Editor’s note: This story was originally published March 9, 2009.
MARYVILLE — A gunman walked into the First Baptist Church shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday, exchanged words with the Rev. Fred Winters and then pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and began firing.
One of the bullets deflected off Winters’ Bible, sending a spray of paper into the air that church members said resembled confetti. Two other shots missed.
But a fourth shot struck Winters, the church’s senior pastor, in the chest, fatally wounding him. Winters, 45, managed to run from the pulpit halfway down a side aisle, where he collapsed and lay dying. Parishioners, who at first thought it was some kind of skit or dramatic play, began to run and scream in a horrifying scene, witnesses said.
“I now know what people mean when they say, ‘This is so surreal,’” said the Rev. Mark Jones, assistant pastor. “We often have dramatic elements during our services, but this was something that caught everyone off guard.”
Two parishioners then tackled the gunman as he brandished a 4-inch knife, and all three suffered stab wounds. The gunman and one victim were flown to St. Louis University Hospital, where both underwent surgery. The other victim was treated at Gateway Regional Medical Center and released.
The gunman, a 27-year-old man from nearby Troy, had no apparent connection to the church or Winters, police and congregation members said. Police did not identify him, pending charges.
“We don’t know the relationship (between the gunman and pastor), why he’s here or what circumstances came about that caused him in the first place to be here,” Illinois State Police Master Trooper Ralph Timmins said.
Parishioners knocked the gunman between sets of pews, then held him down until police arrived, said church 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.
The congregation of the sprawling, 1,200-member church and the entire community expressed shock as the news spread throughout the day.
“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.”
Hundreds of people cried and cradled Bibles on Sunday night while remembering their slain pastor. The overflow crowd gathered in the modern, white Metro Community Church in Edwardsville to remember Winters.
During Sunday evening’s prayer service, Jones did not mention the gunman, but described the attack as from “the forces of hell.”
At a news conference earlier, Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent said police do not know a motive for the shooting and know of no relationship between the suspect and the church. Congregation members said they did not know the gunman and had never seen him before.
On Sunday night, the suspect still was hospitalized, and police had not been able to talk to him.
A red Jeep believed to belong to the gunman was under police guard on the church parking lot. The license plate number led authorities to a house on Zachary Court in Troy. Sunday afternoon, police obtained a search warrant and removed a computer and gun cases from the house, then left.
A woman from a neighboring home cried while hugging other neighbors in the cul-de-sac, but all declined comment.
About 150 parishioners in attendance at the First Baptist Church initially believed the shooting was a skit being performed for the service. Trent said they planned to review an audio recording of the service. It was not videotaped.
“We thought it was part of a drama skit ... when he shot, what you saw was confetti,” said parishioner Linda Cunningham, whose husband is a minister of adult education at the church. “We just sat there waiting for what comes next not realizing that he had wounded the pastor.”
Trent said that after the man fired four rounds, the gun malfunctioned. At that point, he pulled out a knife and slashed himself in the throat before turning the knife on two church members who tried to wrestle him to the ground.
“If the gun had not stove-piped, this could have been a much greater tragedy,” Trent said.
Trent said police had been unable to find a criminal record or even a firearms owner’s card for the man.
“We’re still researching his story, but right now we don’t know anything,” he said during the afternoon press conference.
When asked what police know about the suspect, Trent said: “Not very much at this point.”
Winters was taken to nearby Anderson Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival, according to spokeswoman Natalie Head. Two others wounded at the church were airlifted to another hospital, Head said.
The gunman and one victim, 39-year-old Terry Bullard, underwent surgery at St. Louis University Hospital, said spokeswoman Laura Keller. Bullard was treated for stab wounds and was in serious condition, she said.
The second victim, identified as Keith Milton, was treated and released from a Granite City hospital.
“I would call it heroic,” Trent said. “While many understandably were stuck to their seats, they took to action.”
Congregation members said the gunman walked up the center aisle and shouted out, “Hey, Fred.” When Winters asked whether he could help the man, the gunman pulled out the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and began shooting.
The shooting occurred during the first of three Sunday services scheduled at the church, 7110 Illinois 162, near Anderson Hospital. The shooting occurred shortly after the start of the 8:30 a.m. service.
Some congregation members were trapped inside because of a police lockdown, according to other congregants outside the church who kept in touch with them via cell phone.
The church released a statement shortly before noon:
“Today, a little after our 8:30 a.m. service began, an assailant entered our church and shot at our senior pastor multiple times. At this time, we do not know the name of the assailant or his motive --- why he did what he did. Our prayers are for our senior pastor, our two brave members and for the assailant.”
Jones, assistant pastor at the church, said the church had been working on a plan to tighten security, but had not yet implemented any plans.
Winters and his wife, Cindy, have two daughters, Alysia Grace and Cassidy Hope.
“He was a great man. He did a lot of things for the kids. He put on a summer camp for the kids year after year,” church member Cathy Sparks said of Winters.
Winters, who had led the First Baptist Church for nearly 22 years, was the former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to the church’s Web site, fbmaryville.org.
Winters became senior pastor of the church in 1987, when it had an average attendance of 32 people. Today, the church has about 1,200 members.
“Our great God is not surprised by this, or anything,” Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, said in a statement. “That He allows evil and free will to have their way in tragedies like this is a mystery in many ways. But we know we can trust Him no matter what, and draw close to Him in any circumstances.”
When the shooting occurred, church member Brittany Limbach was in another part of the church with her class of kindergartners through second-graders, when another church member came in.
“She came in and told us to stay in the room,” Limbach said. “She came back in and told me someone had shot Pastor Fred.”
Meanwhile, Limbach’s mother, Judi Bertels, was headed to church for the second service of the morning when she and others were turned away by police. About 20 members gathered in a parking lot near the church, comforting one another and trying to find out what they could by cell phone.
Bertels spoke by cell phone to her daughter, Limbach, who had been moved to the church gymnasium with her class of children. Police later released Limbach and others who were not in the service at the time of the shooting, and she joined her mother in the parking lot.
Parishioner Sharla Dryden, 62, pulled into the church parking lot for the 9:30 a.m. service to see “just a lot of chaos, lots of police, fire, and people just devastated.”
“They just said there had been a shooting,” Dryden said. “I would have been devastated if anyone had been shot, but to hear it was the pastor was terrible. You just never expect this to happen at a church.”