• Jim Leach



Last Sunday, November 5, a cowardly 26 year old white male attacked a church full of defenseless Christian worshipers in Sutherland Springs Texas killing 26 of them and wounding another 20.  The victims ranged in age from 17 months to 77 years old.  A further demonstration of his courage emerged when someone else with a gun showed up and confronted him. The killer dropped his gun and fled, eventually wrecking his vehicle and committing suicide by shooting himself. This incident was the 5th deadliest mass murder crime in the history of our country.

He was dressed in black, military type clothing, and was wearing a helmet along with a black and white “skull” mask. The murderer wore a Kevlar, bullet resistant vest. He was armed with a .223 caliber semi automatic rifle and at least two pistols. Fifteen, 30 round magazines that he used with the rifle, were left lying on the ground, indicating he fired about 450 rounds.

A few weeks ago we discussed the mass murders in Las Vegas and made the observation that the killer did not really fit the behavioral profile of a typical mass murderer. The killer who murdered the church goers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas, a town of 500 people about 30 miles from San Antonio, exhibited many of the characteristics of a workplace violence offender or other violent actor. There have not been enough incidents of murders committed at worship services to produce an accurate behavioral profile of these offenders, so we try and consider other violent individuals who might commit crimes of this nature.

The killer’s past includes acts of violence, mental health issues, an affinity for firearms, and threats made toward intended victims. He was booted out of the Air Force and spent a year in prison for assaulting his wife and step son ( 2012). Tragically this crime did not get properly reported to the national database (NCIC). If this conviction had been had been entered into the data base, it might prevented the murderer from purchasing a firearm. It was also reported he threatened one of his superiors in the Air Force. His former wife says he threatened her and her entire family many times, once threatening to kill her because she had received a speeding ticket. The offender escaped from a mental health institution in 2013. He was confined because of his repeated violent behavior. Other charges against him involved cruelty to animals (2014) when he was accused of brutally beating a dog. This charge was eventually dropped.

  • Neighbors describe an increase in the last couple of weeks before the attack in the amount time he devoted to target practice.

  • He sent his mother –in – law a text message on the morning of the attack. Authorities have not divulged the contents of the message, but it was described as “threatening”.

  • There is no evidence the murderous rampage was affiliated to religious beliefs.

  • He obviously had domestic problems and his in-laws were members of the congregation so he may have perceived the church as being a convenient place to find and attack them.

  • His former wife’s grandmother was a victim of the attack. His mother and father in – law were not in the church that morning. We do not know if his in-laws were absent from the service because of the threatening message he sent or for some other reason.

  • The murderer had attended the church on occasion and the pastor wrestled with how to tell the future murderer to stay away from the church. There was apparently something about the offender’s actions or demeanor that bothered the pastor. The pastor was not at the service last Sunday, but his 14 year old daughter was present. She was a victim.

Experts have recognized possible motives as being ager, rage, and bullying. The primary motive may be as simple as the killer’s dislike of his former wife and her family and the church presented a soft, target rich environment. The way he was dressed could suggest he was acting out some type of fantasy. Dark clothing might help a criminal hide in the darkness of night, but this incident occurred at 11:30 in the morning. There is really no way to explain the mask except for being an attempt to bully, intimidate, or, once again, fulfill some type of weird fantasy.  The helmet and Kevlar vest were probably not intended for protection. He was not riding a motorcycle so he didn’t need the helmet for that type of protection. He believed it was a slim possibility anyone inside the church would fire at him or he would not have had the courage to choose the church as the site for the attack. The helmet and vest were simply part of his costume.

In his twisted mind the murderer may have thought he would show the Air Force how mistaken they were to run him off. Perhaps in his demented state he thought to prove himself a great warrior by murdering unsuspecting worshipers.

Some mass murderers seem to have been motivated by a desire to be famous and these people tend to be in their twenties or early thirties, the same age as this coward. Some of those who knew the killer describe him as being quiet and polite, but some of them also said he was a bully and was “anti-God” in his spoken beliefs. Recently he seemed to have become obsessed with mass killings. It is difficult to say how many people are inclined toward committing an act of extreme violence. Sometimes they are “pushed over the edge” when there are incidents such as the ones we have recently witnessed in Las Vegas and New York. Those tragedies may have influenced the church murderer.

We have heard some criticism concerning the length of time the police kept the church grounds protected in order to work the crime scene. It must be understood once law enforcement abandons the crime scene, evidence can be contaminated and even if a search warrant is obtained for the property and crime scene technicians return and collect the evidence, the evidence may not be able to be used because it has been touched or moved. We would much rather the crime be protected for a long time, than for police to leave before completing the task.

As we have discussed in other articles, people who commit these acts tend to be mission oriented and nothing really matters to them except the successful completion of the mission. When these murderers reach the action phase of the operation the only ways to defeat them is to either make it physically impossible to accomplish the mission or to neutralize the attacker.

Some of the things that might be done to lower the risk at your church:

  • Analyze the risks you may be vulnerable to. Consider such things as robbery of contribution money or members, vandalism or car theft. The worst thing that can happen is a physical attack on the membership.

  • Educate the membership on identifying threats and threatening behavior. Identify how threat information should be communicated to the designated church leaders. The first rule regarding threats is that you NEVER totally ignore a threat.

  • Formulate written response plans and make the membership aware of the plans.

  • Be sure all security efforts and response plans are coordinated with police and other first responders. Everybody needs to know what everyone else is going to do in case of a crisis.

  • Response plans MUST be in place before an incident occurs because in time of crisis, common sense is an uncommon virtue. It is difficult to make good strategic decisions when gunfire is going off near you or your friend is lying in the floor bleeding to death.

The time is past in our society when we can simply discount threats or threatening behavior and think, “It won’t happen here”.  We refer to that as the car wreck mentality. Thousands of people will have a wreck today but unless they are committing insurance fraud, murder or suicide with a vehicle, none of the people involved in all these wrecks thought they would have a wreck today!

We must adopt the attitude that a violent encounter may occur in our church, mosque, temple or workplace and have plans in place. The old saying “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” is very good advice.

The author, Jim Leach, formerly served as Director of Criminal Investigations for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. His first book, “You Can Tell ME, a simple guide to effective interviewing”, can be found at

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