Those touched by mass shooting at Fort Worth church 20 years ago say it strengthened their faith
Death unites us.
None can escape it. None can predict the time of its coming. And none can stop it.
It is inevitable.
“It’s the one thing that we all have to do,” said Billy Mitchell, Wedgwood Baptist Church member and veteran Fort Worth police officer.
On Sept. 15, 1999, death happened in less than 10 minutes for eight people inside the church. Larry Gene Ashbrook, 48, walked through the door smoking a cigarette. Associate Pastor Jeff Laster reached out for Ashbrook’s hand and seconds later discovered he had been shot in the stomach and left arm.
Ashbrook shot and killed seven, and then ended his own life moments later in a back pew of the church. Before his death, Ashbrook wounded seven others at the church.
Law enforcement estimated that more than 100 teens were inside the church that night attending a concert and sharing stories from the annual “See You at the Pole” rally, an event started by Burleson students in 1990 designed to gather students nationwide around their schools’ flagpoles to pray for others.
As news of the carnage spread across the country on that Wednesday evening, congregations fell to their knees to pray for the fallen teens and adults, said Al Meredith, Wedgwood Church’s former pastor.
The shooting shocked the people of Fort Worth to their very core, Meredith said. The children who died before their time, some of the best people in the community who were coming into their own ministries, had been suddenly, brutally, taken.
“There is never a place where people can imagine it happening where they live,” Meredith said.
Until it happens.
“There is nothing that would make me wish that this would ever happen to anyone,” Meredith said. “There is nothing that will ever fill those empty chairs on holidays. But if something like this had to ever happen to me, I’m glad it happened to me in Fort Worth.”
Relationships, support systems, interlocking foundational friendships that have lasted to this day grew from the tragedy of that shooting, Meredith said. The city learned ways to help people who had been ignored and ways to love others who had been neglected.
Meredith said that someone told him that it would be difficult to keep the church intact following the shooting. The shooting would be like the grief that slides a married couple into divorce after the loss of a child.
Instead, church membership at Wedgwood increased by about 50 percent, Meredith said.
“I’ve made connections that have lasted until this day and grown stronger over time,” Meredith said. “We’ve made relationships across denominational lines and seen ministries that just connected together.
“I cannot see the types of bonds that formed being formed in the absence of this tragedy. It forced us to pull together. Something like this either makes you fall apart or come together. Fort Worth decided to come together.”
‘God made it good’
For Christians, death is not the end of life; it’s a transformation to another state of being, Mitchell said. The people who died at Wedgwood 20 years ago were either saved or working their way toward a better relationship with Christ.
The relationships that those who died had with Christ defined their passing for the shooting’s survivors, Mitchell explained.
“Since then, I’ve seen it again and again in my life,” Mitchell said. “God takes lemons and makes lemonade. God is in control. As long as you keep him in the center of your life and believe in Christ, you have a different outlook on life.”
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.
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.
In Mitchell’s opinion, it was through the love of Christ that Wedgwood survived, thrived and became better. It was an outpouring of love from the church’s remaining membership, the community and prayers from people around the world that helped make Wedgwood strong.
Tentacles of care that touched others who were far away and also in pain, comforted Wedgwood survivors. Sufferers of other disasters miles away were comforted by sharing their stories.
And there was a certainty among the Wedgwood membership that when all was weighed out and measured, what was good would ultimately surpass what was painful, Mitchell said.
“That shooting, although it was tragic, I know that God used that for his church’s good,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to say that when someone has just lost their daughter, parent, friend. But brother Al made it clear. This is tragic and it hurts, but God made it good. He knew this would happen and prepared the church in advance.”
Mitchell said his position with the Fort Worth Police Department requires him to train and coordinate mental health treatment and counseling for officers in crisis.
‘I’ve been shot’
Nothing about Larry Gene Ashbrook, the assassin who visited Wedgwood Church in September 1999, triggered any alarm bells except for the cigarette dangling from his lips, said Jeff Laster, associate pastor.
Ashbrook was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a pullover made from windbreaker fabric.
“Someone made the comment that he looked like an angry parent,” Laster said.
The odd thing is that as he approached the door, he looked as though he had no intention of putting his cigarette out, Laster said. The two met and Laster said he planned to tell Ashbrook that he could not smoke inside.
“His words were: ‘Is this where that damn religious meeting is being held?’” Laster said. “And from there he pulls out a 9 mm from under his shirt and he shoots me in the stomach and his arm goes up from the gun recoil and he shoots me in the arm.”
Laster said he was the first person on church grounds to make contact with Ashbrook. After shooting Laster, Ashbrook wounded two women and killed another.
The woman who was killed was Laster’s good friend. She had been sitting with him and some others in a hallway that was closed off, with no place to escape. Laster’s friends were lined up, perfect targets, but Ashbrook shot at them and missed.
Laster said he mentally started flipping through an imaginary Rolodex once the shooting started.
“What to do in case of fire, what to do in case of flood. I had never made a card for what to do in case of being shot,” Laster said. “It was kind of like watching ‘The Matrix.’ Everything was in slow motion. I see the flame and I see the gun go off again.”
Others were wounded, killed. Ashbrook tossed a pipe bomb into the sanctuary and although there were children and teens around, there were no fatalities from the explosion.
Church staff explained that the explosive force from the bomb was directed up. The blast broke the lights on the second-floor balcony, and tiny bits from the blast remain on the ceiling.
“My first thought is to call the police,” Laster said. “I need to grab him and call the police, but I’m also thinking that I’ve been shot.”
Laster said he looked down at his shirt and saw it had a hole in it, but there was no blood. And then his stomach started to hurt because of all of the blood pooling inside.
Another friend appeared and checked on one of the fallen women, his friend Sydney Browning, who was dead on the floor, Laster said.
A friend grabbed Laster and guided him to a pew so he could lie down. Laster remembers that his friend seemed to struggle with the idea of leaving his side. His friend’s wife and two boys were with him.
“So I told him to go check on his family,” Laster said. “There was nothing more he could do for me at that point.”
Laster wiggled his toes, his fingers, and listened to the sound of the last gunshot. He knew where he was and took solace in the idea that some things on his body still seemed to work.
But there was also a worm of doubt.
“I was thinking that I could die,” Laster said.
And then Laster said he heard another voice but it wasn’t him. The voice made a short announcement with no elaboration or explanation, but it was really clear. Laster said it was God.
“You’re not going to die,” the voice said.
“When I heard it, a kind of warm sensation went through my entire body,” Laster said.
Laster was awake and alert through the whole day, he said. He remembers the conversation between the paramedics and almost being dropped after one stepped off a curb. He remembers the paramedics taking him out of the church and working on him.
“I remember it all,” Laster said. “But as for the next couple of days, I don’t have a clue.”
Ashbrook loaded his own ammunition, so when he shot, the bullets flew in strange ways, Laster said. The bullet that hit him began spinning inside his body tearing through flesh and vital organs, and then ultimately lodging in a back muscle, his doctors told him.
Taking it out would have caused more damage without improving his health, the doctors said.
“’Honestly, we thought you were dead,’” Laster recalled one doctor told him. “’We kept working on you because that’s what we do.’”
The shooting is not something he or the congregation lives with every day, he said. On one Sept. 15, when the significance of the date escaped him, the church secretary came into his office and gave him a big hug.
“I’m so glad you’re still here,” she said.
“OK, I’m glad I’m still here, too,” Laster thought. She saw the look on his face and told him that he was close to not being here.
Then he understood.
It’s not that he blocked out the event. The bullet in his back is a constant reminder. He is reminded how close he came to death if he moves a certain way or every time he goes through magnetometer at the airport.
“It also reminds me of how God pulled me through,” Laster said.
‘We stand up to the enemy’
The church has always been under attack, survivors of Wedgwood say.
Some of those attacks are chronicled in the Bible, while others, more recent, are documented in print, film and video.
David Riggall began considering creating a business that would provide church security in response to Wedgwood and started Sheepdog Defense Group in response to other tragedies, such as the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Sheepdog trains security specialists for churches, schools and families, according to Riggall, a 16-year police veteran who serves North Texas. Churches send him volunteers from their congregations, and Sheepdog employees train them to be protectors, Riggall said.
“I’ve seen cops run from violence, from shooting,” Riggall said. “But any man will stand up for his family and the people that he loves. There’s no stronger heart than the heart of a volunteer.”
Riggall has called on Chip Gillette, a retired Fort Worth police officer and Wedgwood church member, to speak to Sheepdog’s graduates about what happened at the church. Gillette speaks with an authenticity that connects with the audience, Riggall said.
Sheepdog provides volunteers with the training they need to keep church congregations safe and to fight evil, Gillette said.
“These people are willing to stand in the gap to make sure that the people at their church will not have to suffer tragedy,” Gillette said. “We stand up to the enemy. I think what you see in these people is a desire to defend.”
Telling the Wedgwood shooting story has become more difficult as time has progressed, Gillette said. His wife, church secretary Debbie Gillette, typically walks through Wedgwood’s doors six days a week and they live close by.
The pain from that day of death and injury has not disappeared, but it’s not as sharp, Chip Gillette said. He never personally knew some of those who died at Wedgwood when they were alive.
But he has come to know them in death.
“I live with them every day,” Gillette said. “Their testimony lives on. Those individuals, at some point in their life, they all made a profession of faith and gave their lives to Jesus Christ. Their testimonies are still being used today.”
Christy Martinez, who attended the Wedgwood concert with her friend Robert DeBord, never knew the name of the man who showed her and others a way out of the sanctuary as the devastation was ending. Martinez, now an assistant police chief with Grand Prairie, discovered a few years ago that Gillette was the man holding the door open for them to get out.
Martinez, who was then 16, said when Ashbrook started shooting, she and others in the crowd did not immediately understand what was happening. Others have said that some in the crowd believed the shooting was part of a performance about the Columbine school shooting, which had occurred five months earlier.
“When he first started shooting, I felt it in my gut,” Martinez said. “I saw a pool of blood grow on the floor right behind me. Robert was shot, but he thought it was paint balls.”
People began to duck behind pews as the reality became apparent, Martinez said.
“Periodically, when he would reload, I could see he was pointing the gun at us as I peeked over the pews,” Martinez said. “I felt hopeless, helpless. I was not familiar with the church. I didn’t know where to run — if I would be running away or running to a locked door.”
Gillette said he was in his house when the dog started barking and hitting his nose against the window violently and he could not get him to stop. He ultimately decided to go to church and try to see if there was a problem.
“”You need to call your buddies from SWAT,” a friend told him. “Someone is shooting in the church.”
Gillette radioed in the call, retrieved a few things he would need from home, left his house unprepared, and was going back to his house to get more equipment, when he heard a voice telling him not to turn around, just get to the church.
“I heard bang, bang, bang, bang, and then I heard one last bang,” Gillette said. “As I opened the door, I saw the gunman start slumping over in the pew.”
The smell of cordite permeated the sanctuary. Martinez said she remembers a man coming through the door and yelling, “Get out! Get out!”
DeBord went out and she followed, Martinez said. The incessant warbling of emergency vehicles — medics, police, firefighters — filled the air. Martinez’s mother, who had been shopping at Hulen Mall awaiting the end of the concert, had heard about the shooting and met her sitting on a curb, lost and alone.
“We hugged and cried,” Martinez said.
Martinez and her mother went to the hospital where DeBord was being treated and stayed for the next six hours. The next day, Martinez went to school.
Martinez had not healed by then, she explained. Mass shootings were not common occurrences in 1999 and aftercare for child survivors had not been widely distributed, Martinez explained.
She was not interviewed by police and she never received counseling. She dropped all her extracurricular activities at school.
“It took quite a while for me to process all this,” Martinez said.
Eventually, she joined a police Explorer Post through her school and advisers in that program helped Martinez sort through all the ambiguities and unanswered questions the shootings left her with.
Gillette stuck in her mind. Martinez said Gillette inspired her to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“Chip ran into that church without any idea of what to expect,” Martinez said. “It just really impressed me. There are a lot of kids there who needed saving and he came and saved us. I called him and told him how much I appreciated him for coming in those doors and being a symbol of hope and rescue.”
In case you go
Wedgwood Baptist Church invites everyone to a memorial service from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Sunday.
Some of the more than 21,000 emails and 15,000 letters sent to the church from around the world after the shooting will be on display from 8-9:20 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.