VESTAVIA Hills, Ala. (AP) — The 70-year-old visitor had previously attended some mass at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church before police said he showed up for dinner, pulled a gun and killed three elderly participants. One of them died in his wife’s arms, whispering words of love in his ear.
Church members escaped further violence Thursday night when one of them rushed the gunman, hit him with a chair and held him until police arrived, a former priest said. The Jefferson County District Attorney announced that the suspect, Robert Findlay Smith, was charged with premeditated murder Friday.
The baffling violence of a wealthy Birmingham suburb has stunned a community known for its family-centered lifestyle. It also deepened anxiety in a nation still reeling from recent massacres made by gunmen who attacked a school in Texas, A grocery store in New York and another church in California.
“Why does a guy who’s been around for a while suddenly decide he’s going to dinner and kill someone?” “That doesn’t make sense,” said Rev. Doug Carpenter, St. Stephen’s pastor for three decades before retiring in 2005.
All three shooting victims were members attending a monthly church dinner, said Carpenter, who still attends Sunday mass there but was not present Thursday night. A Facebook post referred to the gathering as “Boomers Potluck.”
Carpenter said that the wife of one of the victims and other witnesses told what happened. They said that the man who introduced himself only as “Mr. Smith sat at a table alone—as he had done while visiting a previous church dinner.
“People tried to talk to him and he was kind of distant and he was very lonely,” Carpenter told The Associated Press by phone.
At Thursday dinner, Carpenter said, church member Walter Bartlett invited Rainey a visitor to join his table, but the man refused. He said Renee’s wife noticed that the visitor was not eating.
“Linda Rainey said he didn’t have any food and offered to make a dish, and he refused,” Carpenter said.
Soon after, Carpenter said, the man pulled out his rifle and opened fire—shooting Walter Rainey and two other church members. Another member, a man in his 70s, grabbed a chair and attacked the gunman, Carpenter said.
“He hit him with a folding chair, wrestled him to the ground, took the rifle from him and hit him in the head with his pistol,” Carpenter said.
Police Captain Shane Ware said the suspect church members were detained until police arrived. Police footage showed Smith with a blackened left eye and a wound to his nose and forehead.
“The person who subdued the suspect was a hero in my opinion,” Ware said at a news conference Friday, adding that the work was “crucial in saving lives.”
Rainey, 84, died at the scene. His wife of six decades was unharmed.
“We are grateful that she survived and died in her arms as she muttered words of comfort and love into his ears,” Renee’s family said in a statement.
Police said Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, died shortly after in hospital, and an 84-year-old woman died on Friday. Police have not released her name, citing the family’s request for privacy.
Ware said Smith and the three victims were all white. He said police were investigating the motives of the suspect, who sometimes attended church services. Authorities executed a search warrant Friday at Smith’s home, less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) away.
Records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that Smith is a licensed arms dealer whose business is listed at his home address. Court records show that Smith filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Samford University, a private university in metro Birmingham, alleging that campus security mistakenly detained him and accused him of impersonating a police officer.
Ashley Curry, Mayor of Vistavia Hills, told reporters that his “tightly-knit, resilient and loving community” had been shaken by “this senseless violent act”. It is home to nearly 40,000 residents, most of whom are white, including many businessmen, doctors and lawyers who work in Birmingham.
The church’s pastor, Reverend John Boros, said in a Facebook post that he was in Greece for a pilgrimage and was trying to return.
Reverend Rebecca Bridges, associate university president, led an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page on Friday morning. I prayed not only for the victims and church members who witnessed the shooting, but also “for the one who committed the shooting.”
“We pray you work in that person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray to help us forgive.”
Jusoor, who is now in London, alluded to other mass shootings recently as she was praying that “our culture will change and our laws will change in ways that protect us all”.
Thursday’s shooting occurred just over a month after one person was killed and five wounded when a man opened fire on Taiwanese parishioners in a Southern California church. It also came nearly seven years after the day a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered nine people while studying the Bible at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
A letter posted by St. Stephens said she would hold Sunday services, adding: “We will gather at the table that has taught so much that love always explodes in this world, no matter what we experience, whether it be doubt, anger, loss, grief or death – but also joy. and life.”
Associated Press writer Ross Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this story.