The gunman, identified by authorities as a 27-year-old from Troy, strode toward the Rev. Fred Winters shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday, exchanged words with him, then fired a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol until it jammed. Churchgoers then wrestled him to the ground as he brandished a knife, said Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent.
Winters later died of his injuries.
None of the about 150 worshippers attending the early morning service seemed to recognize the gunman, and investigators did not know details of Winters’ conversation with him, Trent said, but they planned to review an audio recording of the service.
The mystery leaves church members wondering who would want to hurt the man who was their pastor for 22 years – and why.
Authorities didn’t know whether Winters, a married father of two, knew the gunman. Police would not release the gunman’s name pending possible charges.
Winters deflected the first of the gunman’s four rounds with a Bible, sending a confetti-like spray of paper into the air in a horrifying scene worshippers initially thought was a skit, police said.
“We just sat there waiting for what comes next not realizing that he had wounded the pastor,” said Linda Cunningham, whose husband is a minister of adult education at the 1,200-member church.
Winters had stood on an elevated platform to deliver his sermon about finding happiness in the workplace – titled “Come On, Get Happy” – and managed to run halfway down the sanctuary’s side aisle before collapsing after the attack, Cunningham said.
Two worshippers tackled the gunman as he pulled the knife, and all three were stabbed – the gunman suffered “a pretty serious wound to the neck” while one worshipper had lower back wounds, Trent said.
Churchgoers knocked the gunman between sets of pews, then held him down until police arrived, said member Don Bohley, who was just outside the sanctuary when the shooting began.
“People came running out and told us to call 911,” said Bohley, 72.
Trent said investigators found no immediate evidence of a criminal background for the suspect. He said police were investigating whether a red Jeep parked outside the church belonged to the man.
The Jeep, which remained at the church Sunday night under State Police watch, was registered to the address of a 27-year-old man in an upscale neighborhood in Troy. No one answered the door at the residence Sunday.
The Rev. Mark Jones, another First Baptist pastor, said he briefly saw the gunman before the gun was pulled. Jones then walked to an adjacent room and did not see the shooting, though he heard a sound like miniature fire crackers.
“We have no idea what this guy’s motives were,” Jones said outside the church.
Jones later urged a Sunday evening prayer service attended by hundreds at nearby Metro Community Church in Edwardsville to be resilient after “this attack from the forces of hell.”
The standing-room-only crowd cried, cradled Bibles and stretched their hands skyward as they packed into the church, many watching the service on large television monitors in overflow areas.
“We need to reassure our hearts and reinforce our minds that Pastor Fred is in that place that we call heaven,” Jones said. “Church, evil does exist. Today, we saw the visible results of evil and its influence.”
The gunman and 39-year-old worshipper Terry Bullard underwent surgery at St. Louis University Hospital and were in serious condition Sunday evening, according to hospital spokeswoman Laura Keller. The other victim, Keith Melton, was treated and released from Gateway Regional Medical Center.
“I would call it heroic,” Trent said. “While many understandably were stuck to their seats, they took to action.”
But Melton said he was struggling with whether he acted quickly enough.
“It’s very hard to see when I had to see my pastor murdered,” Melton told St. Louis station KDSK-TV. “A half second more, might that have made a difference?”
First Baptist had an average attendance of 32 people when Winters became senior pastor in 1987; it now has about 1,200 members and three Sunday services, according to the church’s Web site.
Winters was former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to the site.
He hosted Pizza with the Pastor dinners in his home, and the church organized bowling parties for fathers and daughters, karate classes and a golf league.
The church sits along a busy two-lane highway on the east side of Maryville, a fast-growing village of more than 7,000 about 20 miles northeast of St. Louis. A farm sits directly across from the church, but subdivisions of newer homes can been easily seen from every side.
“Things like this just don’t happen in Maryville,” Mayor Larry Gulledge said. “We’ve lost one the pillars of our community, one of our leaders.”
On the Net:
First Baptist: http://www.fbmaryville.org/
Associated Press writers Betsy Taylor and Jim Salter in Maryville and Karen Hawkins, Rupa Shenoy and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.