BENTON — More than two years after he fired the shots that killed two Marshall County High School students and injured numerous others, Gabe Parker pleaded guilty in Marshall County Circuit Court.

Parker pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, eight counts of first-degree assault and six counts of second-degree assault, admitting to the Jan. 23, 2018, shooting that killed classmates Bailey Holt and Preston Cope.

“Getting to hear the words ‘guilty’ come out of Gabe Parker’s mouth was something we have prayed for since this happened,” Holt’s family said in a statement.

“We could never fully heal until we heard those very words.”

Cope’s family released a statement calling the guilty plea an answered prayer.

“With the guilty plea from the defendant, a heavy burden has been lifted for our family,” the statement read.

“We, along with the other victims and their families, will not have to experience the grueling process of a trial and the many emotional cruelties that would have accompanied it.”

Only a small number of victims, families and witnesses were allowed at the hearing, due to restrictions on the court system imposed since the outbreak of COVID-19. The hearing was streamed live over Skype.

“There aren’t any winners on a day like this,” Marshall County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Foust said after the hearing, noting the Cope and Holt families approved of the agreement.

Parker’s plea agreement carries a recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 20 years. As a juvenile, the maximum punishment Parker could have received would have been life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.

Parker’s long-awaited trial expected to last at least all of June was canceled earlier this month when it became clear that statewide court restrictions would not permit the trial to go forward. Foust said concerns about the coronavirus factored into the decision to agree on a plea.

Marshall County Circuit Judge Jamie Jameson set a sentencing hearing for June 12.

If Jameson accepts the plea agreement, Parker will be sentenced to life on each of the murder counts, 20 years on each count of first-degree assault and 10 years on each count of second-degree assault, with that time running concurrently.

Parker’s mother, Mary Garrison Minyard, released a statement mourning the “two devastatingly long, cruel years” since the shooting.

“Words are inadequate to express how deeply sorry I am for everything that has happened,” Minyard wrote.

She specifically addressed Cope and Holt’s families, writing “there will never be words that I can say to make up for the precious lives you’ve lost,” and expressing hope that everyone affected can “find some comfort and light in the days and years ahead.”

Foust said he hopes the plea will allow a community still mourning to move closer to healing and putting anxiety about the case behind them.

“We’re Marshall County. We’re Marshall strong. Let’s give those words a true meaning, and let’s not let Gabe Parker win.”