a poster for my science project." Loitering in the hall, Michael waited for a prayer group of 35 students to lift their bowed heads and say ""Amen." He then took a fifth gun, a semia utomatic .22, from his backpack and fired off 12 shots, killing three students and wounding five. Before the police arrived, Carneal would tell a teacher, ""it was like I was in a dream."

It was more like a nightmare, and Paducah is still trying to wake up. No one in the town seemed to have seen young Michael's outburst coming; the son of a successful lawyer, Carneal wasn't into drugs or crime or cults. He was a solid B student who played in the band and had gotten into trouble at school exactly twice: once for accessing the Playboy Web site on a library computer and once for picking paint off a hallway wall. ""His father's a deacon and his sister's the valedictorian," said Bill Bo nd, the principal. ""Michael never dressed in black or wore upside-down crosses. He does not fit the mold of what our society says an angry person should be like." For now, there is no easy explanation for last week's tragedy; when asked by police why he did it, Michael repeats, ""I don't know, I don't know." But so far, Paducah has for the most part resisted pointing fingers at the usual social suspects like the film industry or lax school security or Michael's parents. In a part of the South known for both vengeance and mercy, the residents of the largely fundamentalist Christian town of 27,000 seem more interested in forgiveness. On Tuesday students at Heath High gathered to pray not just for the victims but for Michael as well. Kelly Carneal was no t only welcomed back to school but encouraged to sing with the school choir at the slain students' funeral.

By all accounts, the Carneals were a model family. In the hunting culture of McCracken County, family friends say, Michael was a rare 14-year-old who had never fired a gun (he preferred the sax and chess). The family celebrated Thanksgiving unaware that at some point in the day Michael had slipped out of their brick ranch house and taken two shotguns, two rifles and the .22 from a neighbor's garage. Michael spent the evening before the massacre doing his homework--assignments he must have known he would never turn in. After hearing about the shooting the next morning, Ann Carneal had already gathered together blankets, water and cups to bring to the school to help--and then she got the news that Michael was the gunman. John Carneal had headed str aight to the school to make sure his two kids were OK. When a guidance counselor told him that Kelly was all right but added, ""You need to come with me," Carneal thought he knew what the worst possible news could be--that Michael was dead. He was wrong. Tammie Pierce, the wife of John Carneal's law partner, told NEWSWEEK, ""John said he'd give anything if he himself could have been a victim, rather than being on the other side."

Why did Michael do it? Though some students recalled hearing him insult the morning prayer circle, he doesn't appear to have been antireligious and may have just targeted the gathering because it was the first significant event of the school week. Classmates couldn't remember Michael's being particularly hazed or harassed, but when principal Bond reviewed the 5-foot-2 Carneal's school essays, he said he did find a theme of feeling ""small and powerless, that the world had teased him and he was goi ng to show the world how powerful he was." When police searched Michael's room, they discovered little out of the ordinary--except for the many empty ammo boxes he'd left behind after loading 800 rounds into his backpack. The strangest finds: a book call ed ""The Lore of Arms" and a typewritten note entitled ""The Secret" (described to the press only as ""very bizarre writing").

Newsweek subscription offers >

The clearest warning came from Michael himself. Before Thanksgiving he told several friends, including goateed prayer-group leader Ben Strong, to stay away from Monday's session because ""something big is going to happen." Strong thought Michael wa s probably talking about a prank like setting off a stink bomb, and he showed up at 7:30 for the weekly prayer meeting as usual. So did a deeply religious senior named Jessica James, softball player Kayce Steger and a newcomer from Nebraska, Nicole Hadle y. Twelve rounds and a few moments later, the girls were dead or dying and five other students were wounded. Strong ran up to Michael, taking him by the shoulders and yelling, ""What are you doing?" Michael dropped the gun, but even Strong, a minister's son who had resisted the impulse to run, felt terrible for ignoring Carneal's earlier warning. He told his father, ""Dad, I feel guilty. I didn't move quickly enough."

But for the most part, the town of Paducah has resisted assigning blame. Citizens and churchgoers prefer to talk about the victims --the ""good kids," as the principal says--rather than the shooter. On Friday, when more than 2,000 people attended a n emotional funeral for Jessica, Kayce and Nicole, the town's pastors celebrated the slain girls and their deep faith. Friends had signed the girls' coffins, which sat banked by flowers and letter jackets. Nicole's minister spoke of her family's decision to donate her organs. Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman sang for the assembly, then asked anyone who had found Jesus Christ because of the week's events to stand. When several did, Chapman said, ""There are three little girls just going nuts in h eaven right now."

Signs of the Christian spirit that has characterized the town's reaction are everywhere; placards at Heath High read WE FORGIVE YOU MIKE and WE FORGIVE BECAUSE GOD FORGAVE US. But prosecutors aren't intending to be quite so lenient: this week McCra cken County Attorney Tim Kaltenbach will petition to try Carneal as an adult. If convicted, he will face a life sentence with 25 years before the possibility of parole. Sheriff Frank Augustus has mentioned a ""gut theory" that other Heath High students m ay have been in on the plot, but officials say quick arrests are unlikely.

From schoolyard prayer to the wrenching, nationally televised funeral, Paducah seems to have a sophisticated understanding of the power of public gestures. On Saturday, the Heath High band honored a prior engagement by participating in the town's a nnual Christmas parade. But they marched in silence, and four musicians were missing: Kayce Steger on clarinet, Jessica James on baritone, Nicole Hadley on clarinet and Michael Carneal on saxophone. When the band passed by John Carneal's law office, the kids paused for a moment of silent prayer--and then marched on.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Tragedy In A Small Place | News