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Man who killed 2 women in Iowa church parking lot was romantically involved with one of them and faced a harassment case

A man who fatally shot two women before killing himself in the parking lot of an Iowa church had been romantically involved with one of the women and faced a court hearing next week on a charge of harassing her, investigators said Friday.

Johnathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, of Boone, pulled up in a pickup truck to 22-year-old Eden Montang, 21-year-old Vivian Flores and another woman just before 7 p.m. Thursday outside Cornerstone Church on the outskirts of Ames and began shooting with a 9 mm handgun, according to the Story County Sheriff's office. 

Montang and Flores were killed in a "targeted act of violence," Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said, and Whitlatch shot himself. 

A third unnamed female who was with them at the time of the shooting was able to find a position of safety and was not injured, according to Fitzgerald. 

The women were friends and students at Iowa State University who were walking together to the church for a weekly service that is popular with ISU and high school students, the sheriff said. About 80 other students were inside the megachurch at the time of the shooting, Fitzgerald said, although the sheriff's office added there was no indication Whitlatch had plans to or tried to enter the church.  The church is located near Interstate 35, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Des Moines.

"Our hearts break for all involved, and we are praying for everyone affected, especially the family of the victims," the church said in the statement. 

Kacey Pierce, a student who went to Cornerstone for the program, remarked to KCCI that, ""For that to happen at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. If you would have told me that a bit ago, I probably wouldn't have believed you. It's unbelievable, honestly."

Shooting at Cornerstone Church in Ames
People console each other after a shooting outside Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa, on June 2, 2022. Picture taken June 2, 2022. Nirmalendu Majumdar / USA Today Network via REUTERS

The church also held a prayer service for the victims Friday morning. Whitlatch and Montang had recently broken up, Fitzgerald said, and Whitlatch was arrested May 31 on counts of harassment and impersonating a police officer.

Details of the allegations against Whitlatch weren't immediately available, acording to Story County Capt. Nicholas Lennie. Whitlatch was released on bond the same day he was arrested, Lennie said, and had been scheduled to appear in court June 10. A search of Whitlatch's truck following the shooting turned up 9 mm ammunition and a receipt from a West Des Moines store that showed he bought the ammunition an hour before the shooting, Fitzgerald said. 

Investigators believe his intent was to kill Montang, Fitzgerald said."He was there for a specific purpose, which he accomplished," the sheriff said.A search warrant executed at Whitlatch's home also turned up an AR-15 rifle, which was not used in the shooting. 

Shooting at Cornerstone Church in Ames
Survivors hugs their family members and friends at the Cornerstone Baptist Church parking lot after a shooting outside the church in Ames, Iowa, on June 2, 2022. Picture taken June 2, 2022. Nirmalendu Majumdar / USA Today Network via REUTERS

A church member identified by KCCI only as Scott said he wasn't an eyewitness but had prayed with a student who was on the scene.

The student told Scot he'd performed CPR on one of the shooting victims.

"It's just hard to comprehend," Scott said.

"[It's] very hard to comprehend what he just witnessed of the actual shooting there, and tried to resuscitate the one girl. From what he said, the gunman got out and he witnessed him get out of the car and shoot ... and watched that happen and shoot another girl as she was walking away and then shot himself. ... It's just hard to comprehend," Scott said.

Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also issued a statement saying, "Tonight's act of senseless violence took the lives of two innocent victims at their place of worship. Kevin and I grieve for their families who have suffered an unfathomable loss. And while the investigation continues and we learn more, we ask that Iowans pray for the victims and their families, the members of Cornerstone Church, and the entire Ames community."

The shooting follows mass shootings across the nation in recent weeks that have roiled the country. Those include last week's shooting by an 18-year-old gunman, who killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and an attack Wednesday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a gunman killed his surgeon and three other people at a Tulsa medical office. On May 14 in Buffalo, New York, a white man carried out what officials say was a racially-motivated attack on a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood, killing 10 people.

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