VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (AP) — A third elderly church member who was shot when a man pulled out a handgun during a potluck dinner has died, police said Friday.
The 84-year-old woman died hours after being rushed to a hospital following the Thursday evening shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills. The suspect, a 71-year-old man, was subdued and held by a person attending the dinner until police arrived, sparing the congregation from further violence, police Capt. Shane Ware said.
“It was extremely critical in saving lives,” Ware told a news conference. “The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero.”
Ware said the suspect and the three victims were all white.
The woman who died Friday was not immediately identified. Vestavia Hills police said in a Facebook post that her name was being withheld because her family requested privacy.
Walter Bartlett Rainey, 84, of nearby Irondale was killed at the church and Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham died soon after being taken to a hospital Thursday.
Rainey’s family said in a statement Friday that it was hard to believe he had been killed at one of his favorite places, a church that “welcomes everyone with love,” while attending a dinner with his wife of 61 years.
“We are all grateful that she was spared and that he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears,” said the statement provided by Rainey’s daughter, Melinda Rainey Thompson.
“We are proud that in his last act on earth, he extended the hand of community and fellowship to a stranger, regardless of the outcome,” Rainey’s family said.
Police are still investigating what motivated the suspect, who occasionally attended services at the church, Ware said. He said the man’s name is being withheld until prosecutors formally charge him with capital murder.
The event was a “Boomers Potluck” gathering inside the church, according to messages posted on the church’s Facebook page by the Rev. John Burruss, the pastor. He said he was in Greece on a pilgrimage with a group of members and trying to get back to Alabama.
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry told reporters his “close-knit, resilient, loving community” had been rocked by “this senseless act of violence.” The bedroom community is one of the wealthiest cities in Alabama, home to many businesspeople, doctors and lawyers who work in nearby Birmingham. Vestavia Hills is known for top-flight schools and a family-centered, suburban lifestyle. It has nearly 40,000 residents, most of whom are white.
The Rev. Rebecca Bridges, the church’s associate rector, led an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page Friday morning. She prayed not only for the victims and church members who witnessed the shooting, but also “for the person who perpetrated the shooting.”
“We pray that you will work in that person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray that you will help us to forgive.”
Bridges, who is currently in London, alluded to other recent mass shootings as she prayed that elected officials in Washington and Alabama “will see what has happened at St. Stephens and Uvalde and Buffalo and in so many other places and their hearts will be changed, minds will be opened.”
“And that our culture will change and that our laws will change in ways that will protect all of us,” she added.
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.
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.
Agents with the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives joined investigators at the scene, which remained cordoned off Friday with yellow police tape as police vehicles with flashing lights blocked the route to the church.
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.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement late Thursday lamenting what she called the shocking and tragic loss of life. Although she said she was glad to hear the suspect was in custody, she wrote: “This should never happen — in a church, in a store, in the city or anywhere.”