Congregation remembers slain Forest Hill pastor as 'gentle giant'

FOREST HILL -- As frantic members of Greater Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church rushed to the church Monday afternoon, they could see a car still embedded in the side of the building.

Inside, their pastor, the Rev. Danny Kirk Sr., was dead, fatally beaten with an electric guitar.

His assailant, who crashed the car into the church about 11:15 a.m., was caught by police officers as he bashed at Kirk in the church's music room, Police Chief Dan Dennis said.

An officer subdued him with a Taser, arrested him and placed him in the back of a patrol car.

Later, officers reported finding the attacker dead in the car.

Authorities had not released the names of anyone involved in the slaying Monday night, but church members identified Kirk, 53.

Late Monday, WFAA/Channel 8 identified the attacker as Derrick Birdow, 33.

Kirk, who stood well over 6 feet tall, was a standout football player at Marlin High School near Waco and at Texas A&M-Commerce. He also made it to the Seattle Seahawks' training camp in the early 1980s.

But church members remembered him for his uncompromising teaching of Scripture, his ready smile and love for everyone.

A "gentle giant," is how Velma Marshall and Valerie Jones, church evangelists, described their pastor.

"He had a hug for everyone," assistant minister Claudie Loftin said. "If you came in this church, you got a hug, no matter how long the line was. He was a man of honesty and integrity, and he showed it every day."

Because the attacker died in police custody, Dennis said, Texas Rangers will take the lead in the investigation.

The incident began about 11:15 a.m. when the driver of a Mercury Grand Marquis crashed it into a wall of the church, 7312 Forest Hill Drive.

He then confronted Kirk.

Dennis said initial investigation indicated that the attack moved inside, eventually to the music room, where the attacker grabbed an electric guitar.

It was "a weapon of opportunity," Dennis said.

The man was still beating Kirk when officers arrived, Dennis said.

An officer discharged his Taser at the man, who was later put in the back of a patrol car, Dennis said.

When officers returned to the car, he wasn't breathing, MedStar spokesman Matt Zavadsky said.

A church maintenance man was injured as he tried to stop the attack and was taken to a hospital, . Dennis said. A church secretary locked herself in a storage closet and was not injured, Dennis said. She called 911.

As word of the attack spread, hundreds of church members arrived. One, who is believed to be a relative of the attacker, was overcome when she saw the car, Dennis said.

Paramedics treated many grief-stricken people.

The crowd was not allowed inside -- their church had become a crime scene -- but was directed next door to the Forest Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, which opened for prayer and counseling.

Dennis went there late Monday afternoon to take questions.

"We don't have any idea on a motive," he said. "It's way too early to comprehend that."

Did police know who the attacker was?

"We have a name," he said, adding that the Tarrant County medical examiner's office was working to confirm it. "I'd hate to tell a family that someone has passed and it turns out to be the wrong name."

Another person asked whether the Taser caused the man's death.

"He was alive, walking around and talking," Dennis said, "so that will be a question for the medical examiner."

Someone asked whether Kirk had been shot, saying it was hard to believe he was beaten to death, considering how big he was.

"There is no indication he was shot," Dennis said. "As best we can tell, he was beaten with a guitar."

How long did it take for officers to arrive? "Three minutes," Dennis said.

He expressed his condolences.

"I'll be praying for you," he said. "Your loss is my loss."

The people responded with applause.

State Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said: "Danny Kirk was very helpful to me when I was first elected to office in 2004. I had one of my very first town hall meetings at his church shortly after I was sworn in to office.

"He was a man of faith who was interested in spreading the word to the community, and he talked to me a lot about golf and LaDainian Tomlinson," he said. "My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and congregation."

Former Forest Hill Mayor James Gosey said Kirk was responsible for the church's growth.

"You can see what he meant to people by this response," Gosey said.

Kirk, who was ordained in 1984, started the church in 1995 in a storefront in a strip shopping center, according to the church's web site.

At its current site, the church has more than 850 members and offers a food pantry, a clothing ministry and a scholarship program for students. Members were planning an expansion, largely because of Kirk's leadership.

"People wanted to come hear and see him," youth minister Cleveland Starr said.

A native of Marlin, Kirk graduated from Marlin High School in 1977 and attended East Texas State University, now called Texas A&M-Commerce.

According to the university Hall of Fame website, Kirk was named NAIA second and AP honorable mention All-American as a linebacker. His football career apparently ended in the Seahawks' camp.

Loftin said that Kirk loved football, but that once he was called to the ministry, he never looked back.

Kirk also worked as a manager at the Pepsi Beverages Co. on Blue Mound Road in Fort Worth. There he mentored management trainee Andre McEwing, who later joined Kirk's congregation in Forest Hill.

"I remember I could hear him training, correcting and supporting his staff in whatever they needed to do," McEwing said. "And he always had a Bible on his desk."

O.D. Wyatt High School football coach Zachary Criss said Kirk was a regular mentor there.

Criss said Kirk didn't try to impress anyone with his own football experience. He was more interested in the kids, and not just the athletes at Wyatt. Criss said Kirk was also active at Dunbar High School.

"He wasn't one to toot his own horn," Criss said. "He was just there to help. We're fortunate to have had him for as long as we did.

"We're not the only school hurting today."

Staff writers Deanna Boyd, Elizabeth Campbell, Bud Kennedy, Domingo Ramirez Jr. and Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698,

Bill Miller, 817-390-7684