Scott Pennington had never met Charlie Decker. He couldn't have. Decker was a character in a Stephen King novel. But there were times when Pennington must have felt as if he knew Decker. Maybe even a time, like last January 18, when he felt he was just like Decker.
For most of America's students, that Monday was a holiday—in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. But in Carter County, Ky., school was in session. At 2:40 p.m., the beginning of seventh period, Deanna McDavid opened the door of Room 108 at East Carter High School in Grayson. Her senior English students were waiting for her, all except Pennington. She told the 22 students to read their assigned novels for 10 minutes, then she began correcting papers.
Five minutes later, in walked Pennington, a shy, 17-year-old honors student with thick glasses and long brown hair. He had moved to the county five months earlier. As he walked, Pennington pulled a revolver from inside his denim jacket and fired one shot at McDavid, missing her. "What are you doing, Scott?" she screamed. "Shut up, bitch," Pennington snapped. As McDavid moved her arms toward her head and dropped to her knees, Pennington squeezed the trigger a second time, sending a .38-caliber bullet into her right temple. She fell back, curled in a fetal position, still holding a pen. She was dead, one day shy of her 49th birthday.
In the hallway and nearby classrooms, teachers and students had heard the loud sounds, but few thought they came from a gun. Some thought a heavy textbook or a metal desk had been dropped on the tile floor. And even inside Room 108, some students thought it might be part of a skit arranged by McDavid. But when custodian Marvin Hicks heard the commotion, he headed straight toward Room 108. He found Pennington holding the gun in his right hand, his left hand holding his right wrist to steady his aim. "Is that thing loaded?" Hicks asked. Pennington's response was quick and brutal—one shot into the 51-year-old man's stomach. Hicks arched his back as he slumped to the floor. Within seconds, he too was dead.
"Cat got your tongues?" Pennington closed the door and sat on his slain teacher's chair. "Do you like me now?" he sneered. "Do you all think I'm crazy?" No one spoke. If they could have stopped breathing, they would have. "What's the matter, cat got your tongues? Normally you people can't stop talking."
Not all the words were the same, but the scene was tragically similar to what took place in Stephen King's 1977 book, Rage (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman). In the story, Decker, a high school senior, kills two teachers and then holds classmates hostage while trying to convince them he is a hero. In the book, Decker wins approval. In Room 108, Scott Pennington would not. Not ever.
Getting no response to his taunts, Pennington removed the spent shells from his gun and inserted fresh ones. Some students say he counted his bullets, threatening, "There's one for each of you." Others recall him saying, "You don't have to worry. The next person I shoot will probably be myself."
Some of the hostages buried their heads in their hands; others pretended to read. No one wanted to make eye contact with Scott for fear he'd shoot someone just for looking. Mandy Morse started a goodbye note to her parents, telling them how much she loved them—that she was afraid she'd never see them again.
Finally, Pennington asked, "Does anyone want to leave?" They were too scared to talk. Then he offered Tammy Rucker and Angela Menefee their freedom. Menefee was the first to go. "I love you, Scott," she stammered. Rucker followed. "Thank you, Scott," she said. A few minutes later he let four more go and then more—until just five were left and Pennington said, "Okay, the rest of you get out of here." It was just after 3 p.m. Then he peered out into the hallway where police officers Keith Hill and Larry Green were waiting, guns drawn. "Did you do this?" one asked. "Yes," he allegedly replied. "The gun is on the desk."
In Carter County, Ky., guns are as much a part of life as high school basketball and tobacco fields. But until last January 18, school violence was the kind of thing folks only read about happening in Chicago, New York, or maybe Cincinnati. At East Carter High, discipline problems were mostly the run-of-the-mill variety—boys fighting with boys, girls fighting with girls. Never in their worst dreams did anyone think a killer would come to one of their classrooms.