VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (AP) — The 70-year-old visitor had previously attended some services at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church before police say he showed up for a potluck dinner, pulled out a handgun, and fatally shot three of the elderly participants, one of whom died in his wife’s arms as she whispered words of love in his ear.
Church members were spared further violence Thursday evening when one of them rushed the gunman, struck him with a chair and held him until police arrived, a former pastor said. The suspect, Robert Findlay Smith, was charged with capital murder Friday, the Jefferson County district attorney announced.
The baffling violence in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham stunned a community known for its family-centered lifestyle. It also deepened the unease in a nation still reeling from recent slaughter wrought by gunmen who attacked a Texas school, 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 attending a church dinner with his wife of six decades.
“We are all grateful that she was spared and that he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears,” said the statement provided by 84-year-old Rainey’s daughter, Melinda Rainey Thompson.
Police said Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham died soon after being taken to a hospital Thursday. The third victim, an 84-year-old woman, died Friday. Police did not immediately release her name, citing a request by her family for privacy.
More people likely would have been killed or injured had the shooter not been stopped, Vestavia Hills police Capt. Shane Ware said.
“It was extremely critical in saving lives,” Ware told a news conference Friday. “The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero.”
Ware said Smith and the three victims were all white. He said police are still investigating what motivated the suspect, who occasionally attended services at the church. Authorities executed a search warrant Friday at Smith’s home, located less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the church. A mugshot distributed by police shows Smith with a blackened left eye and cuts to his nose and forehead.
Records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show Smith is a licensed gun 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 metro Birmingham, in 2008 in which he alleged that campus security wrongly detained him and accused him of impersonating a police officer.
The church gathering Thursday was described as a “Boomers Potluck,” according to messages posted on the church’s Facebook page by the Rev. John Burruss, the pastor. He said he was in Greece on a pilgrimage with a group of members and trying to get back to Alabama.
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry told reporters his “close-knit, resilient, loving community” had been rocked by “this senseless act of violence.” The bedroom community is home to many businesspeople, doctors and lawyers who work in nearby Birmingham. Vestavia Hills is known for top-flight schools and a suburban lifestyle. It has nearly 40,000 residents, most of whom are white.
The Rev. Rebecca Bridges, the church’s associate rector, led an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page Friday morning. She prayed not only for the victims and church members who witnessed the shooting, but also “for the person who perpetrated the shooting.”
“We pray that you will work in that person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray that you will help us to forgive.”
Bridges, who is currently in London, alluded to other recent mass shootings as she prayed that elected officials in Washington and Alabama “will see what has happened at St. Stephens and Uvalde and Buffalo and in so many other places and their hearts will be changed, minds will be opened.”
“And that our culture will change and that our laws will change in ways that will protect all of us,” she added.
There have been several high-profile shootings in May and June, starting with a racist attack on May 14 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 happened just over a month after one person was killed and five injured when a man opened fire on Taiwanese parishioners at a church in Southern California. It comes nearly seven years to the day after an avowed white supremacist killed nine people during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Agents with the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives joined investigators at the scene, which remained cordoned off Friday with yellow police tape as police vehicles with flashing lights blocked the route to the church.
On Saturday, thousands of people rallied in the U.S. and at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to renew calls for stricter gun control measures. Survivors of mass shootings and other incidents of gun violence lobbied legislators and testified on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement late Thursday lamenting what she called the shocking and tragic loss of life. Although she said she was glad to hear the suspect was in custody, she wrote: “This should never happen — in a church, in a store, in the city or anywhere.”
This story has been edited to restore a dropped letter to the name of Walter Bartlett Rainey.