Those touched by mass shooting at Fort Worth church 20 years ago say it strengthened their faith
After 20 years, Al Meredith still doesn’t know the answer.
Why did Larry Gene Ashbrook pick Wedgwood Baptist Church on the night of Sept. 15, 1999?
“Why he came here, we still don’t know,” said Meredith, the retired pastor of the Fort Worth church. “He had to pass at least a dozen ... churches to get to ours.”
It has been two decades since that deadly night, when terror and loss gripped the faithful community that worshiped at Wedgwood.
Seven church members died at a youth rally and seven were injured in what is believed to be the deadliest mass shooting in Fort Worth.
At the time, mass shootings seemed to play out in cities far away.
But this one, which came five months after the Columbine High School massacre, was in Fort Worth.
It was at an out of the way, red-brick church nestled in a residential community on the southwest side of the city.
And the victims weren’t faceless, nameless people.
These were sons, daughters, neighbors and friends of many throughout Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
Meredith said it still seems unreal that the shooting took place at his church in his hometown.
“You don’t ever think it’s going to happen,” he said softly.
Then-Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr agreed. He had hurried home from Toluca, Mexico, where he was on a Sister City trip when the shooting occurred.
“This is not Fort Worth,” he said recently. “This is not the way things are here.”
There was fear
More than 100 young people were at Wedgwood Baptist to hear the Forty Days Christian rock band and to celebrate the annual See You at the Pole event, a day set aside to publicly embrace Christianity.
Ashbrook was smoking a cigarette and carrying a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and a .380-caliber pistol when he walked into the church.
Shouting obscenities, the 48-year-old — who suffered from mental health issues — burst into the Worship Center, fired more than 100 rounds into the crowd and exploded a homemade pipe bomb.
Then he sat down in the back of the room, put the gun to his head and killed himself.
Kristi Beckel, 14; Shawn Brown, 23; Sydney Browning, 36; Joey Ennis, 14; Cassandra Griffin, 14; Susan Kimberly Jones, 23; and Justin Michael Stegner Ray, 17, were killed in the rampage.
The injured were Robert DeBord, 17; Justin Laird, 16; Kevin Galey, 38; Nicholas Skinner, 14; Jeff Laster, 34; Jaynanne Brown, 41; and Mary Beth Talley, 17.
“There seems to be a wave of evil passing through America,” then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush said at the time.
The following days were a blur for many as they mourned victims and sought to help the injured.
There was fear.
And there was worship, even though Meredith said he spoke with many who didn’t want to return to the church the Sunday after the shooting.
“When you get thrown from a horse, the first thing you do is get back on,” Meredith said. “I didn’t want the darkness to gain a single inch in the battle.”
One girl, around 7 years old, told her parents she was too scared to go back.
But her parents insisted.
She said OK, but only “if I can wear my tennis shoes in case I have to run again,’” Meredith recalled.
In the days after the shooting, after bloody and bullet-ridden carpet and pews were removed from the church, markers were handed out and teens and young adults were given permission to “tag” the sanctuary, writing or drawing anything they wanted.
In the back, near where Ashbrook took his life, one left a note.
“Dear Larry. I don’t know why you came to my church to shoot my friends, but because of Calvary, I forgive you,” Meredith remembered.
A picture of a hill and three crosses accompanied the note.
The graffiti ultimately was covered by carpet and new paint. One bullet hole still remains in a door.
From the beginning Meredith urged the congregation to forgive Ashbrook.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy.
But he also knew it was necessary.
“If you refuse to give forgiveness to those who have wounded you, how can you expect your father in heaven to forgive you? So you don’t have a choice,” he said.
More than that, “when you don’t forgive, it’s like insisting on drinking the poison you meant for your worst enemy. The only one who really gets hurt is you.”
While such a tragedy could tear a congregation apart, Meredith said it made his stronger. The congregation doubled over the next five years.
Jay Fannin, the church’s student and recreation pastor, was in the balcony when the shooting began.
When he heard the gunfire, he was afraid someone was playing a practical joke. So he ran downstairs to stop it.
When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he heard someone say “Call 911. I’ve been shot.”
He looked around and saw the hallway filled with smoke and blood. He ran to the church office, called 911 and later helped first responders enter the building.
He said he never lost his faith.
Especially when he heard stories from those who told him how God was with them in the church that night.
“Some people thought they saw angels flying around the room,” Fannin remembered. “They said the room was very bright even when the lights were turned off.
“We know God was there in the midst of it.”
Chip Gillette needed a little reassurance.
A church member and one of the first Fort Worth police officers on the scene, he had to repeatedly return to the sanctuary after the shooting.
At the time, he asked God for a sign that he was there that night.
That’s when he saw a hymnal that appeared out of place.
When he looked closer, the officer saw there was a bullet wedged in the book, Meredith recalled.
When he opened the book, he saw the bullet stopped on the page that had the lyrics to “Hallelujah Chorus.” And the bullet pointed to the line that stated: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And He shall reign forever and ever.”
In the days, weeks and months after the shooting, Fannin said he received countless calls from youth ministers in the area.
They “were calling about ... how many kids got saved after the shooting,” Fannin said. “I stopped counting at 500.”
Meredith shares stories about the faith of survivors and the church when he talks about the shooting.
He has traveled across the country, more than 80 times in the first year after the shooting, talking about what happened that night and how the community responded with pure faith.
“It strengthened our faith because the Prince of Darkness threw his biggest haymaker at us,” Meredith said. “You can’t even imagine. And it just drew us closer to God and closer to one another.
“Where else do you turn when life falls apart? You’ve got no other answers. There’s nowhere else to go. There’s no one else who’s been there before and has come back to say there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Meredith wrote a book about the shooting — Surviving Catastrophe: Lessons Learned from the Wedgwood Shooting. The formal release date is Sunday and the book can be ordered online or bought at the church. Meredith said all proceeds will go to Wedgwood.
Barr said he and city and police leaders met shortly after the Columbine shooting, to talk about how to prevent such a tragedy from happening in their hometown.
They left the meeting feeling that while they could be prepared, there was nothing they could do to stop such a shooting in Fort Worth.
Five months later, their fears were realized.
Barr said the group met again and this time took action.
Ashbrook, described by family as a paranoid schizophrenic, had no drugs in his system at the time of the shooting, an autopsy showed.
He was believed to be mentally ill before the shootings, but state mental health officials at the time said they didn’t have records of contact with him, making some fear he slipped through the cracks of mental health services in Tarrant County.
Among the work done by the Mental Health Connection was creating a “no wrong door” policy with mental health providers, meaning that all agencies work together to get people the help they need no matter which group was first approached.
“We realized Fort Worth was not adequately dealing with people who had mental issues,” Barr said.
The program has received more than $50 million in grants for mental health care in Tarrant County and has made a difference in the community, he said.
On Sunday, Wedgwood Baptist will open its doors for a 9:30-11:30 a.m. service.
Everyone is welcome.
A display of mementos, including the more than 21,000 emails and 15,000 letters sent to the church from around the world after the shooting, can be seen from 8-9:20 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
Sunday’s service will be a time to remember the lives lost — and celebrate God’s work since then.
A granite memorial featuring each of the church members who lost their lives in the shooting sits outside the south side of the church.
“Twenty years later, we remember that tragic day,” a message on the church’s website states. “We also remember and celebrate what God has done in the lives of those affected by the shooting and the countless people around the world who were impacted by the event.
“God Wastes Nothing.”
Meredith and others know this shooting is something no one involved will ever fully put behind them.
“You don’t get over it,” Meredith said. “You get through it.”