12-year-old girl becomes third to die from shooting at Hazard college

bestep@herald-leader.comJanuary 16, 2013 

HAZARD — A 12-year-old girl who was shot in a parking lot at Hazard Community and Technical College died Wednesday, a day after her father and cousin were killed in the same shooting.

The man accused of killing the three bought the gun that he allegedly used just hours earlier and only one day after he and one of the victims had a court hearing in a dispute over custody of their son.

Dalton Lee Stidham, 21, of Perry County is charged with three counts of murder. He allegedly shot all three victims when he met at his ex-girlfriend, Caitlin Paige Cornett, at 6 p.m. Tuesday so he could return their son, Jaydien Miller, 2, after a court-ordered visit.

Also killed were Cornett's uncle Jackie Doug Cornett, 53, of Happy, and his daughter, Taylor Cornett, a sixth-grader at R.W. Combs Elementary School in Perry County. Jackie and Taylor Cornett had driven Caitlin to pick up her son.

Stidham initially was charged with attempted murder in the shooting of Taylor, but that charge was upgraded to murder after Taylor died at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

Stidham, also known as Dalton Miller, admitted to the shootings, according to an arrest report filed by Hazard Detective Lt. Paul Campbell, the case officer.

"I snapped, shot three people, I'm sure," Stidham told police late Tuesday, according to the arrest report.

Stidham turned himself in to police after the shooting and was being held Wednesday at the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard. Intentional, multiple homicide is a potential aggravating circumstance that would qualify the crime for the death penalty.

A deputy at the jail said Stidham had declined media requests for interviews. Members of his family also declined to comment.

Hazard police Chief Minor Allen said Wednesday that Stidham had bought a semi-automatic, .40-caliber Glock pistol at 1 p.m. Tuesday. A pistol found at the scene of the shootings matched the description Stidham gave of that gun, according to the arrest report.

Kenny Woods, a Baptist minister who owns H&K Gun & Pawn Shop in Perry County, acknowledged Wednesday that Stidham bought the gun at his shop about five hours before the shootings. The sale was legal, Woods said.

"He cleared a background check without even a delay," Woods said. "Everything was fine with him."

Woods said he wouldn't have sold Stidham a gun if Stidham had been acting strangely.

Authorities declined to comment on whether buying the gun hours before the shootings indicated that Stidham had planned the attack.

Stidham and Caitlin Cornett never married but had lived together for about three years before separating in October, said Brittany Cornett, Caitlin Cornett's sister.

Caitlin Cornett moved to Brittany's home in Letcher County after the separation, Brittany Cornett said. Caitlin had previously worked at the Sykes Enterprises call center in Perry County but had quit to go back to school, according to a court record.

She had attended Hazard Community and Technical College during the 2010-11 school year, pursuing an associate's degree in science, and she had signed up to begin another course in February, said Kristi Middleton, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Both Stidham and Cornett filed motions in November to be named Jaydien's primary custodian, according to court records.

Stidham said in one motion that the two had agreed on visitation but that Cornett had refused to let him see Jaydien at one point. He alleged that Cornett had showed poor judgment by allowing her father, a registered sex offender, to have contact with Jaydien.

Cornett alleged in a motion that Stidham, who worked at a tobacco shop in Pigeonroost owned by his mother, had a history of drug abuse and "issues with his temper," often becoming angry when Jaydien cried or didn't listen.

After a lengthy hearing Monday, a judge ruled that the two would have joint custody of their son, with Cornett as the primary physical caregiver. The judge gave Stidham visitation from 9 a.m. Sunday to 8 p.m. Tuesday each week, according to a court record. That appeared to be less time than Stidham had sought.

Stidham called Tuesday and asked to bring Jaydien back early from his visitation, Brittany Cornett said.

Stidham and Caitlin Cornett had chosen to meet in the parking lot of the Hazard college's First Federal Center to exchange Jaydien on Tuesdays, her sister said. That was where the shootings occurred.

Stidham allegedly fired multiple shots into the car carrying his former girlfriend and her relatives as they arrived.

As Campbell, the detective, and other officers searched the car for bullets and other evidence Wednesday, blood was visible on the driver's-side door and on a child-safety seat that had been removed from the car. The windows on the driver's side of the car were shattered.

Allen, the Hazard police chief, said Jackie Cornett was found dead in the front seat, and his daughter, Taylor, was in the back seat. Caitlin Cornett was on the ground near the car.

Jackie and Caitlin Cornett each had been shot multiple times, Perry County Coroner Jimmy Maggard said.

Jaydien was not hurt in the shootings. Stidham took the boy home with him afterward, leaving him with family when he went to turn himself in, said Joe Engle, assistant police chief in Hazard.

Relatives were meeting with state social workers Wednesday to figure out who will keep Jaydien, Brittany Cornett said.

Caitlin's father, Dwayne Cornett, said Wednesday that he had been worried about his daughter having contact with Stidham while they were exchanging Jaydien for visitation.

"I begged my daughter to stay away from him," Cornett said. "My daughter was just starting her life, and my brother was a good person."

Brittany Cornett said her sister was "a loving mother, a loving sister and daughter, and everything you could possibly want in somebody."

Jackie Cornett had been a coal miner but was disabled from a mining injury.

He was "kind and caring and loved his family," Brittany Cornett said.

The shootings have devastated the victims' loved ones, said Bill Scott, senior pastor at Petrey Memorial Baptist Church in Hazard, where some members of the Cornett family worship.

Scott said he had met Taylor Cornett when she came to the church with her mother to help pack bags with food that the church provides to cancer patients.

"She was just a very loving, bright child," Scott said.

The church hosted a community prayer service for the victims Wednesday night.

According to an annual report from the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, at least 25 women were murdered by intimate male partners in Kentucky from Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30. The report, called "Speak My Name," includes only women whom the group was aware of through domestic-violence programs and news reports.

Lois Valentine, director for a regional domestic violence program based in Perry County, said she was not familiar with Caitlin Cornett's case. But as a result of Tuesday's shooting, Valentine said, she held a meeting Wednesday morning with women staying at the shelter to emphasize the importance of following safety rules.

"I tried ... to point out to them ... how much danger they could be in and how much danger they could put others in by not taking precautions," Valentine said.

"It just reiterates how serious domestic violence is," she said, "and how we need to be more aware as a community."

At Hazard Community and Technical College, officials were taking a fresh look at campus security procedures Wednesday, when classes were canceled because of the shooting.

"This incident has certainly shaken our community and has caused us to evaluate the safety and security procedures we already have in place," President Stephen Greiner said.

Classes were scheduled to resume Thursday.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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