Carneal Recalls 1997 High School Shooting Rampage

Published: Sep. 12, 2002 at 6:51 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 10, 2002 at 4:16 PM EST
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By Carrie Harned

(LOUISVILLE, September 12th, 2002, 5:30 p.m.) -- In 1997 Michael Carneal walked into Heath High School in Paducah and opened fire on his classmates, killing three students and injuring five others. For the last five years we've been left to wonder why. He recently sat down with our Carrie Harned for his first ever television interview since the attack.

Michael Carneal seems to clearly remember the day of the shootings. "I remember pulling out the gun and holding it in front of me," Carneal recalls. "I really wasn't focused on the people I was focused on my hands."

On that fateful day in Paducah, Michael Carneal sealed the fate of three teenage girls in a matter of seconds. But he says the events that led up to the shootings were years in the making. "There was a pecking order and I was probably towards the bottom of it."

Carneal did, however, point to one event in particular that he identified as the starting point of all the trouble. "There was an incident in middle school that they put in the school newspaper that I was gay," he said, "and ever since that, that label stuck with me. Everybody, if they wanted to get to me, they would put 'faggot' or 'queer' on the end."

Despite the constant teasing, Carneal says he was desperate to make friends.

"I would buy something and tell people I stole it because I thought that's what they liked," Carneal said, "that they wanted to be friends with a delinquent type person."

After the shootings, Carneal avoided a trial by pleading guilty but mentally ill. Currently, he's housed in the Kentucky State Reformatory's psychiatric unit, where he takes medication for depression.

Carneal says he has been dealing with feelings of extreme sadness since kindergarten. "I was angry, I was lonely, I was afraid. I was just full of emotions and I didn't know how to control them."

So what he did was plan. At first, his ideas seemed strangely innocent. "If everybody left the school, then I could get on the intercom and talk."

But then his thoughts grew more sinister. "Before the shootings, I would think about certain people who I would have liked to shot or hit or done something to."

On December 1st, 1997, Michael Carneal stopped thinking and started taking action. He came to school that day armed with five guns and 1,000 rounds of ammo.

"The first place that I came upon was the lobby where everybody was just standing around," he recalls. "And for some reason, I just decided I was going to do it there."

He doesn't remember much about the shooting itself except its aftermath. "I just remember stopping shooting and seeing a bunch of people on the ground screaming and crying."

Now, facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars, Carneal is now aware of the destruction he caused -- with plenty of time to think through his deadly plan in ways his 14-year-old mind could not.

"For some reason, I thought that if I did that, I thought that all my problems would just go away," Carneal said. "But I never really thought about what would happen to the people."

And looking back now, Carneal says he truly believes one thing could have stopped him. "If somebody would have just pulled me to the side and talked to me about what was going on, I probably -- things would have been a lot different. It was in my mind so much it just became like I needed to bring it into action for some reason."

Michael Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally in October 1998 to the attempted murder of the wounded and the murder of Kayce Steger, Nicole Hadley and Jessica James.

He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years, so he won't be eligible for release until 2022.

Carneal was ineligible for the death penalty because of his age at the time of the crime.

Online Reporter: Carrie Harned

Online Producer: Michael Dever