Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Police: Suspect dead, 2 injured in shooting at Lakewood Church

A female shooter opened fire Sunday afternoon at Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, leading to an exchange of gunfire with off-duty authorities that left two people injured, the suspect dead, and an untold number of worshippers scrambling for safety.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said the suspect, described as a woman between the ages of 30 to 35, entered the world-famous church at about 2 p.m. with a long rifle, trench coat, backpack, and a 5-year-old child in tow. As the woman began to fire, an off-duty agent of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and an off-duty Houston Police Department officer returned fire, hitting the suspect. Finner said “multiple” shots were fired shortly after the woman walked into the west side of the basketball arena-turned-church, though he didn’t know an exact number.

Authorities said the child brought into the church by the woman was hit in the shooting and remained in critical condition as of late Sunday afternoon. A 57-year-old man suffered a gunshot wound to the hip.

“This is a tragic day,” Finner said. But he added that “no suspect or suspects will tear down our city,” and he praised the cooperation of multiple law enforcement agencies and first responders.

Finner said the suspect warned that she had a bomb and had sprayed an unknown substance in the area. However, Finner said initial surveys of the scene turned up no evidence of a bomb at the scene.

Authorities did not disclose a potential motive or the suspect’s name.

“I don’t want to talk about her motivations, because I don’t know them,” Finner said. The chief said it was unclear who shot the child.

Mayor John Whitmire said he wants Houstonians to know the police did their jobs to protect the public, and the shooting appeared to be an isolated incident.

“At this time, it appears to be a lone actor,” Whitmire said.

‘Every person started running’

The shooting occurred minutes before a Spanish-language service was about to begin at the Greenway Plaza megachurch, where Osteen and his wife minister to an average of about 45,000 people in person and millions across the globe each week.

As she waited for services to start, seated inside the main sanctuary of the church, Andreina Rondón heard the pow, pow, pow, pow of gunshots. Then, the monitor broadcasting the service to congregants in the back of the sanctuary shattered as the sound of gunfire echoed through the church

Rondón’s sons, 11-year-old Tomás and 3-year-old Luca, were in youth programs away from their mother. Yet Rondón and three other parishioners were immediately ushered into a bathroom next to Luca’s classroom. Police had to clear each room before she could leave, a stretch of time that felt like hours of uncertain desperation.

“(The waiting) was traumatizing,” Rondón said.

Nearly an hour later, Rondón reunited with her boys. Sitting at a bus stop in the wake of the shooting, Tomás said he’s used to monthly active shooter and fire drills at schools. Rondón said her son’s youth group teacher recalled Tomás kept his cool under pressure.

“I was in the closet,” Tomás said. “My friend called my mom to let her know I was safe.”

Churchgoer Ana Orellana said she was in the third row in front of the church sanctuary stage when a fellow worshiper told her to hit the ground. Orellana, 38, then heard multiple shots, prompting her and other worshippers to run for the exits.

“In that moment we heard four gunshots,” Orellana said. “At that point, they didn’t say to get on the ground. They just said to run. Every person started running. There were like 1,000 people total.”

Orellana said she feared her two children, 14 and 16 years old, were still inside the building, but she has since made contact with them.

“We heard four gunshots. At that point, they didn’t say to get on the ground. They just said to run. Every person started running.”

Claudia Rojas, 51, said churchgoers were filing into the sanctuary and prayers were about to start when she heard people shout “they’re shooting” from afar. Rojas then heard about five shots, at which point worshippers started throwing themselves to the ground, she said. Rojas fled for the exits with crowds of people, even though she feared she might be an easy target.

Once she escaped the building and saw the sky, she said, “Amen.”

Standing with authorities and city officials at a news conference, Osteen thanked them for their efforts and asked everyone to pray for the shooter and the victims.

“We don’t know why these things happen,” Osteen said. “But we know God’s in control.”

‘Please pray for Lakewood’

News of the chaos broke on social media.

“There is an active situation involving shots fired at Lakewood,” the church wrote in a post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “Law enforcement is on the scene. That is all the information we have at this time. Please pray for Lakewood and our community.”

Houston police said the shooting at the church was an “ongoing, active scene” and asked the public to stay away as officers converged on the area. A bomb squad unit arrived at the church, and officers requested a SWAT unit over the radio to examine a backpack.

Minutes after the gun battle, an HPD officer at the church told a dispatcher over her radio: “We got a little boy down” and requested an ambulance. Police set up a perimeter amid reports of a second suspect, according to the department’s radio traffic, but officials later said there was only one shooter.

Texas Gov. Abbott said he had spoken with Whitmire and pledged the “full support and resources” of state officials.

“Our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston,” Abbott said in a statement. “Places of worship are sacred. I have been in contact with Mayor Whitmire and offered the full support and resources of the state of Texas, including Department of Public Safety officers and Texas Rangers, to help this community and help bring swift justice to the criminal who committed this heinous act.”

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