Lesson Learned from a Church Shooting
From the Bible
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
That [the older women] may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed (Titus 2:4-5).
Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds (Proverbs 27:23).
This church shooting, as so many others, stemmed from domestic discord. One difference here is that this discord was not known to be violent, at least not before the shooting. There was a triggering factor. However, it now seems it may have been brewing for years, a ticking time bomb.
Videocast and Show Notes
This article is covered by Kris in a videocast on the YouTube channel Sheepdog Church Security Academy (the audio is in a Church Security Roll Call podcast). He gives special attention to applying the lesson(s) learned. In this he draws from his extensive military, law enforcement, and church security experience.
In the Comments section beneath the video screen is a link to the "Church Shooting Lessons Learned Download." This is an article summary. The PDF can be printed and shared for discussion and teaching. It can be used to inform church leadership about what they can do to prevent or mitigate active shooter incidents. This is available for a month - until the next Lesson Learned article is posted.
It was 8:30 Sunday morning, November 5, 2017 in Fresno, California. Parishioners waiting for the 9:00 Mass at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church began going in as those attending the 7:30 Mass were leaving. As one couple got into her car, a man who had been waiting approached. He pulled out his .45 caliber handgun and fired at least four shots into the car, hitting each occupant in the head and the torso. The woman died at the scene, and her companion passed away at the hospital.
The gunman left for home, only 11 blocks away. On the way home he began texting his daughter, telling her he had killed her mother and that he would kill himself. She called the police, hoping they would stop his suicide. A SWAT team went to the house. There they heard a shot. He had taken his own life with the same weapon used earlier.
As tragic as this incident was, it was overshadowed almost an hour later about 1300 miles farther east in Sutherland, Texas. There an attacker killed 26 persons and wounded 20 more in a Baptist church.
The Persons Involved
The shooter was an owner/operator (O/O) truck driver. He was a U.S. citizen, but had property in Mexico. This is not uncommon for people in California and other border states. He and his wife lived 11 blocks from St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, where they were members.
The woman in the car was the wife of the shooter. According to the Fresno Bee, she had a number of jobs. She and her husband were both in their 60's. They had been married 43 years and had four adult children. For a number of years they'd reportedly been separated, but were still living in the same house with separate rooms. This arrangement may seem strange, but the separate bedrooms could have been to accommodate different working schedules and sleep times, not too unusual for the occupational circumstances.
The motive was evidently jealousy. Just over a week before the shooting, the man expressed sadness and despair on Facebook, picturing himself in a coffin. About that time, his wife told her family and friends that she had a boyfriend (he was about ten years younger). On Tuesday (Hallowe'en) she filed for divorce. On Saturday, the day before the tragedy, the husband posted that he was sad that he was not as important to someone close as he had believed.
The man who was shot was the wife's boyfriend. The new boyfriend was a felon, convicted of rape in 2010. He was a registered sex offender, appearing on Megan's List. According to the Fresno Chief of Police, he was wearing an ankle monitor when shot, which was noted by the hospital where he died.
It is easy to see how jealousy could arise. Even with separate bedrooms, there was some sort of relationship. Apparently, he had been unaware of the depth of a rift in their relationship. When the wife got a boyfriend and filed for divorce, this was a shock to him.
As to church, the priest said that the wife did not regularly attend church, and neither did the boyfriend. I have not found out whether the husband was a regular attendee.
There are some details unknown to us:
- When the husband and wife did attend church, were they together?
- If so, did they take communion together?
- Was the new boyfriend a member of the same parish, or an outsider?
- How well did the priest know them? Did he know that the boyfriend was a registered sex-offender (RSO)?
- Did the husband/shooter know that the new boyfriend was a RSO?
- Had either the wife or the husband sought counseling?
- What jobs did the wife have?
- How did she come into contact with the sex-offender? And how did he become her boyfriend?
This incident was, of course, a shock to the community as well as to the families and friends of those who died. Because of the greater notoriety of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, this was known as "the other shooting," even though it was earlier. Therefore, the impact was mostly local.
The senior priest of St. Alphonsus continued masses as scheduled for the day. First of all, the shooting was outside and behind the church, so the sanctuary and vestibule were unaffected. Then, the priest stated that the situation meant people needed the mass, because at that time they needed hope and consolation which the services provided, and "the congregation needs each other now more than ever." He did revise his homily to address their grief.
As to security measures, if any were added by the parish, they have not been publicized. Other churches have confidentially enhanced security, not wishing to inform miscreants of measures taken. As a reference, the Fresno Diocese has been emphasizing child safety, and U.S. dioceses in general have been urging parishes to increase security, including training greeters and ushers for security roles. We do not know of any measure taken by this parish for security outside, including watching the parking lot. In a January 2022 Google Maps street view, no outside cameras are evident. If they are there, then they are well-hidden. There is street parking outside the fence, a perfect place for someone to lie in wait with a clear line-of-sight to anyone walking to a parked vehicle from the church.
This section is not to criticize the priest and deacons of the church, but to learn from this tragic incident how to possibly prevent or mitigate similar situations.
It's really hard to pinpoint a single lesson to be learned from this church shooting. One seems at first to be obvious: Keep a finger on the pulse of the congregation. However, sometimes this is not as possible as we may think. This is one of those cases.
Apparently, the married couple involved had been members of the parish for a long time. At the time of the shooting, the parish priest had been there for eight years. It's easy to think that in eight years he should have known them well enough to see this coming, but here it's not that straightforward. By the time that priest arrived, the wife was not attending regularly. The priest did not say how often the husband came, if at all. Since he was an O/O trucker, he might have been gone a lot.
We can keep a finger on the pulse of the congregation when we keep in contact with members and others who regularly attend or often visit. Learn their situations in life and be open enough for them to share their concerns.
Not all of what we learn is through the words they say. It helps to be sensitive to a couple's interactions when we talk with them. Some of us are naturally observant in that way, and counselors are trained in this. All marital relationships have their ups and downs. Often, two people begin to drift apart. Maybe they're unaware of the drift until it's hard to stop it.
By keeping in touch, a pastor, counseling elder, deacon, or other congregational visitor may sense this drift, and gently lead them to draw closer. Important is encouraging them to keep their boundaries. As to red flags of domestic discord, there was no history of violence with this couple.
Another issue is monitoring the outside with cameras, parking lot attendants, and patrols. This apparently was not done at that time. However, in this case it might have not worked to prevent the shooting. The husband blended in with the crowd coming in for the 9:00 Mass and did not draw his gun until he reached his wife's car. Monitoring might or might not have enabled someone to apprehend him soon enough to prevent his suicide.
We encourage each Church Safety Team to have all its members trained and certified through the Safety Member Certification program. This consists of eight training modules (courses), each with a certification test. A person taking all the courses and passing each test will be a Certified Safety Member for two years. There are three available formats, each with its own advantages:
- Team Certification (church-hosted classes). In a class, everyone attending has the same instruction, which can be tailored to the local setting. They can also ask questions and interact with each other.
- Individual Certification (self-paced online instruction). Perfect for a team member whose outside schedule keeps him or her from attending all in-person classes.
- Online Events (live Zoom classes). These have the class advantage of training together and interaction and the online advantage of training from home or the office.
A corollary to the training is the Church Security Guide article "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training." It is a detailed summary of the topic which can be read to prepare for the related training module. After certification, this can be read to refresh on the subject.
We can't know the condition of the flock and seek their welfare until we know the flock.
There Is More
August has five articles. This one is the first. The others are "Moving Perception" (Patrol Procedures), "Youth at Risk" (Protecting Teens), "A Drilled Response" (Tactical Training), "A Library of Resources" (Worship Security Association).
Sheepdog Church Security Sources
- Kris Moloney, "Active Shooter Response v4," Sheepdog Church Security Training Academy, © 2019 [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/].
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Academy channel, YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/c/SheepdogChurchSecurityAcademy].
- Kris Moloney, "Lessons Learned Notes (Church Shooting Lessons Learned Download)," Sheepdog Church Security Academy [https://sheepdog-church-security.ck.page/lessons-learned].
- Kris Moloney, "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training," Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © Copyright 2021 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/active-shooter/].
- Jennifer Mascia, "Sunday's Other Church Shooting: 2 Fatally Shot as Services Let Out in California," The Trace, November 7, 2017 [https://www.thetrace.org/newsletter/church-shooting-fresno-california/].
- Associated Press Writer(s), "Husband Guns Down Estranged Wife, Boyfriend In Fresno Church Parking Lot," CBS San Francisco, November 6, 2017 [https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2017/11/06/husband-guns-down-estranged-wife-boyfriend-in-fresno-church-parking-lot/].
- Desire Thompson, "Church Shooting In Fresno Happens Hours Before Massacre In Houston," Yahoo Sports, November 6, 2017 [https://sports.yahoo.com/church-shooting-fresno-happens-hours-121039678.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAC_sQN6EoulHRLuOlZr9M5dJqVjIRjdMEM9rugh3N_R-9R8aQer1jAGo3im29BaRWY9ybX0_LcFJiVZFRveTpasGY65rZ4YcU-UYgvH142xMgqd1JGMD_dQeqFykGVrV4mjPJkOfKDCOtmJWKfNN0vJcBtI0RM3_qr-1efrp4oZ6].
- Terry Woods, "Two dead, gunman kills himself in shooting outside SW Fresno church," KMPH (Fox 26 News), November 5, 2017 [https://kmph.com/news/local/two-shot-one-dead-in-early-morning-church-shooting-in-sw-fresno].
- Corin Hoggard, "Woman and man killed in shooting outside of Southwest Fresno church," ABC30 Action News, November 6, 2017 [https://abc30.com/st-alphonsus-church-southwest-fresno-chief-jerry-dyer-shooting/2607076/].
- 404 page not found, Diocese of Fresno [https://dioceseoffresno.org/parishes/fresno-metropolitan-vicariate/st-alphonsus-fresno/].
- Angelica Lei Lani, "‘My dad just shot my mom': Family reacts to Fresno church shooting," Your Central Valley News, November 6, 2017, updated November 7, 2017 [https://www.yourcentralvalley.com/news/my-dad-just-shot-my-mom-family-reacts-to-fresno-church-shooting/].
- Lewis Griswold, "He imagined being dead in a coffin. Then he shot his wife and her new boyfriend," The Fresno Bee, November 6, 2017 [https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/crime/article183132061.html].