A social media storm ignited Thursday when Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal posted a video on the official Marshall County Fiscal Court Facebook page reading a letter addressed to Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, then another when he returned to the social media site Saturday with a video featuring families of victims of the Jan. 23, 2018 Marshall County High School shooting. In Thursday's video, Neal alleged Beshear had made statements that were misleading while politicizing and exploiting victims and families of the shooting by making a vague statement which made it sound as if he had met with all of the victims' families, which Neal said wasn't true. Saturday's video featured the father of one of the children who died the day of the shooting, reading a statement which directly asked Beshear for an apology.
Seated next to Neal were the parents of the two children who died as a result of their injuries: Brian and Teresa Cope, parents of the late Preston Cope, and Jasen and Secret Holt, parents of the late Bailey Holt. Standing behind them were six more representatives of shooting victims.
Neal said the purpose of the second video was to give the families their own voice.
Brian Cope read a statement while holding the hand of his wife. He said Beshear's comment during The Kentucky Debate held at the University of Kentucky Singletary Center in Lexington on Oct. 15 that he had met with parents of the MCHS shooting "have left us saddened and angry." He said the comment makes it sound as if Beshear was implying he had spoken with all of the parents who had children affected by the shooting.
"We want him to apologize to those of us that never saw him or any of this staff after the shooting. It's been a year and 10 months and he still hasn't," he added.
Cope said he's reached out to the other families of the children affected by the shooting and at least 14 of them have reported never meeting with or hearing from Beshear or his staff, going on to say he didn't believe Beshear could have met with more than four families. He said the families gathered around the camera reached out to Neal to ask for clarification of Beshear's statement made during the debate and were now "going public" because they had yet to receive an apology.
"You should also know that it's not political for any of us. There's Democrats in this room, Republicans and Independents," he added. "Mr. Beshear has left no doubt that he was using this tragedy that we live every single minute of every single day for the rest of our lives for his personal political gain. Please step up and do the right thing, Mr. Beshear, and please offer an apology."
Monday morning, Beshear/Coleman Spokesperson Sam Newton told The Tribune-Courier, "Attorney General Beshear traveled to the Marshall County Courthouse on January 25, 2018. During that time, he pledged his full support to the local prosecutors and county attorney, and met a roomful of impacted families that were in the courthouse for the hearing that day. Andy did not do any media interviews. His office dedicated resources, two victims' advocates and assistance from prosecutors in the attorney general's office in the hope of providing any possible healing and justice. Andy grieves for the families and the entire Marshall County community."
During The Kentucky Debate held at the University of Kentucky Singletary Center in Lexington on Oct. 15, the moderator asked the candidates if they would commit to fully fund the school safety bill passed by the legislature and what other ideas they have for ensuring the safety of our students as well as those who work in schools; Bevin was allowed to answer first.
Bevin responded by saying, "I'm a strong advocate for Senate Bill 1, I worked very closely with these families, I still wear a bracelet that was given to me by the parents of the two children who were killed most recently in Marshall County. This is something very real to our families."
He went on to say the exact cost still isn't known but he's a proponent for ensuring anyone who walks onto or off of a school property feels as safe there as they might anywhere else including their own home.
Beshear responded by saying, "Every child deserves to be safe at school and no parent should have to worry about their safety while they're there. These shootings we see at our schools tear at the very fabric of who we are as people and while it might not be our children's school, I know we grieve with those parents who have lost. I also met with the parents of the Marshall County school shooting and while I didn't go in front of the cameras, what I offered them was every resource of our office to help the prosecutors make sure that we secure justice in that situation and for those families."
Neal said in his letter he was contacted by "some of the families" whose children were victims that were upset by Beshear's comments. He said 12 of the 16 victims' families have allegedly confirmed never having been contacted or approached by Beshear or his staff, and called for "clarification and justification" of the statement.
Beshear made his only public response to the accusation when a member of the media in Lexington on Friday asked him for comment regarding the matter. He recalled traveling to Marshall County 48 hours after the shooting and meeting at the Marshall County Judicial Building with the county attorney, assistant county attorney, commonwealth's attorneys and their victim's advocate to pledge his support. He also recalled speaking with one of the prosecutors (County Attorney Jason Darnall) who attended the school as a student and whose wife teaches at MCHS, and the trauma he experienced the day of the shooting.
"And we walked upstairs, the county attorney [Jeff Edwards] leading me into the grand jury room where a large group of families that were there for one of the first hearings in that action were gathered. I talked with them and I answered their questions, I pledged my support. That family is going through trauma, if they might not recognize me from anybody else, that is very understandable. But to try to claim we weren't doing what we were doing in an election is wrong. And we worked hard, we had done extra research, advice," he said.
Beshear mentioned the public statements issued Thursday evening, within hours of Neal publishing the video, made by two local prosecutors who personally handled the case against the alleged shooter, now 17-year-old Gabe Parker: former County Attorney Jeff Edwards and Assistant County Attorney Jacob Ford who was the assistant commonwealth's attorney at the time of the shooting. He noted that both men attested to how instrumental his office has been in moving the case forward and providing support for the victims and their families, as well as the community.
"Everybody in that community was a victim of that terrible situation and we have just been a small part in trying to bring a little bit of healing and a little bit of justice," Beshear added.
Friday afternoon, Beshear's Deputy Campaign Manager Jonathan Smith, who accompanied Beshear on the trip to Benton on Jan. 25, 2018 as his legislative director confirmed Beshear traveled to Benton that day for two reasons: "to offer complete and full support to Marshall County's prosecutors, sole support from the attorney general's office for what would be a very difficult time, and to briefly meet with the families of kids who were impacted and offer them the same thing."
Smith recalled the day starting out in the first floor offices with Edwards and Ford and their teams, then going upstairs to the grand jury room where they met and spoke with a number of people.
"I remember on the way down and on the way back, Attorney General Beshear had multiple conversations with the staff in Frankfort getting them started with the task at hand, about ways we could help victims advocacy and seeing those families right away because he had just experienced the scope of what was going on," he recalled. "I also remember going to the McDonald's across the street which, to my recollection was under construction/renovation at the time, and we bought coffee for the prosecutors and their team because they had been working around the clock."
"Attorney General Beshear feels it's unfortunate that we're here right now," he added, noting Beshear has no plans to comment further on the matter than what he had already said.
The first Marshall Countian to come to Beshear's defense was Assistant County Attorney Jacob Ford, who served as Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney at the time of the shooting and was second-in-command in prosecution of the case against the alleged shooter.
Ford commented on Neal's original Facebook post, recalling a personal meeting with Beshear at the Marshall County Judicial Building in Benton two days after the shooting and just before the first hearing in Marshall District Court. He said Beshear offered up himself and his staff to assist with any resources the prosecution might need, "and [Beshear] hasn't let us down yet."
"[Beshear] refused to hold a press conference for the media who were packed into the lobby, so after the meeting he quietly exited through the back stairs to meet with the families upstairs. He even provided his personal cell phone number to everyone," Ford wrote in part. "In fairness, not all families were present and those who were there may have just forgotten about this meeting. I can't say I blame them since everyone was clearly still in shock. I'm not here to give any sort of political endorsement--I'm a registered Independent--but I feel it is my duty to share the truth with everyone."
Former Marshall County Attorney Jeff Edwards, who arrived at the high school moments after the shooting occurred, was the initial prosecutor in the case and worked alongside Neal for his entire first tenure as judge-executive, also released an official statement in support of Beshear's statement.
In a letter addressed to Neal, Edwards states he wishes Neal would have called him before making the public statement against Beshear, then recalls Beshear's visit to the Marshall County Judicial Building within 48 hours of the shooting. He said Beshear met with him and his staff, as well as the commonwealth's attorney and his staff.
"While he was at the courthouse, I personally walked him to the grand jury room where he met with a roomful of the impacted families that were at the courthouse for the hearing that day," he wrote in part. "He told the families his office would provide every resource that was needed. He and I both answered questions from the families. One father specifically said he needed us to be their voice in the courtroom. As he was leaving, [Beshear] had an opportunity to talk to the press, but told us he was there to help, not talk to reporters."
Beginning that afternoon, Edwards stated, Beshear's office provided legal assistance in the form of research and support from Beshear's team of prosecutors; victim's advocates from Beshear's office came to Benton to work out of Edwards' office, the commonwealth's attorney's office and the Purchase Area Rape Crisis Center (which helped coordinate crisis services); and a member of the Attorney General's Survivor's Council, who had survived the Paducah shooting at Heath High School decades earlier, also provided assistance.
"Everything [Beshear] said in his debate was true. I know because I was there on Jan. 25, 2018," Edwards wrote. "What families can remember in a time of trauma or whether they recognized someone as a member of my office or as the attorney general is understandable. Let's not put these families in this situation."
A MCHS graduate who was a student at the time of the shooting, Keaton Conner, also publicly supported Beshear's statement, saying she has spoken and met with Beshear "many times" specifically about the shooting. She noted Beshear attended the Students for Student Safety rally in Frankfort on March 14, 2018 where more than 60 Marshall County students were present and spoke directly with them, asking what he could do to help. She said Bevin was invited to the same rally but "watched from the window of the Capital," and that it wasn't until March 23 when Bevin spoke to the students.
"[Beshear] was one of the few politicians who truly took time to listen to students instead of using us for a photo op," she added. "I believe Gov. Bevin and Judge Neal owe Attorney General Beshear an apology."
Neal did not provide a follow-up statement to The Tribune-Courier as requested Friday. He told Liam Niemeyer with WKMS that he believes Edwards' account of the events of Jan. 25, 2018 but still wanted Beshear to clarify he didn't meet with all parents affected by the shooting.