Hero in high school shootings admits story was exaggerated

NEW YORK (AP)- A former student who emerged as a hero following the 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky., acknowledges his role may have been exaggerated, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

''Sometimes, people get the wrong idea,'' Ben Strong, 20, told the newspaper.

Three girls were killed in the December 1997 shooting at Heath High School. Five other students were wounded when shots were fired at a student prayer group.

After the shooting, Strong appeared on national television and was widely quoted in newspaper stories. He also has preached to young people across the country and is introduced at his father's Assembly of God Church as the hero of Heath High.

However, Strong acknowledged in an interview that he did not take the gun away from the shooter, Michael Carneal, as he sometimes suggested after the attack, the Times said.

He also acknowledged he might not have done anything to stop Carneal from continuing to shoot, the newspaper said.

New information began to emerge because of a lawsuit filed by the families of the three slain girls.

The families sued school officials and several students, including Strong, saying they could have prevented the killing. The judge has since dropped all defendants except Carneal from the $120 million lawsuit.

Strong has acknowledged that Carneal warned him not to come to the prayer group that morning because something was going to happen. But he also denies that he had any idea what Carneal planned.

In testimony for the lawsuit, Strong said he won praise for bravery ''because of what people said, how things were portrayed'' after the shooting, not what really happened.

He also testified that Carneal discarded the gun himself, rather than having it taken away from him.

''He just got done, and he dropped it,'' Strong said.

However, Strong testified he did grab Carneal by the shoulders after he put the gun down.

'''What are you doing?' I think I asked him. 'Why are you shooting people, you know?''' Strong said.

When the lawyer asked Strong if he ever took credit for stopping the shootings, he said no.

Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder and is serving a life sentence. Asked during testimony for the lawsuit if Strong had stopped him from shooting, he said: ''No sir.''

Strong's story began to circulate after Bill J. Bond, principal at the time, told reporters that Strong had probably saved people's lives by stopping the rampage.

''I asked him what he did, and he said, 'I told him to lay the gun down, and I took that at face value,'' Bond told the Times.

In some accounts just after the shootings, Strong described a tug-of-war over the gun. On ABC's ''Good Morning America,'' he said: ''And I went for him and I grabbed him, you know, and he put down the gun and everything.''

He also has said he persuaded Carneal to drop the gun.

State Rep. Charles Geveden, an attorney hired to help Strong with media requests, said he doesn't recall any discrepancies in Strong's story, but he said it was overwhelming for the teen to receive 20 to 30 requests a day for interviews.

''I think Ben walked over to the young man. Give him credit for that. Most everybody else took off and ran,'' Geveden said.

Strong could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A woman answering the phone at the church where he works said he was not accepting calls from reporters.


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