Shooting at Alabama Church Potluck Leaves Three Dead – The New York Times

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The gunfire ended after a parishioner subdued a man who opened fire inside an Episcopal church, the police said. Capital murder warrants were issued on Friday for the man, Robert Findlay Smith.
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What started out as a relaxing potluck dinner at an Episcopal church in Alabama on Thursday evening took a sudden and deadly turn when a man pulled out a handgun and opened fire, killing three people, the authorities said.
The gunfire inside the Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Ala., ended when a fifth person subdued the gunman and held him down until the authorities arrived, Capt. Shane Ware, of the Vestavia Hills Police Department, said at a news conference on Friday.
That person, whom the authorities did not identify, “was extremely critical in saving lives,” Captain Ware said. “The person that subdued him is a hero.”
Captain Ware identified two of the victims on Friday: Walter Rainey, 84, of Irondale, Ala., who was pronounced dead at the scene; and Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, Ala., who died at a nearby hospital. A third victim who was identified only as an 84-year-old woman from Hoover, Ala., died on Friday after she was treated for her injuries at a hospital, Captain Ware said.
On Friday, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office identified the gunman as Robert Findlay Smith, 70, and said that warrants had been issued for Mr. Smith for capital murder. He was being held on Friday without bond, the office said.
Public records show that Mr. Smith is a federally licensed firearms dealer with a business called Original Magazines 2. The address of the business matches the one listed as Mr. Smith’s home address. The Vestavia Hills Police Department said on Friday afternoon that it was executing a search warrant at a residence related to the shooting.
Captain Ware described the gunman as an “occasional attendee” of the church in Vestavia Hills, a city of around 34,000 people about six miles south of Birmingham.
A motive for the shooting was not immediately clear. The authorities were summoned to the church at 6:22 p.m. after gunfire had broken out suddenly at a “small group meeting” that the church billed as a “Boomers Potluck Dinner,” Captain Ware said.
“There will be no program, simply eat and have time for fellowship,” an advertisement for the event said. It was not clear how many attended the gathering on Thursday.
Mayor Ashley Curry of Vestavia Hills described the area as a “close-knit, resilient, loving community” that he said had been devastated by the shooting.
“Our prayers go out to the victims and the families of this senseless act,” he said at the news conference.
One of the victims, Mr. Rainey, died in the arms of his wife of 61 years, Linda Foster Rainey, according to a statement from their daughter, Melinda Rainey Thompson.
“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,” she said. “We also feel a sense of peace that his last hours were spent in one of his favorite places on earth, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a place that welcomes everyone with love.”
Ms. Thompson said in an email that the house of worship is “a big, sweet church, very open-minded with people from all walks of life.”
It was in that spirit, she said, that her parents and others tried to engage a stranger, later identified as Mr. Smith, who was in attendance in conversation. They invited the man to their table, she said, but he politely declined. They tried to angle their chairs so he was included in the conversation.
Mr. Rainey told his wife that, next time, they would sit at the man’s table to make him feel more at home, Ms. Thompson said.
Shortly after, the man started firing.
The shooting happened amid a nationwide explosion in gun violence, including two gun massacres in May: one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead; and a racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket in which a white gunman killed 10 Black people.
The back-to-back mass shootings pushed the issue of gun violence to the forefront in Washington, where Congress is trying to advance a bipartisan deal on a narrow set of gun safety measures, including enhanced background checks to give the authorities time to check the juvenile and mental health records of any prospective gun buyer under the age of 21.
Also in May, a 68-year-old man from Las Vegas opened fire inside a church with a Taiwanese congregation in Southern California, killing one person and wounding five others in what the Orange County sheriff described as a “politically motivated hate incident.”
The Rev. Kelley Hudlow of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama said by phone on Thursday night that she drove to the church in Vestavia Hills as soon as she had heard about the shooting. When she arrived, Ms. Hudlow said, she saw churchgoers and other members of the community praying together while some witnesses spoke to the authorities.
“Everybody is in a fair amount of shock,” she said. “It’s not what you think is going to happen here.”
Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
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