BENTON, Ky. (AP) — A county prosecutor sought to head off criticism from his traumatized community on Wednesday as he explained why a 15-year-old charged with murder in the shootings of two classmates doesn’t yet face attempted murder charges as well, even though more than a dozen other students have bullet wounds.
Instead, the preliminary charges for wounding the other classmates will be first-degree assault, Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said, stressing at a news conference that it carries the same penalty.
“The reason for that is based on information we have right now. Attempted murder is an offense which takes into account motive and specific intent,” but why he did it is still being investigated. Assault, on the other hand, simply requires a “serious physical injury by means of a dangerous instrument,” Darnall said.
The young man’s handgun was dangerous enough to kill two classmates, wound 14 other students and seriously injure four more as hundreds of teenagers scrambled to escape. All the victims were between 14 and 18 years old, Kentucky State Police Detective Jody Cash said.
Most ran silently, too stunned to shout. Some dashed into classrooms. Others fled the building, crossing streets and fields and sheltering in nearby businesses.
“No one screamed,” said 16-year-old Alexandria Caporali, recounting the moment her high school became the site of the latest American mass shooting. “It was almost completely silent as people just ran.”
Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, both 15, were killed and another 18 people injured when a classmate opened fire Tuesday morning in the school’s commons, a busy atrium at the center of Marshall County High School, where several hallways meet and children gather before classes.
The trauma consumed the rural town of about 4,300 people, where nearly everyone has a connection to the school. Parents left cars on both sides of an adjacent road, desperately trying to find their teenagers; business owners pulled fleeing children to safety; a state trooper rushed to the school, terrified he would find his own daughter among the dead.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders said authorities would not yet identify the 15-year-old, now in police custody, who he said walked into school armed with a pistol and just before 8 a.m. and immediately started firing.
Caporali was eating breakfast in the cafeteria when she heard a shot, turned and saw the teenager with the gun. She knew him as a quiet boy who played music and always seemed happy. After the first shot, she said he seemed to hesitate, but then he fired every bullet in the gun.
Out in the commons, two 16-year-olds, Lexie Waymon and Baleigh Culp, had been laughing and talking about makeup and the homecoming basketball game like ordinary teenagers on an ordinary morning. They heard the first bang, and imagined something equally ordinary, like a heavy book hitting the floor.
“That’s what I expected it to be,” Culp said. “Until I saw a body drop on the ground and the bangs continued. There was bullets flying everywhere.”
Fear momentarily seized Waymon.
“I couldn’t move. I got up and tried to run, but I fell. I heard someone hit the ground. It was so close to me,” she said. She froze, she said. She could see only blackness — for a full minute, she guesses. Then she came to and ran.
Waymon did not stop running, even though her chest hurt. One phrase ran on repeat through her mind: “I can’t believe this is happening. I cannot believe this is happening.” She didn’t stop until she made it to a McDonald’s, more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from school.
Culp was running, too. She ran to the highway, hearing shot after shot behind her. She was still running, unsure what to do, when a man reached out from the door of a business and pulled her inside, where dozens of other students were hiding.
Inside school, the boy kept firing, said Caporali, who ran into a classroom.
“It was one right after another — bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” she said, until he ran out of ammunition.
Then he took off running, trying to get away, she said. He was soon apprehended and led away in handcuffs.
But by then, more than a dozen had been shot and others were injured as they ran from the gunfire. Holt died at the scene and Cope died after being taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Five others remained in critical condition late Tuesday.
Secret Holt said her daughter Bailey was a “perfect sweet soul.” She also told KFVS that the “horrific act of violence” is “just unbearable” for her family.
Hours after the shooting, Benton residents gathered in a church. They were reminded that God had not forsaken them, and told not to ask “what did anyone do to deserve this?”
Schools were closed county-wide on Wednesday, but elementary and middle schools will reopen Thursday, Superintendent Trent Lovett announced. “Across the nation we’ve been listening to some advice and they think we need to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” he explained.
But Lovett said he still can’t say when the high school will reopen.
The case against the suspect will begin in juvenile court, which is closed to the public and the records sealed under Kentucky law. A grand jury will begin considering the evidence in February. Prosecutors will request to move the case to adult court, at which point the details would no longer be secret.
The teen is being held at a regional juvenile jail in Paducah, Kentucky, about a half-hour away, authorities said, and he has been appointed an attorney.