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"Hero" at Alabama church shooting subdued gunman, police say; death toll rises to 3

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Suspect in custody after deadly Alabama church shooting 01:56

A "hero" attending a potluck dinner subdued the gunman who opened fire inside an Alabama church Thursday, killing three members, police said. Police announced the death of the third victim Friday afternoon.

Police Capt. Shane Ware said a suspect was in custody but only identified him as a White male who occasionally attended services at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills. District Attorney Danny Carr later identified the suspect as Robert Findlay Smith and said warrants had been issued for capital murder of two or more persons. He is being held without bond.   

Ware originally said the suspect is 71, but jail records indicate he's 70. The mug shot released by the jail shows Smith with a large black eye. 

A booking photo of Smith released on June 17, 2022.  Jefferson County Jail

The suspect pulled a gun and opened fire during the dinner, a "Boomers Potluck" gathering attended by other church members, Ware said. He killed Walter Rainey, an 84-year-old man from Irondale, Alabama, and Sarah Yeager, a 75-year-old woman from Pelham, Alabama, police said in a statement earlier Friday.

An 84-year-old woman from Hoover, Alabama, was also wounded in the shooting. She was taken to an area hospital and died on Friday. Police said in a statement Friday afternoon the woman's family asked for her name to not be released.

A person in the room at the time of the shooting restrained the suspect and held him until police arrived, Ware said. 

"The person that subdued the suspect in my opinion is a hero," Ware told reporters during a Friday morning press conference. He said the person's actions were "extremely critical in saving lives." Ware didn't identify the person.

Ware said he didn't know how many people were attending the dinner at the time of the shooting.

The suspect acted alone and there wasn't a threat to the community, Ware said. Investigators were still looking into the motive for the shooting and whether the suspect had any previous interactions with law enforcement.

Alabama police say "hero" subdued gunman in deadly church shooting 07:29

Emergency dispatchers got a call at around 6:20 p.m. Thursday reporting an active shooter at the church, Ware said.

According to messages posted on the church's Facebook page, the church's pastor, the Rev. John Burruss, said he was in Greece on a pilgrimage with a group of members and trying to get back to Alabama.

"More than anything, I ask your prayers for our community, especially those who are injured and the families of the deceased. These are the pillars of our community, and I cannot begin to fathom how painful this is for our entire church, and the larger community," he wrote.

Church members console each other after a shooting at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on Thursday, June 16, 2022, in Vestavia Hills, Ala.
Church members console each other after a shooting at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on Thursday, June 16, 2022, in Vestavia Hills, Ala. AP Photo/Butch Dill

Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry praised the police response Friday, saying officers "handled this crisis in an exemplary manner." He said his "close-knit, resilient, loving community" of 39,000 had been rocked by "this senseless act of violence."

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. Stephen's 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.

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.

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."

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