JACKSBORO (MCT) – The first words spoken in a courtroom by a former high-school student accused in a fatal school shooting were an apology.
"I'm sorry about everything," Kenneth S. Bartley told jurors in Campbell County Criminal Court.
Bartley, now 22, testified Thursday for the first time in more than eight years since he opened fire inside a tiny office at the Campbell County Comprehensive High School in November 2005 when he was a 14-year-old freshman.
He is standing trial this week in the fatal shooting of Assistant Principal Ken Bruce and administrators Gary Seale and Jim Pierce. He faces charges that include first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Throughout his testimony and his cross-examination by 8th Judicial District Attorney General Lori Phillips-Jones, Bartley's demeanor was calm and his responses direct.
His testimony proved a mixed bag on the core issue in the case -- whether he intended to pull the trigger or simply panicked when confronted by Seale, whom he said tried to grab the gun he brought to school, and Pierce, whom he believed was "coming after me."
Bartley said he brought his father's .22-caliber Beretta pistol to school with plans to trade it after classes ended to a drug-dealing neighbor for prescription painkillers. He told jurors he had snorted two Valiums and a Xanax, both sedatives, before the shooting.
He insisted the gun was loaded. Seale and Pierce have testified Bartley took time to load the gun before the shooting, though neither man said they tried to disarm him as he did so.
Fellow student Preston Young testified he and another student told Pierce that Bartley had a gun. Pierce sent an untrained school resource officer to bring Bartley to his office under the guise of discussing Bartley's tardiness to class that day.
Bartley was escorted into Pierce's office and sat there with Phillips and Pierce for 15 minutes awaiting the arrival of Seale and Bruce. No one asked him about a gun, and Bartley said he assumed none of the administrators knew he had it.
"I'm getting nervous, but I'm still thinking (he was called to the office) because I was late to school," he said.
But once Seale and Bruce arrived, Pierce asked him to empty his pockets, he said.
"I was nervous," he said. "I knew I was in trouble."
Bartley told jurors Seale tried to reach in his pocket, so he withdrew the gun. Seale, he said, insisted it was fake and that Bartley didn't know how to use a real gun.
"I stood up, turned to face Mr. Seale," he said. "I cocked the gun. As I cocked the gun, behind me I saw Mr. Pierce swivel around. I thought he was coming after me. My heart was racing."
Bartley said he panicked and opened fire, never aiming the gun at anyone in particular.
"I was scared," he said. "I felt threatened. I just panicked. I feel horrible about what happened."
Phillips-Jones pressed Bartley about a statement he gave soon after the shooting when he said he pointed the gun at Seale and fired, then pointed it at Bruce and fired again.
But defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs blocked her through a legal challenge from playing a recording of that statement.
Bartley denied he had a grudge against Seale – as Seale and Pierce have suggested.
"I had no ill will toward anyone in the room that day," he said.
Earlier Thursday, Isaacs called retired FBI Agent Richard Qulia to the stand to testify about what he termed a "fight or flight syndrome" that Qulia called an automatic reaction to feeling threatened. Isaacs has told jurors Bartley was experiencing that syndrome when he opened fire.
Bartley termed the decision to bring a loaded gun to school as the "worst mistake of my life."
Closing arguments begin Friday.