3rd person dies in Alabama church shooting; suspect was 'occasional attendee'

The death toll from a shooting inside an Alabama church near Birmingham rose to three on Friday, hours after authorities said the suspected gunman was an “occasional attendee of the church.”

The 74-year-old suspect, identified Friday as Robert Findlay Smith, was attending a “Boomers Potluck” gathering at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills on Thursday. At some point Smith allegedly “produced a handgun” and “began shooting,” said Vestavia Hills police Capt. Shane Ware.

“The suspect has previously attended services at this church,” Ware said.

Another attendee at the event subdued Smith and held him down until police arrived, Ware said. “The person who subdued the suspect in my opinion is a hero,” he added.

Walter Rainey, 84, was pronounced dead at the scene, according to authorities. Sarah Yeager, 75, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Claire Pounds, 84, who was being treated at a hospital, died Friday of her injuries, Vestavia Hills police said.

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr said in a press release Friday that warrants were issued against Smith for capitol murder of two or more persons and he’s being held without bond. 

The motive for the shooting is under investigation.

Smith allegedly acted alone and there is no threat to the community, Ware said.

The police department responded at 6:22 p.m. to an active shooter call. Multiple law enforcement agencies and fire departments were at the scene, police said.

Rev. John Burruss, the pastor of the church, who is in Athens, Greece on a church pilgrimage, said in a video that he was working to get back to Alabama Thursday. He appeared to hold back tears at times and asked for prayers.

Image:Church members console each other after a shooting at the Saint Stevens Episcopal Church on June 16, 2022 in Vestavia, Ala.Butch Dill / AP

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.

There have been several high-profile shootings in May and June, starting with a racist attack on May 14 that killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. The following week, a gunman massacred 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

On Saturday thousands of people rallied in the U.S. and at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to renew calls for stricter gun control measures. Survivors of mass shootings and other incidents of gun violence lobbied legislators and testified on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Vestavia Hills is a city of around 39,000 southeast of Birmingham.

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