The 70-year-old visitor had previously attended some services at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church before police said he showed up for a potluck dinner, pulled out a handgun and fatally shot three elderly attendees, one of whom died in his wife’s arms as she whispered words of love in his ear.
Police said church members were spared further violence on Thursday night when someone at dinner overpowered the gunman and detained him until police arrived. The suspect, Robert Findlay Smith, was charged with capital murder on Friday, Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr said in a statement.
The baffling violence in a wealthy suburb outside Birmingham has left the families of victims in disbelief, stunned a community known for its family-centric lifestyle and deepened unease in a nation still reeling recent massacres by gunmen who attacked a school in Texas, a New York grocery store and another church in California.
Two of the Alabama shooting victims were 84; the third, 75. They had gathered with other church members for a “Boomers Potluck.” St. Stephen’s was Walter Bartlett Rainey’s favorite place, a church that “welcomes everyone with love,” according to his family. They said in a statement Friday that it was hard to believe he was killed while attending a church dinner with his wife of six decades.
“We are all grateful that she was spared and he died in her arms as she whispered words of comfort and love in his ears,” said the statement provided by Rainey’s elderly daughter. 84-year-old Melinda Rainey Thompson.
Police say Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham died shortly after being taken to hospital on Thursday. The third victim, an 84-year-old woman, died on Friday. Police did not immediately release his name, citing a request for confidentiality from his family.
More people likely would have been killed or injured had the shooter not been caught, Vestavia Hills Police Captain Shane Ware said.
“It was extremely critical in saving lives,” Ware said at a Friday news conference. “The person who subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero.”
Ware said Smith and the three victims were all white. He said police were still investigating the motives of the suspect, who occasionally attended church services. Authorities executed a search warrant on Friday at Smith’s home, located less than 3 miles from the church. A photo distributed by police shows Smith with a blackened left eye and cuts to his nose and forehead.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives records show that Smith is a licensed arms dealer whose business address is the same as his home address. Court records show Smith filed a lawsuit against Samford University, a private university in Birmingham’s metro, in 2008 in which he alleged campus security wrongfully detained him and charged him to pretend to be a policeman.
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Thursday’s church gathering was described as a “baby boomer potluck,” according to posts on the church’s Facebook page by the Reverend John Burruss, the pastor. He said he was in Greece on a pilgrimage with a group of members and was trying to get back to Alabama.
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry told reporters his “close-knit, resilient and loving community” had been rocked by “this senseless act of violence”. The dormitory community is home to many businessmen, doctors and lawyers who work in nearby Birmingham. Vestavia Hills is known for its top-flight schools and suburban lifestyle. It has nearly 40,000 inhabitants, most of whom are white.
The Reverend Rebecca Bridges, associate rector of the church, led an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page on Friday morning. She prayed not only for the victims and church members who witnessed the shooting, but also “for the person who carried out the shooting.”
“We pray that you will work in this person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray that you will help us forgive.”
Bridges, who is currently in London, alluded to other recent mass shootings as she prayed that elected officials in Washington and Alabama “see what happened in St. Stephens and Uvalde and Buffalo and so many other places and their hearts will be changed. , minds will be open.
“And that our culture will change and our laws will change in a way that protects us all,” she added.
There were several high-profile shootings in May and June, beginning with a May 14 racist attack that killed 10 black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. The following week, a gunman massacred 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Thursday’s shooting came just over a month after one person was killed and five injured when a man opened fire on Taiwanese parishioners at a Southern California church. It comes nearly seven years to the day after an avowed white supremacist killed nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Agents from the FBI, US Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives joined investigators at the scene, who remained cordoned off Friday with yellow tape as police vehicles with flashing lights blocked the road to the church.
On Saturday, thousands gathered across the United States and at the National Mall in Washington, DC, to renew calls for tougher gun control measures. Survivors of mass shootings and other incidents of gun violence lobbied lawmakers and testified on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey released a statement Thursday evening lamenting what she called the shocking and tragic loss of life. Although she said she was happy to hear the suspect was in custody, she wrote: “This should never happen – in a church, in a store, in town or anywhere. “