The Only Sense Is of Loss

Times Staff Writer

The flashbacks start, for Missy Jenkins, with “Amen.”

She is holding hands with friends in the lobby of her high school, praying. It is the Monday after Thanksgiving. She skipped church the day before to see a movie. But she never misses morning prayer circle.


The three dozen students drop hands.

Then Missy sees a girl, a friend, crumple. She hears a pop. Nicole is on the floor, limp, bloody. Missy can’t make sense of it. A prank, she thinks. Man, she thinks, man, is someone going to be in trouble. She hears screams. She sees students whirling, a blur of motion. Another pop.

Missy feels herself sliding to the floor. Her twin sister, Mandy, dives on top of her. The screaming is so loud. She can’t think. And then, she can. And then, she knows.


“Mandy,” she says. “I can’t feel my stomach.

“I can’t feel my stomach! What does that mean?”


The flashbacks start, for Michael Carneal, with chipped plaster.

He can’t make sense of it.

He remembers, as through a mist, loading two shotguns, two semiautomatic rifles and 700 rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his sister’s car that morning, the whole arsenal wrapped in blankets. An English project, he had explained. He remembers lugging the bundle into school. He remembers chatting about nothing with his friends. He remembers pulling a fifth gun, a revolver, out of his backpack as morning prayer circle broke up.

And now he’s staring at this gouge in the wall, at plaster knocked loose by a bullet.

Michael looks around. He sees kids on the floor, crying, screaming. His friend Nicole is down there. She’s still. Then he sees another student walking toward him, a boy, approaching slowly through the noise.

“What are you doing?” the boy asks, calm.

“Shooting people,” Michael hears himself answer.

“What for?” the boy asks. He draws closer.

Michael answers: “I don’t know.”


The flashbacks come again and again and again.

Five years ago, Michael Carneal, a skinny freshman, opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. He killed three classmates: Nicole Hadley, 14, who marched with him in band, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 17-year-old Jessica James. He also wounded five. Most of the injuries were minor. Missy Jenkins’ was not.

The bullet entered just below her left collarbone, slammed through her -- nicking her lung, her spinal cord -- and came out by her right shoulder blade. She is paralyzed from the chest down.


The bloodshed in the working-class river town -- the young girls gunned down in the Bible Belt as they prayed -- rattled the nation. Exactly two months earlier, a 16-year-old boy had stabbed his mother to death, then killed two classmates at his high school in Pearl, Miss. But that tragedy had not grabbed national attention the way the shootings in western Kentucky did.

Carnage in other schoolyards would follow, all too often: in Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., in Conyers, Ga., and Fort Gibson, Okla., at Santana High School near San Diego and at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Michael Carneal would hold himself responsible for inspiring such rampages.

Missy Jenkins would make it her mission to prevent them.

He would feel guilt ripping at him, through the flashbacks. She would shake off each nightmare with fresh resolve. Neither one wants that shattering morning to define them. But it has.


“I think about it all the time,” Michael Carneal says.

He slouches into his chair in a conference room at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. He is 19 years old now -- tall, pudgy, pasty, with a scraggly beard and clunky square glasses. It’s hard to see in him the scrawny, skittish freshman who pulled out a .22-caliber Ruger, pressed foam plugs in his ears and opened fire that Monday morning.

It’s hard even for Carneal.

He knows he shot his friends. He remembers planning it. He remembers thinking the night before, after a game of chess with his dad: “Tomorrow, I go to prison.” And now he is in prison, told when to shower, what to wear, his biggest treat the microwave popcorn he earns by keeping his cell tidy. It still does not feel real.

“I know it was me,” he says, “but it doesn’t fit my character. I’m not a violent person. A lot of people think I’m evil because of what happened. That’s not true. I made a mistake. A big mistake.”

He is on the psychiatric ward at the state reformatory, mellowed by 11 pills a day. The medications push away the monsters he used to see leering at his windows.

The monsters came often in the months before the shooting. Carneal would cover up the vents in the bathroom so the bad guys could not grab him. At night, he felt them clutching his legs. He lived in terror. Yet he told no one. He played baritone in band. He played pranks on his friends. His parents noticed nothing.

Carneal told several classmates before Thanksgiving that “something big” was going to happen in school. He warned them the “day of reckoning” was near. But he was always goofing around -- passing off parsley as pot, wearing the mat from a Twister game to school as a cape -- and no one paid much attention. He felt always alone.

“I thought I might as well go to prison because I didn’t have anything to lose,” he says.

That doesn’t explain why he murdered, though. Michael Carneal has spent five years searching for an answer.

He doesn’t have one.

“That makes it all that much worse,” he says.

He watches news of other kids killing kids in other schools and he feels helpless to stop the spasms of violence, the awful trend he believes he touched off that awful morning. “If I don’t understand my own motivation,” he says, “how can I understand theirs?”

He says he’s sorry. He says it often. His voice is flat. His eyes are blank.

In a sagging brown jumpsuit and high-top sneakers, Carneal spends his days in the medium-security prison playing crazy eights or shooting pool, reading, writing, talking to psychologists. He is locked in his cell only at night. It’s a single cell, with a TV and a radio. His parents come to visit every weekend. They bring him cash, now and then, to buy oatmeal cream pies at the canteen.

Carneal was given a life sentence but will be eligible for parole in 20 years. He does not allow himself to think what he might do if he gets out. He really has no idea.

He never thought much about the future, back when he had one.


Missy Jenkins, three weeks shy of her 20th birthday, wheels through the holiday clutter of her apartment in Murray, Ky., dodging poinsettias as she maneuvers to the VCR. She picks through the tapes: “Scent of a Woman.” “Young Guns.” Then she finds what she’s looking for, and pops it in.

Her own image fills the screen: a slight teenager with long blond hair seated at a pink vanity table, putting on makeup. “My name is Missy Jenkins,” she says in voice-over. “I had a GPA of 3.3. I was homecoming queen runner-up. I was vice president of my junior class. I was shot by a classmate.”

The camera pans to show her black wheelchair, her long, thin, useless legs. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

It’s a public-service announcement she filmed this year for a national anti-violence campaign in the schools.

She has been lending her voice to similar efforts since the day after the shooting, when she answered questions from her hospital bed on national TV. She has taken her message to the White House and on MTV, has spoken before tens of thousands of students across the country.

All the while, she has pushed through a grueling rehabilitation, learning first to live using a wheelchair and then to walk short distances with special braces. Three years ago, Mandy as always at her side, she walked across the stage at Heath High to claim her diploma. The next year, she shuffled the first quarter-mile of the Los Angeles marathon, in pouring rain, just to prove she could.

Her efforts have earned her acclaim: She won a federal crime-prevention award. She appeared onstage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, in a tribute to heroes.

But Missy Jenkins does not want to be a hero.

She wants to be exactly what she is: A college junior at Murray State University in western Kentucky, majoring in social work.

She wants to get to her manicure appointment on time, persuade her sister to help her write a play for drama class, gossip with a roommate about the guy she hopes will ask her out. She wants to raise money for arthritis research with her sorority.

She wants to marry. She wants to be a mom. She wants to get an agent, to act in L.A.

She wants to do everything she would have done had Carneal not squeezed that trigger. She wants to be the same person she would have been.

“I think I am the same person,” she says, “the exact same person.”

And yet, now and then, loss shadows Jenkins’ bright, open face. She wonders how she will be able to lift a crying baby from a crib. She wonders how she will be able to grocery shop for a family.

She misses dancing.

She wonders when she should tell her boyfriends all the embarrassing truths about her body. When she should show them her catheter. Or the 16 pills she takes each day to ward off muscle spasms and bladder infections.

She hates to be alone, because sometimes she falls as she hoists herself from wheelchair to bed and finds herself stuck on the floor, needing rescue.

Missy Jenkins may be the exact same person. But she is forever changed.

“I think about it every day,” she says.


Missy and Michael knew each other in high school. It would have been surprising if they hadn’t, in a school with just 486 students. They marched together in band. They teased each other.

One day, as one of his practical jokes, Michael wore a button he had made with a picture of the blond-streaked twins. The next day, Missy and Mandy countered with their own homemade Michael buttons. “He was a fun guy,” Missy says. “Not creepy. The class clown. I try to picture him with the gun, but it’s hard, because I knew him.”

A year after the shooting, Michael tried to reach out to Missy. He wrote several letters. He called. Finally, Missy’s father contacted an attorney. Michael was ordered to stop.

Looking back, he says he’s not sure what he so urgently wanted to tell her. That he was sorry? That he could not explain?

Missy did not want to hear from him. She had confronted him once, in court. She wheeled up to him and, holding his gaze, told him about her catheter and muscle spasms, about her fears, her loss, her determination to make her pain mean something.

“I told him I forgave him, not to make him feel better, but so I could move on,” she recalls. “I told him I would miss out on a lot, but I would not miss out on life.” He listened to her in silence.

He falls silent now, thinking of what he would say to Missy if he saw her. The silence stretches a long moment. He gives up. “There’s nothing you can say.”


Students walking into Heath High this morning will see a wreath on the memorial stone in the school courtyard. No public ceremony is planned. There is no need. Reminders are everywhere in West Paducah.

Teachers stand each morning at the high school’s door. They search book bags. But they also talk, and listen, trying to win students’ trust, to counsel and console, to reach out to anyone who seems edgy. Almost all the teachers who were on staff during the shooting remain at Heath. Not one asked to transfer.

The Carneal family is still in town too. Michael’s sister graduated from Heath High seven months after the shooting, as class valedictorian. His father, an attorney, still works downtown. His mother waves back at the neighbors, as always.

The Steger and James families remain in West Paducah as well, near the gravestones of their girls. The Hadleys moved to Chicago. Former Principal Bill Bond saw every student touched by the tragedy through graduation. Then he took a job as a national school safety consultant. He starts to say that life is back to normal now. Then he corrects himself:

“It will never return to normal. Those 12 seconds changed everything for everyone involved.”

Christmas decorations twinkled in West Paducah this weekend. But through the cheer, on this devastating anniversary, many will mourn. Many will remember.