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Trucker/youth pastor’s new faith, influence ended by stepson’s shots

SHAWNEETOWN, Ill. (BP)–James “Jimmy Joe” Byassee, who had been the part-time youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Shawneetown, Ill., for about a year, had been taking classes at Southeastern Illinois College in nearby Harrisburg to become a junior high schoolteacher. After spending much of his life away from the Lord and addicted to drugs and alcohol, he wanted the chance to model a better life to children.

His graduation will never arrive.

The 31-year-old truck driver for R.G. Berry Trucking of Shawneetown was shot and killed about 5 p.m. March 12, soon after pulling into his carport after coming home from work. His 21-year-old stepson, Jarred B. Dobbs, has been charged with his murder in a town where the last homicide occurred in the mid-1980s.

Before fleeing the scene, Dobbs allegedly fired 13 shots from a 9mm handgun, hitting Byassee multiple times and firing all but two bullets, one in the chamber and one in the clip. Police apprehended Dobbs without incident later that night in his 1995 Mitsubishi truck about a mile north of Equality, another small community about eight miles west of Shawneetown, according to Police Chief Robert Patton.

Three people witnessed the shooting, but Patton declined to name them. The shots did not immediately kill Byassee, who was still talking to witnesses at the scene when Patton arrived 15 minutes after the shots were fired. Byassee died from internal bleeding caused by the gunshot wounds.

The news has devastated the 200-plus members of First Baptist Church, where Jack Hall has served as pastor for more than 30 years. Hall arrived at the crime scene soon after the incident had occurred.

Byassee’s wife, Brenda, who is the church’s pianist, survives him. Her husband “really felt like the Lord had called him to work with children,” she said. “He felt such a burden to work with youth because he’d been in all this drug-and-alcohol stuff. He wanted to keep them from that. The Lord planted that burden on his heart.”

Patton said the motive for the shooting is unclear. Brenda Byassee said her son suffers from schizophrenia and has struggled with drug addiction since the seventh grade. Shortly after the couple wed three years ago, near Halloween, Dobbs once looked at James Byassee and said, “You’re doomed,” and walked out of the room. Byassee told his wife at that time that he thought his stepson was going to try to kill him.

“He always considered James the evil one,” she said. Until his mental illness took hold, Dobbs had “always been a very loving child,” his mother said. “He was the little kid on the playground who stood up for the kids picked on by the bully.” He had made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ when he was 5 years old. Years later, after Dobbs had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, he made a profession of faith again when he was 18 or 19.

Since the incident, Byassee has not seen her son, who remains in custody with bail set at $75,000. “I’m not going to. I’ll probably never see him again as long as I live. I just can’t.”

Dobbs’ struggle with drugs is a grim reminder of how churches need to become more dedicated to reaching youth with the gospel and keeping them from drugs at an early age, Hall said.

Brenda Byassee has two other grown children, Nathan Dobbs and Keely Franklin, who are both members of First Baptist Church.

Church members packed First Baptist the day after the shooting, primarily to help the church’s 20 to 25 youth work through the reality of their youth pastor’s death. Adults paired up with youth to pray for them, Hall said. Many young adults, who had worked with Byassee in the youth group, have been coming to grips with the death. “It’s hard for them to understand why it had to happen,” Hall said.

More than 900 people showed up to pay their respects during visitation at Vickery Funeral Chapel, and nearly 400 attended the Thursday morning funeral service at First Baptist. Hall and two other ministers led the service. “I didn’t know if I could do the service or not,” he said. “This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with in the ministry.”

Hall delivered an evangelistic message with an invitation for anyone who wanted to begin a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward. Byassee’s cousin, a man in his early 30s, responded.

As First Baptist’s youth pastor, Byassee helped the church’s declining youth program grow to about two dozen students, Hall said. He had also served as a mentor to several men in the church. “In the last year, I would contribute the growth of five or six young adult men to Jimmy Joe’s influence. He really brought them in close,” Hall said.

Byassee “had been out in the world himself for a while,” Hall said. He had baptized Byassee when he was 14 years old but the teen soon “got away from the Lord.” He began to turn his life around, one small step at a time.

Brenda Byassee believed that their marriage and the death of his mother, a strong Christian woman who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on New Year’s Eve 1997, worked together to rekindle her husband’s passion to return to his Christian faith. In his last years, “his faith was very strong,” she said. “When the Lord finally opened his eyes up and he saw the truth and the goodness and the freedom, he grasped it with both hands. He was immersed in the love of God.”

While First Baptist members begin the long process of healing from the tragedy, “the Lord’s really brought us close together in love,” Hall said. The tragedy has illustrated to Hall why it’s important for congregations to make building a family relationship a priority. When tragedy strikes, he said, they’ll be ready to support each other.

That support was evident at First Baptist because many in the church gave warm hugs to Hall and assured him that they were praying for him. Often, Hall said, churches struggling with tragedy forget their pastors also are affected. “That’s what keeps you going,” Hall said. “I’ve learned to appreciate my church family even more.”

Brenda Byassee also heard from many in her church family, who told her they were praying for her and encouraged her to depend on the Lord. While she smiled politely, the words made her angry below the surface. “God had just taken away my soulmate. We thought alike. We both loved the Lord.” And now he was gone.

But she soon knew those prayers were working, and she began to feel God’s peace comfort her. “Through the power of prayer, I have gone from hating and blaming God to depending on him for my survival.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Leathers