Sept. 16, 1999: Gunman kills 7 in Fort Worth church

| September 16, 2009

Editor’s note: This report appeared in the "Star-Telegram" on Sept. 16, 1999.

FORT WORTH — A long-haired man dressed in jeans and a black jacket, who witnesses said was spouting obscenities and demeaning worshippers for their religious beliefs, invaded a Wednesday night church service and opened fire randomly, fatally shooting at least seven people, wounding seven others and then killing himself.

Five teen-agers remained unaccounted for at midnight, police said.

The shooting is believed to be the deadliest in the city’s history, surpassing an onslaught that killed five people and wounded four at the Glass Key cafe in 1990.

Many of the victims were teen-agers attending a concert by Forty Days, a Christian rock group from Dallas, as part of the annual See You at the Pole prayer event.

Seven victims, including the gunman, who was about 35 years old, were pronounced dead at the scene. One died at a hospital.

The gunman, whose identity was unknown last night, also detonated an explosive device in the balcony at Wedgwood Baptist Church, 5522 Whitman Ave., before killing himself in front of more than 200 worshippers, police said.

Two guns, one of them with a large bore, were found atthe scene, police said.

The gunman’s body remained in the church late last night, and police had not searched it for fear that it was rigged with booby traps.

"It appears to be a bulge in the pocket of the jacket he is wearing," Fire Chief Larry McMillen said. "It’s very suspicious."

None of the victims’ bodies had been removed by midnight.

"I was inside, but it’s not something I want to describe," McMillen said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and bomb-sniffing dogs joined Fort Worth police in the investigation after several other objects that might be explosive were found in the church.

"There’s cartridges, shrapnel, empty cartridge boxes and blood splattered on the wall," said Lt. David Ellis, a police spokesman.

Ellis said investigators and bomb squad members were examining suspicious cars in the parking lot, particularly one that had "suspicious writing on it."

One vehicle that police were examining closely is registered to a deceased elderly man, whose son lived in a modest, single-story brick home in Forest Hill. The man, whom neighbors described as tall and slender with long, thinning hair, was not home late last night.

Neighbors portrayed him as reclusive and said he was often seen carrying a blue gym bag. They said he occasionally flashed a temper, though no one knew if he had any particular religious convictions. He "has been strange as long as I can remember," a 38-year-old neighbor said.

Ellis called the shooting the "worst mass incident that we’ve been involved with."

Police were questioning a man last night, but it was not immediately known if he was suspected of being an accomplice in the blood bath on what was intended to be a night for young Christians to express their religious convictions.

Five of the wounded were treated at John Peter Smith Hospital, two at Harris Methodist Fort Worth and one at Cook Children’s Medical Center. One of the wounded people died at a hospital.

Some were in critical condition, and Carter BloodCare officials said all their centers would open at 9 a.m. today for blood donations. Type O in particular was needed, Ellis said.

Among the confirmed dead are Sydney Browning, 36, who was director of the children’s choir at Wedgwood Baptist Church, and Justin Stegner, a senior high school student.

Some of the wounded were identified as Jeff Lester, a seminary student and custodian at the church; Jaynanne Brown; Mary Beth Talley, a senior at Southwest High School; Matt Parr, a Southwest junior; Nick Skinner; Cassie Griffin; and Kevin Galey.

Several students said Browning was apparently the first person to encounter the shooter, casually greeting him at the door leading to the sanctuary. The gunman responded by shooting her.

Witnesses described the shootings.

"We thought it was a joke," said Kristen Dickens, 14, who was sitting in the second pew of the sanctuary when the gunfire erupted. "We were singing and he told us to shut up.

"I thought our pastor was playing a joke on us."

Churchgoers dived for cover beneath pews as the shooter splattered the sanctuary with bullets, stopping several times to reload.

"He just kept telling us to stay still," said Chris Applegate, a seventh-grader who was attending choir practice in another part of the church.

"We were singing a song and then in the middle of the song this guy opened the door and fired one shot," Applegate said. "He just kept telling us to stay still.

"We all just jumped under the benches and he fired about 10 more shots. … Somebody said, `Run, run,’ and we all started running."

Acting Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said he didn’t know how long the gunman terrorized the worshippers, but "if you talk to any of those witnesses and ask them, they’re going to say it seemed like an hour."

Gov. George W. Bush, who was in Detroit campaigning for the presidency, denounced the shooting as "a terrible tragedy, made worse by the fact that it took place in a house of hope and love. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the congregation."

"We are prayerful for the individuals who have been shot and their families, and mournful for the families of the deceased."

Mayor Kenneth Barr, who was in Toluca, Mexico, for a Sister Cities event, planned a hasty return to the city.

"This is Fort Worth and we’ll be united as a city in our strength to see clear through the fog of this tragic criminal act," he said.

"I think we need to dedicate ourselves to understanding the tragedy and then to figuring out how to make the changes to keep this from happening again. It is not unique to Fort Worth, but we can start in Fort Worth, and we will."

The shootings occurred as worshippers gathered in several areas of the church, some for choir practice, some to hear the Christian rock band.

Chip Gillette, a police officer who was off-duty, looked outside his house when he heard his dog barking and saw teens running out of the church. He went to the church unarmed, heard the gunshots and ran back to his house.

"He went back and got his equipment [gun, vest and police radio] and basically threw the shirt on, so no one would mistake him as the shooter," Mendoza said.

Gillette frantically relayed details of the shooting to a police dispatcher, Mendoza said.

Aaron Bray, 18, a senior at Crowley High School, was in the sanctuary when he heard a gunshot shatter a window in the door.

"I felt something go by my arm. I don’t know if it was glass or the bullet," Bray said.

A few moments later, the gunman moved to the far right rear door of the fan-shaped sanctuary and entered, firing a handgun into the crowd, Bray said.

"I didn’t hear him say anthing," Bray said. "It sounded like a handgun. He wasn’t firing fast enough for it to be an automatic; maybe semiautomatic, but not automatic.

"He fired many, many times. My guess, at least 30," said Bray, 18.

Kevin Rutledge and his wife, Sundi, both 22, were attending their first service at the church and were in the fellowship hall when they heard a commotion.

"We thought it was hammering," said Kevin Rutledge, a ministerial student at Dallas Baptist University. Then, he said, he heard someone saying: "I’m not joking. I’m shot."

As news of the shooting spread, people from other churches arrived at Wedgwood Baptist, clutching Bibles as they gathered in the neighborhood.

Police set up a command post at Bruce Shulkey Elementary School.

Lauren Tabor, 8, said she was in a class called Girls in Action when she heard gunshots and screams.

She and her classmates ran to another room, where they pushed a table against the door "so nobody could get in. We were all down in a little corner.

"The teacher said, `Let’s pray.’ "

Another student, 9-year-old Samantha Tabor, quoted the teacher as saying: "Dear Lord, help us. Don’t let anybody get hurt."

Police said they had no motive for the man’s rampage.

Dax Hughes, the church’s college minister, said at least 150 young people were inside the sanctuary.

"He hits the door real hard to make his presence known and he just immediately started firing," Hughes said.

When the gunfire was over, Hughes said, the man "sat in the back pew and put a gun [to his head] and shot himself and fell over."

Witnesses quoted the man as saying he didn’t agree with what the young people were doing at the church.

Glen Bucy Jr., a 17-year-old visiting the church with his brother, said the gunman came through the sanctuary, cursing and saying that "religion is b——-."

One witness, identified only as Rachel, said the teens at the church conducted many skits, one involved the meaning of life and what it means to face death.

"I thought it was blanks," she said of the gunfire. "A lot of them were saying that this was some kind of drama presentation. They thought it was a skit."

The Forty Days band was playing a song called Alle, short for "alleuia," when "we heard a couple of pops and we thought it was the speakers," said Drue Phillips, 19, the group’s bass player and backup singer.

"We thought it was a joke. We knew a skit was going on later."

Before entering the church, the gunman fired several shots at the windows, witnesses said. The report contains material from staff writers Deanna Boyd, Rebeca Rodriguez, Yvette Craig, Anthony Spangler, Stacy Feducia, Chris Vaughn, Gabrielle Crist, Jim Jones, Bob Mahlburg, Kathy Sanders, Max B. Baker, Karen Rouse, Ginger D. Richardson, Jack Douglas, Anita Baker, Kristin N. Sullivan, Jennifer Autrey, Bill Teeter, Cynthia J. Faulkner, Dan Reed, Tim Madigan and Jerry Zenick.

Tags: , ,

Category: Church Security

Comments are closed.