Fort Worth

The day a gunman took 7 lives in a Fort Worth church, and how survivors’ faith never wavered

September marks the 20th anniversary when a gunman burst into Wedgwood Baptist Church and opened fire, killing seven people before he detonated an explosive device and killed himself in front of more than 200 worshipers. Here is a look at the coverage from the archives of the Star-Telegram.

Wedgwood front page
Front page of the Sept. 16, 1999 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Gunman kills 7 in Fort Worth church 7 hurt; bomb explodes before shooter’s suicide

Published Sept. 16, 1999

By Ernie Makovy

FORT WORTH - A long-haired man dressed in jeans and a black jacket, who witnesses said was spouting obscenities and demeaning worshipers for their religious beliefs, invaded a Wednesday night church service and opened fire randomly, fatally shooting at least seven people, wounding seven others and then killing himself.

Five teen-agers remained unaccounted for at midnight, police said.

The shooting is believed to be the deadliest in the city’s history, surpassing an onslaught that killed five people and wounded four at the Glass Key cafe in 1990.

Many of the victims were teen-agers attending a concert by Forty Days, a Christian rock group from Dallas, as part of the annual See You at the Pole prayer event.

Seven victims, including the gunman, who was about 35 years old, were pronounced dead at the scene. One died at a hospital.

The gunman, whose identity was unknown last night, also detonated an explosive device in the balcony at Wedgwood Baptist Church, 5522 Whitman Ave., before killing himself in front of more than 200 worshippers, police said.

Two guns, one of them with a large bore, were found at the scene, police said.

The gunman’s body remained in the church late last night, and police had not searched it for fear that it was rigged with booby traps.

“It appears to be a bulge in the pocket of the jacket he is wearing,” Fire Chief Larry McMillen said. “It’s very suspicious.”

None of the victims’ bodies had been removed by midnight.

“I was inside, but it’s not something I want to describe,” McMillen said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and bomb-sniffing dogs joined Fort Worth police in the investigation after several other objects that might be explosive were found in the church.

“There’s cartridges, shrapnel, empty cartridge boxes and blood splattered on the wall,” said Lt. David Ellis, a police spokesman.

Ellis said investigators and bomb squad members were examining suspicious cars in the parking lot, particularly one that had “suspicious writing on it.”

One vehicle that police were examining closely is registered to a deceased elderly man, whose son lived in a modest, single-story brick home in Forest Hill. The man, whom neighbors described as tall and slender with long, thinning hair, was not home late last night.

Neighbors portrayed him as reclusive and said he was often seen carrying a blue gym bag. They said he occasionally flashed a temper, though no one knew if he had any particular religious convictions. He “has been strange as long as I can remember,” a 38-year-old neighbor said.

Ellis called the shooting the “worst mass incident that we’ve been involved with.”

Police were questioning a man last night, but it was not immediately known if he was suspected of being an accomplice in the blood bath on what was intended to be a night for young Christians to express their religious convictions.

Five of the wounded were treated at John Peter Smith Hospital, two at Harris Methodist Fort Worth and one at Cook Children’s Medical Center. One of the wounded people died at a hospital.

Some were in critical condition, and Carter BloodCare officials said all their centers would open at 9 a.m. today for blood donations. Type O in particular was needed, Ellis said.

Among the confirmed dead are Sydney Browning, 36, who was director of the children’s choir at Wedgwood Baptist Church, and Justin Stegner, a senior high school student.

Some of the wounded were identified as Jeff Lester, a seminary student and custodian at the church; Jaynanne Brown; Mary Beth Talley, a senior at Southwest High School; Matt Parr, a Southwest junior; Nick Skinner; Cassie Griffin; and Kevin Galey.

Several students said Browning was apparently the first person to encounter the shooter, casually greeting him at the door leading to the sanctuary. The gunman responded by shooting her.

Witnesses described the shootings.

“We thought it was a joke,” said Kristen Dickens, 14, who was sitting in the second pew of the sanctuary when the gunfire erupted. “We were singing and he told us to shut up.

“I thought our pastor was playing a joke on us.”

Churchgoers dived for cover beneath pews as the shooter splattered the sanctuary with bullets, stopping several times to reload.

“He just kept telling us to stay still,” said Chris Applegate, a seventh-grader who was attending choir practice in another part of the church.

“We were singing a song and then in the middle of the song this guy opened the door and fired one shot,” Applegate said. “He just kept telling us to stay still.

“We all just jumped under the benches and he fired about 10 more shots. ... Somebody said, `Run, run,’ and we all started running.”

Acting Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said he didn’t know how long the gunman terrorized the worshippers, but “if you talk to any of those witnesses and ask them, they’re going to say it seemed like an hour.”

Gov. George W. Bush, who was in Detroit campaigning for the presidency, denounced the shooting as “a terrible tragedy, made worse by the fact that it took place in a house of hope and love. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the congregation.”

“We are prayerful for the individuals who have been shot and their families, and mournful for the families of the deceased.”

Mayor Kenneth Barr, who was in Toluca, Mexico, for a Sister Cities event, planned a hasty return to the city.

“This is Fort Worth and we’ll be united as a city in our strength to see clear through the fog of this tragic criminal act,” he said.

“I think we need to dedicate ourselves to understanding the tragedy and then to figuring out how to make the changes to keep this from happening again. It is not unique to Fort Worth, but we can start in Fort Worth, and we will.”

The shootings occurred as worshippers gathered in several areas of the church, some for choir practice, some to hear the Christian rock band.

Chip Gillette, a police officer who was off-duty, looked outside his house when he heard his dog barking and saw teens running out of the church. He went to the church unarmed, heard the gunshots and ran back to his house.

“He went back and got his equipment [gun, vest and police radio] and basically threw the shirt on, so no one would mistake him as the shooter,” Mendoza said.

Gillette frantically relayed details of the shooting to a police dispatcher, Mendoza said.

Aaron Bray, 18, a senior at Crowley High School, was in the sanctuary when he heard a gunshot shatter a window in the door.

“I felt something go by my arm. I don’t know if it was glass or the bullet,” Bray said.

A few moments later, the gunman moved to the far right rear door of the fan-shaped sanctuary and entered, firing a handgun into the crowd, Bray said.

“I didn’t hear him say anthing,” Bray said. “It sounded like a handgun. He wasn’t firing fast enough for it to be an automatic; maybe semiautomatic, but not automatic.

“He fired many, many times. My guess, at least 30,” said Bray, 18.

Kevin Rutledge and his wife, Sundi, both 22, were attending their first service at the church and were in the fellowship hall when they heard a commotion.

“We thought it was hammering,” said Kevin Rutledge, a ministerial student at Dallas Baptist University. Then, he said, he heard someone saying: “I’m not joking. I’m shot.”

As news of the shooting spread, people from other churches arrived at Wedgwood Baptist, clutching Bibles as they gathered in the neighborhood.

Police set up a command post at Bruce Shulkey Elementary School.

Lauren Tabor, 8, said she was in a class called Girls in Action when she heard gunshots and screams.

She and her classmates ran to another room, where they pushed a table against the door “so nobody could get in. We were all down in a little corner.

“The teacher said, `Let’s pray.’ “

Another student, 9-year-old Samantha Tabor, quoted the teacher as saying: “Dear Lord, help us. Don’t let anybody get hurt.”

Police said they had no motive for the man’s rampage.

Dax Hughes, the church’s college minister, said at least 150 young people were inside the sanctuary.

“He hits the door real hard to make his presence known and he just immediately started firing,” Hughes said.

When the gunfire was over, Hughes said, the man “sat in the back pew and put a gun [to his head] and shot himself and fell over.”

Witnesses quoted the man as saying he didn’t agree with what the young people were doing at the church.

Glen Bucy Jr., a 17-year-old visiting the church with his brother, said the gunman came through the sanctuary, cursing and saying that “religion is b-------.”

One witness, identified only as Rachel, said the teens at the church conducted many skits, one involved the meaning of life and what it means to face death.

“I thought it was blanks,” she said of the gunfire. “A lot of them were saying that this was some kind of drama presentation. They thought it was a skit.”

The Forty Days band was playing a song called Alle, short for “alleuia,” when “we heard a couple of pops and we thought it was the speakers,” said Drue Phillips, 19, the group’s bass player and backup singer.

“We thought it was a joke. We knew a skit was going on later.”

This time, terror does hit at home

Published on Sept. 16, 1999

By Jim Reeves

Seven-year-old Carly Fulbright fell asleep in a chair in front of the TV set last night, her cheeks still wet with tears, too afraid to go to bed alone.

Less than three hours earlier, she ran in terror from the safest place she knew - her church home at Wedgwood Baptist - and fell crying into her father’s arms.

“They shot my choir director,” she screamed. “They killed my choir director.”

His voice still shaking with emotion, his face splashed alternately with the red and blue lights of dozens of emergency vehicles, Carly’s father, George Fulbright, talked about the moments just after a man walked into the church sanctuary and opened fire with a large-caliber handgun. The man reportedly emptied clip after clip into an unusually large Wednesday evening crowd, bolstered by a concert celebrating See You at the Pole festivities.

“This is my church,” George Fulbright said. “This is my neighborhood. And I’m mad as hell.”

He has a right to be. We all do.

When my television began relaying the tragic scene from southwest Fort Worth last night, my heart sank.

“Not my town,” was my first thought. Oh God, not my town.

How naive to think that somehow we might be immune to this sickness sweeping our country like a plague. How incredibly blind.

There are no safe havens anymore. Not even a church. Perhaps particularly not a church.

Witnesses interviewed on television said the gunman, who ultimately took his own life, interacted with many of his victims, arguing with them about religion before cutting them down with his gunfire.

He killed seven and wounded seven others before fatally shooting himself.

The gunshots, said Fran King, who was in a prayer meeting just down the hall from the sanctuary, “sounded like a hammer.”

Then one of the victims staggered down the hall outside the room, saying: “I’m shot. I’m shot.”

A block from the church, two hours after the shooting last night, klieg lights lit the night sky and news helicopters circled overhead. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of the last tragic news story I had been pressed into service to cover - the San Francisco-Oakland earthquake that interrupted the World Series in 1989.

A block away, inside the church sanctuary, a bomb squad robot whirred around the body of the gunman, probing for any explosive devices. Police suspected that a pipe bomb had exploded in the balcony.

Margaret Gonzales was in her home at the corner of Walton and Wales avenues, talking on the phone, when she heard someone banging on the front door and repeatedly ringing the doorbell.

Afraid to open the door, she asked what the man wanted.

“Call 911,” he yelled. “Someone’s shooting at the church.”

Unable to dial out on her regular phone for some reason, she dialed 911 on her cell phone, then grabbed 10-year-old daughter Victoria Rodriguez and pulled her into the hall, away from the windows.

Later, from her front yard, Gonzales saw a teen-age boy fleeing the church, his shirt wet with blood.

Response from Fort Worth fire and police units was remarkably fast, according to witnesses.

“I heard the sirens,” said Fulbright, who lives at 5617 Wales Ave. “I came to the door and saw a police car come sliding up at the corner. I knew my wife and my daughter were at the church and I took off running.

“They were in a separate wing, away from the sanctuary, and I met them coming out the door. We helped people coming out and got them away from the church.”

It was Fulbright who stepped out of a small crowd of onlookers to question Fort Worth School Superintendent Thomas Tocco about the availability of counseling for Bruce Shulkey Elementary School students.

Carly is a second-grader at Shulkey, which will be closed today because of its proximity to the crime scene. Shulkey students will be divided among three other nearby elementary schools, and Tocco said psychologists and counselors will be available for those who need them.

“Carly was crying and carrying on a lot tonight,” Fulbright said. “I just want to know that there’ll be help for her if she needs it. I want to know what they’re going to do about the school. These kids are traumatized. They’re scared to death.”

In her chair at home, Carly slept on, fitfully. My guess is that her father didn’t sleep much at all.

Shooting victims gone in body, but their spirits remain

Published Sept. 16, 1999

By Bob Ray Sanders

Once upon a time there were safe places for our children outside their homes.

We could actually look away from them, turn our backs and even leave them for a while, trusting that they would still be there - unharmed - once we returned.

One by one, those secure places began to disappear, and we were suddenly faced with the constant, haunting fear that every good-bye just might be the last.

Demented souls have begun to prowl our neighborhoods, trespass on our kids’ playgrounds, invade their schools and now even desecrate their churches.

Is there no refuge left?

There was a time when the churches were held in such great esteem, even by crazy criminals, that no one dared violate them.

Over time we’ve seen the respect for these sacred havens dwindle away. The signs have been appearing for some time.

First came the petty thefts of some church property. Then major thefts of vehicles and air-conditioning units.

Fences began to pop up around church vans.

Many churches, and members of their congregations, have been the victims of armed robberies during, and after, the Sunday worship service.

I shall never forget that sickening feeling when I first saw armed security guards patrolling church grounds. Now, of course, it is a most common sight.

In recent years, religious institutions have become major targets of arsonists and vandals who apparently get some kind of weird gratification from their perverted, destructive acts.

And, yet, although their vile transgressions destroyed property, and in some cases, human life, they have not been able to murder the spirit.

For the spirit, you see, there is a refuge, and it’s not inside the walls of a sanctuary.

I believe that the young people and the adults attending services at Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church on Wednesday night understood that as well as anyone.

While my heart cries for those who died, my soul rejoices for their spirits.

I grieve for, and with, their families, for although I did not know them personally, they were my brothers and sisters.

For me - and for many others in Fort Worth - there has been a death in the family ... our family.

Therefore, let us pause to remember them:

Shawn C. Brown, 23

Susan Kimberly Jones, 23

Cassandra Griffin, 14

Joseph D. Ennis, 14

Justin M. Ray, 17

Sydney R. Browning, 36

Kristi Beckel, 14.

Their lives have been taken from us, but because they are our soulmates, we shall cherish their memories forever.

Wedgwood Baptist commits to healing

Published Sept. 16, 1999

By Jim Jones

Driven from their church by a disastrous shooting, about 200 members of Wedgwood Baptist Church wept and prayed yesterday afternoon at a neighboring church.

Bob Bollinger, a layman and Sunday school teacher who called the prayer meeting at the Hulen Street Baptist Church, told of being asked by a reporter how the shootings would affect his faith.

“I almost laughed,” Bollinger said.

“My faith goes on forever,” he said. “He was my Lord before this happened and he is my Lord right now.”

During a prayer, Bollinger said that no one is wise enough or smart enough to answer all the questions about the shootings that took eight lives, including the gunman, who shot himself.

“Our hearts are broken,” he prayed. “But we trust in you and pray most of all that this event will not have been in vain. Let us realize that life is short and we need you, Lord.”

The Rev. Al Meredith, pastor of the church for 12 years, said at a news conference yesterday that the church will be stronger after the catastrophe.

Meredith had just returned to Fort Worth after the death of his mother when he learned of the shooting at his church Wednesday night.

He lauded the support that his congregation has been given by the community and also praised law enforcement officers.

“I am proud of our city officials and the way they responded,” he said.

Church members were stunned by the tragedy.

“I just felt numbed; it’s like a dream,” Steve Scott said. “But we are a very close-knit church. At first, I thought, `Why us?’ but then I thought, `Why not?’ If any church has can survive this, Wedgwood can.”

Scott praised Meredith as a pastor who has molded the 2,000-member church into a family. He said the church has strong music and youth programs for high school and college students and classes for singles and older adults.

“We have lots of Southwestern Baptist Theological seminary students who attend our church,” he said. Several current or former seminary students were among the shooting victims.

Church members also go on mission trips to Mexico and other locations to conduct Bible schools and help build churches and repair houses, he said.

The church has a strong counseling program, led by Kevin Galey, a licensed counselor and doctoral student at Southwestern seminary, who was wounded in the shootings.

Another church member who attended yesterday’s prayer meeting, Bill Allen, 72, said he has been a member since Wedgwood first opened as a mission church in 1960.

Allen, a retired banker, said the congregation has survived many changes in the Wedgwood neighborhood it serves because Meredith and other ministers are always around to help people.

“It will take a long time for us to heal,” he said. “But we will keep on. We are in God’s hands.” Staff writer Rebeca Rodriguez contributed to this report. Jim Jones, (817) 390-7707 Pastor’s statement

A written statement issued last night by the Rev. Al Meredith, senior minister of Wedgwood Baptist Church:

“On behalf of our congregation we want to express our deepest grief and sympathy to those who lost loved ones in the senseless shooting that occurred in our church last night, September 15, 1999. Our hearts are aching as we seek to find comfort in the midst of this tragedy.

“We want to express our sincere appreciation for the overwhelming outpouring of help, love and support we have received from the city of Fort Worth and the Family of God.

“At present, we are hoping to return to our Worship Center on Sunday morning at the regular times of 9:00 and 10:35 a.m. This has not been an easy decision as many have been left deeply traumatized. However, we believe it is important that we not allow the Kingdom of Darkness to hinder what God wants to accomplish in His people. Our Sunday School classes will function as small group support teams as the Body comforts one another.

“We want to praise our sovereign Lord for His gracious protection on those hundreds of people who were not injured as scores of bullets flew. Our God is a very present help in time of need.

“Lastly, we want to affirm our unwavering Hope in the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. We have not “lost” our loved ones. We know exactly where they are.

`Absent from the body; present with the Lord.’ “

A pastor’s passion: Wedgwood minister tends to the wounded in body and spirit among his flock

Sept. 18, 1999

By Jim Jones

The Rev. Al Meredith had just returned home from his mother’s funeral in Michigan when a phone call brought news of the unthinkable.

There had been a shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church, where he has been pastor for 12 years.

As the sirens shattered the Wednesday evening calm, Meredith hurriedly drove the few blocks to the church and found it surrounded by ambulances and police cars, their lights flashing.

“It was chaos,” Meredith said. “The first one I saw was our staff counselor, Kevin Galey, who had been wounded. He was on the ground and paramedics were taking care of him. All I could do was lay hands on him and pray for his healing.”

Galey is expected to recover from his gunshot wounds.

The bespectacled 52-year-old Meredith, a man of passion and prayer, has been caught up in a whirl of activity since that chaotic, heartbreaking evening.

Thrust into the national spotlight, he has spoken eloquently about his unshakable faith in God in interviews on Larry King Live, NBC’s Today show and other local and national news outlets.

His reassuring words comforted relatives and friends of the victims during funerals yesterday for four of the seven people killed during a rampage by Larry Gene Ashbrook of Forest Hill.

Speaking at a news conference early Thursday after ministering all night to victims and their families, Meredith vowed that the “Prince of Darkness” will not win the battle.

“Our hearts are broken but not crushed,” he said, choking back tears.

He prayed that his congregation would soon be back worshipping in a church scarred by bullets and shrapnel from a pipe bomb, and marred by the blood of those who had been shot in that sanctuary.

His prayers have been answered.

The bloodstained carpet has been removed, and a service for church members is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. today.

But the horror of Wednesday night is indelibly etched on Meredith’s mind. He remembers arriving at the church and trying to assist frightened relatives who were searching frantically for their children, praying that they were not among the dead.

He followed the police inside and saw the body of his children’s choir director, Sydney Browning, crumpled on a couch in the vestibule.

“I could see Sydney was gone,” he said.

Later, in a quieter moment, he prayed with family members as they identified their dead at the county morgue.

He barely recognized Susan “Kim” Jones, a bright and cheerful seminary student and church worker.

“Her brother could hardly recognize her, either, because she wasn’t smiling,” Meredith said.

He did not sleep that night.

Instead, he gathered witnesses and accompanied them to the police station. Then he headed to Fort Worth hospitals to pray with the wounded.

Among them was Robert DeBord, 17, the boy whom Meredith had baptized over the summer.

Meredith remembered bunking near DeBord at a summer youth camp. DeBord, a recent convert to Christianity, had fed his pastor a steady supply of Mr. Goodbar candy bars.

“He told me that when he got out of the hospital, he would bring me a Mr. Goodbar,” Meredith said. “So I knew he was going to be all right.”

He prayed with students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which lost three current or recent students to Ashbrook’s bullets.

Such personal touches are one of the endearing strengths of Meredith’s ministry, friends said.

Meredith is a unique combination of pastor and friend, Diane Oliver said.

She has known Meredith for years. Her husband, Paul, and Meredith have been longtime tennis partners. Their Fort Worth seniors team reached the U.S. Tennis Association national finals in 1998 and again this year.

“Next to God, tennis is Al’s passion,” Paul Oliver said.

Meredith managed to get in a brief tennis game with Paul Oliver late Friday afternoon to help relieve the stress.

“Tennis is better than paying 90 bucks an hour for a psychotherapist,” Meredith said. “It keeps me strong and steady and gives me energy.”

Oliver said: “He tells people, `I love to play tennis, but helping the Lord find people is my life.’ “

On Friday evening, the Olivers hosted a gathering of church members at their home. Meredith stood in a prayer circle and warned about the sin of pride.

“This attention we are getting is not about Wedgwood Baptist Church, or what a wonderful pastor you have,” he said. “It’s about God.”

Prayers and support for the church have been overwhelming, Meredith said.

“We’ve had 30,000 hits on our church Web site and 5,000 e-mails,” he told a group of church members.

His wife, Kay, whom he met in high school, and their two children, Becky, 23, and Josh, 21, have handled hundreds of phone calls.

Meredith, a Detroit native who holds a doctorate in history from Michigan State University and is a former college history teacher, grew up in a Baptist family in Marine City, Mich.

He is an acknowledged workaholic who has seen church attendance for Sunday services increase from 400 to 1,000. Wedgwood Baptist Church, he believes, will climb past the hate of Larry Gene Ashbrook and reach new heights because of his congregation.

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