FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–A gunman entered a Fort Worth Baptist church during an evening prayer rally Sept. 15, killing seven people, including three Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students, before he sat down on a back pew and killed himself.
The long-haired man dressed in jeans and a black jacket, spouting obscenities and cursing worshippers opened fire on about 200 people in the Wedgwood Baptist Church sanctuary. The church was hosting an area-wide rally for the annual See You At The Pole prayer event, celebrating earlier rallies held at school flagpoles around the country.
The shooting rampage also sent seven others to three area hospitals, some with critical gunshot wounds.
A pipe bomb, believed detonated by the gunman, exploded in a balcony causing police to close the building and search for other possible explosives. The dead were left in the building past midnight while police searched the building for more. None were found.
Southwestern seminary officials said the church was popular with seminary students. Although not all information was yet available, the seminary identified three of the dead and two of the injured with ties to the seminary.
Killed were Kim Jones, 23; a master of divinity student; Shawn Brown, 23; a master of arts in Christian education student; and Sydney Browning, 36, a 1991 graduate with a master of arts in religious education. Jones and Browning are females. Browning was the director of the children’s choir at Wedgwood and was the first to die when she greeted the gunman as he entered the building.
In area hospitals with unknown injuries are seminarians Jeff Laster, 34, a diploma in education ministries student, and Kevin Galey, 38, a doctor of education ministries student. The seminary’s Baptist Counseling Service was made available to the community the morning after the shooting. No other information was available at Baptist Press deadline Sept. 16.
In addition, media reports indicated three teenagers and another adult were also killed.
The gunman was identified by authorities as Larry Gene Ashbrook, 47, of Forest Hill, a Fort Worth suburb. He was described by neighbors as reclusive who occasionally flashed a temper. Neighbors did not know whether he had any religious convictions but one neighbor said he “has been strange as long as I can remember.” Authorities could give no motive for the shootings.
Later that night the church’s Internet web site called the shootings an “incomprehensible tragedy. We don’t understand why these things happen. God we don’t understand. But you don’t call us to understand … just to serve,” the statement said. It listed the casualties: “eight dead (including the gunman); seven injured; everyone else — changed. … We still serve an awesome God!”
Witnesses inside the church said they thought the shootings were a joke since a skit was planned later in the evening as part of the activity. The mostly teen audience, listening to a Christian band and singing, was told to shut up by the gunman. When he started firing churchgoers dove for cover beneath pews as he splattered the sanctuary with bullets. He stopped to reload several times, witnesses said, all the while telling them to stay still.
Activities were going on in several places in the building, including choir practices and mission activities. The church is located in a residential neighborhood in the southwest section of Fort Worth.
A youth group from Southwayside Baptist Church, Fort Worth, was sitting near the back when the shooting began.
Adam Hammond, a Southwestern seminary first year student and the church’s youth minister, yelled, “Get down, this is real” as teens hit the floor to take shelter under the pews.
“I didn’t know if my youth were OK and I felt totally helpless,” Hammond said. “I just kept praying.”
Within minutes, he said, a young girl just behind the Hammond’s youth group was shot in the back and soon a trail of blood covered the floor and then his clothes.
“When the first round was done I heard the clip hit the floor and he reloaded,” Hammond recalled. “The next thing I knew one of my youth stood up and said ‘Sir, I know what you need, you need Jesus Christ in your life’,” Hammond said, amazed at the bravery of the 19-year-old. The gunman responded with a muffled comment about why the boy was standing when the youth continued, “I know where I’m going when I die, what about you?” Then, a pause. The gunman sat down on the back pew and took his own life.
Hammond said the group fled the church as soon as possible, all unharmed.
The young girl who was shot was pulled outside where she lay face down with a bullet hole in her back.
“We just held the kids,” Hammond said. “There was not a lot we could say. These scenes will be etched in our kids lives.”
“I thought I would die there. I didn’t know what to do, I don’t guess anyone does until you’re in that situation, but I can’t dwell on all the what ifs.”
Hammond is a master of divinity student at Southwestern and a 1998 graduate of Florida Baptist Theological College, Graceville, Fla.
This was the second shooting in a Baptist church in six months and the 12th major shooting in the U.S. this year.
On March 10 in Gonzales, La., four people were killed and four others wounded when a long gunman, Shon Miller, Sr. entered New St. John Baptist Church in Gonzales, a National Baptist congregation, near the start of its weekly Wednesday night prayer and Bible study service. Two of the women killed, Carla Vessel Miller, 24, the gunman’s estranged wife, and her mother, Mildred Vessel, 52, had just finished their work in the nursery of neighboring First Baptist Church, Gonzales, a Southern Baptist congregation, minutes before the shooting.
Miller, who used a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, also killed his two-year-old son in the church.
Contributing to this release: Heather Stewart, director of information services at Florida Baptist Theological College, Graceville, Fla.; Public Relations office of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas; and Debbie Moore, Charleston, W.Va., free-lance writer for Baptist Press.