Marshall continues healing as Parker awaits sentence

The fence at the Marshall County High School baseball field proclaims school and community strength more than two years after the shooting that claimed the lives of two students and injured several others. The shooter, Gabe Parker, was sentenced Friday in Marshall County Circuit Court.

After nearly two and a half years of mourning, waiting and healing, a dark chapter closed — finally — Friday for the Marshall County community.

Eight hundred and 71 days after Bailey Holt and Preston Cope were killed in a school shooting that shattered the small community, their killer was sentenced to life in prison.

Gabe Parker, 18, pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and 14 counts of assault in April. Community members expect his sentencing to bring relief.

“If you’re talking about the loss of life, it seems like yesterday. If you’re talking about the time it’s taken to get justice, it feels like forever,” former county commissioner Misti Drew said.

“It’s almost been like the healing process has been a little bit delayed because it feels like it took such a long time to get justice.”

For Drew, despite the ever-present, still raw pain, she’s noticed a positive transformation within the county.

“I think you do see a greater culture of kindness … that’s really caught on in our community,” she said.

Especially among the county youth, Drew said she’s seen something like a “wake up call,” where teens are “wanting to be that change that everyone’s seeking in their community.”

Reflecting on the “long grueling years” since the shooting, Marshall Superintendent Trent Lovett said even Parker’s guilty plea won’t put the pain to rest.

“As far as being completely healed, that’s probably never going to happen,” he said.

“I don’t think any of our people look at it as a victory. You can’t bring back two lives and a lot of scars.”

Lovett said he’s looked at the school’s students as an inspiration — some of those in high school when the shooting happened are still enrolled.

“It helps all of us, whenever you see how strong and resilient the students are,” Lovett said.

“I think as teachers and faculty and staff and administrators, we know we have to be that same strength for them that they are for us.”

For Drew, Lovett and former Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark Blankenship, resolving Parker’s case without a trial was significant.

Blankenship said during his time as the county’s top prosecutor — he lost the election to current Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Foust in November 2018 — he had hoped to resolve Parker’s case with a similar plea agreement that Foust worked out.

“To me, that was probably always (going to be) the best result for the commonwealth,” Blankenship said.

He said despite Parker’s plea agreement taking five years off his parole eligibility — now 20 years as opposed to the 25-year maximum — he doesn’t see that as a significant concession in the agreement.

“I don’t think he’ll get out. I don’t think they’re ever going to let any of these school shooters out when children are killed,” Blankenship said.

Though he said he still wishes he’d been able to handle the case until the end, Blankenship said he thinks Foust has handled the case well, and he’s glad to see its conclusion, especially because it spared the victims an arduous, emotional trial that was set to take several weeks and begin this month.

“There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think about (Holt and Cope),” Blankenship said.

Though Drew, and others, will agree “there are no winners” in a situation like this, she said she’s glad this chapter has closed.

“Who doesn’t want to feel like there is some justice in a world that feels very unjust?” she said.