UPDATE: Vestavia Hills Church Shooting Suspect Identified
Vestavia Hills police have now released the identity of the man charged in a fatal shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church that left three people dead.
Police say 70-year-old Robert Findlay Smith is charged with three counts of capital murder.
Police say Smith had previously attended some services at the church before police say he showed up for a potluck dinner Thursday night, pulled 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.
Police said church members were spared further violence when someone at the “Boomers Potluck” dinner subdued the gunman and held him until police arrived.
The victims are identified as 84-year-old Walter Rainey of Irondale, 75-year-old Sarah Yeager of Pelham and 84-year-old Jane Pounds of Hoover.
St. Stephen’s was 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 Rainey’s daughter, Melinda Rainey Thompson.
Police said Yeager, 75, of Pelham died soon after being taken to a hospital Thursday. Pounds died in a hospital Friday.
“Why would a guy who’s been around for a while suddenly decide he would go to a supper and kill somebody?” said the Rev. Doug Carpenter, St. Stephen’s pastor for three decades before he retired in 2005. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Carpenter said one victim’s wife and other witnesses recounted what had happened. They said a man who introduced himself only as “Mr. Smith” sat at a table by himself — as he’d done while visiting a previous church dinner.
“People tried to speak to him and he was kind of distant and very much a loner,” Carpenter told The Associated Press by telephone.
At Thursday’s dinner, church member Walter Bartlett Rainey invited the visitor to join his table, Carpenter said, but the man declined. He said Rainey’s wife noticed the visitor wasn’t eating.
“Linda Rainey said he didn’t have any food and she offered to fix a plate for him, and he turned that down,” said Carpenter.
Soon afterward, Carpenter said, the man drew his gun and opened fire. Carpenter said another member, a man in his 70s, grabbed a chair and charged the gunman.
“He hit him with a folding chair, wrestling him to the ground, took the gun from him and hit him in the head with his own gun,” Carpenter said.
Church members held the suspect until police arrived, police Capt. Shane Ware said. A police mugshot showed Smith with a blackened left eye and cuts to his nose and forehead.
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. Authorities executed a search warrant at Smith’s home, less than 3 miles from the church.
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 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.
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.
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