Church shooting survivor: Shooter ‘disengaged’, sat alone

(AP) – The 70-year-old suspected shooter in a shooting that killed three people at an Alabama church sat alone drinking alcohol, rejecting offers to join others gathered at the potluck, before gunshots shattered the peace of the evening, recalled one survivor.

“It was like he was disengaged,” 73-year-old Susan Sallin said. Sallin was seated at the same table at the “Boomers Potluck” with the three people who died in Thursday night’s shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

The alleged shooter had previously attended church services and a few religious gatherings for people in the baby boomer generation and up, but didn’t appear to interact much with others, she said. That evening, he sat at a table by himself. While wine was available at the potluck, he drank from what appeared to be a small bottle of scotch and avoided invitations to join the others.

“I personally invited him to come and sit at our table twice because I wanted him to feel a sense of inclusion, but he didn’t come,” Sallin said. She said a woman, whose husband would be killed moments later in the shooting, ‘realized he hadn’t set himself a plate and came up and offered to make her one’ . He also refused this.

Robert Findlay Smith, 70, is charged with capital murder in the shooting that killed three people. Walter Bartlett Rainey, 84, Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, and another woman were killed in the shooting. Police did not release the name of the third victim, but friends called her Jane.

The gathering was joyful, as the friends – who hadn’t been able to gather as much during the pandemic – discussed the food in front of them that evening, their favorite cars and other light topics. Sallin said she did not recall hearing any arguments or heated conversations before the gunshots suddenly erupted.

“I heard this loud metallic noise and I thought a metal chair had fallen on the floor. And then there was another sound, and another sound, and I realized it was a gun,” she recalls. “People were diving towards the ground. I was diving towards the ground. When I came down to the ground, I realized that two of my girlfriends who were sitting at the table with me had been hit .

Sallin said she crawled on the ground to join her friends. “I was trying to calm them down, pet them and tell them, ‘You’re not alone. You’re not alone.’ This is the message I wanted them to receive.

Nearby, Linda Foster Rainey cradled her husband. According to a family statement, “he died in her arms as she whispered words of comfort and love in his ears.”

Sallin said one of the men in the group, who is also 70, managed to overpower the shooter. “I saw him take the gun out of the man’s hands and hit him in the head with the gun,” she said.

Reverend Doug Carpenter, pastor of St. Stephen for three decades before retiring in 2005, said he understands the man hit the shooter with a folding chair before tackling him to the ground and taking the armed.

“The person who subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero,” Vestavia Hills Police Captain Shane Ware told reporters at a news conference on Friday, saying the act was “extremely essential to save lives.”

The church had been closed for several days as a crime scene, but the congregation returned for worship services on Sunday with a message to choose love over hate.

The Reverend John Burruss, the rector of St. Stephen’s, invoked the Christian story of the last supper, where Jesus invited the friend who would eventually betray him.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Bart, Sharon and Jane would invite their Judas over and over again to sit down and share a meal, because they knew God’s unconditional love,” he said. , using the first names that the three victims went by.

“It was their guiding ethic and they fully embodied it. … They taught us that all are welcome at the table,” Burruss said.

Jerry B. Hatch