MARYVILLE, Ill. – A pastor shot and killed during his Sunday sermon deflected the first of the gunman's four rounds with a Bible, sending a confetti-like spray of paper into the air in a horrifying scene that congregants initially thought was a skit, police said.
The gunman strode down the aisle of the sprawling First Baptist Church shortly after 8 a.m. and briefly spoke with The Rev. Fred Winters, then pulled out a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and began firing until it jammed, Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent said. Churchgoers wrestled the gunman to the ground as he waved a knife, slashing himself and two other people, Trent said.
None of the about 150 congregants seemed to recognize the gunman and investigators do not know details of Winters' conversation with him, but they planned to review an audio recording of the service, Trent said. The service was not videotaped.
"We thought it was part of a drama skit ... when he shot, what you saw was confetti," said congregant Linda Cunningham, whose husband is a minister of adult education at the church. "We just sat there waiting for what comes next, not realizing that he had wounded the pastor."
Winters had stood on an elevated platform to deliver his sermon about finding happiness in the workplace and managed to run halfway down the sanctuary's side aisle before collapsing, Cunningham said.
Two congregants tackled the gunman as he pulled the 4-inch knife, and all three were stabbed, police said. The gunman suffered "a pretty serious wound to the neck" while one congregant had lower back wounds, Trent said.
Congregants knocked the gunman between sets of pews, then held him down until police arrived, said church member Don Bohley, who was just outside the sanctuary when the shooting began.
"People came running out and told us to call 911," said Bohley, 72.
Winters was pronounced dead at Anderson Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Natalie Head said.
Authorities didn't know whether Winters, a married father of two who had led the church for nearly 22 years, knew the gunman. Police described the gunman as a 27-year-old from nearby Troy but would not release his name pending possible charges.
Trent said investigators had not immediately uncovered evidence of a criminal background or mental illness.
"We don't know the relationship (between the gunman and pastor), why he's here or what the circumstances came about that caused him in the first place to be here," said Illinois State Police Master Trooper Ralph Timmins.
The Rev. Mark Jones, another pastor at First Baptist, said he briefly saw the gunman but not the shooting, though he heard a sound like miniature firecrackers.
"We have no idea what this guy's motives were," Jones said outside the church.
The gunman and 39-year-old congregant Terry Bullard underwent surgery at St. Louis University Hospital and were in serious condition Sunday evening, spokeswoman Laura Keller said. The other victim, Keith Melton, was treated and released from Gateway Regional Medical Center.
"I would call it heroic," Trent said. "While many understandably were stuck to their seats, they took to action."
First Baptist had an average attendance of 32 people when Winters became senior pastor in 1987; it now has about 1,200 members, according to the church's Web site. Winters also was former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to the site.
"Our great God is not surprised by this, or anything," Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, said in a statement. "That He allows evil and free will to have their way in tragedies like this is a mystery in many ways."
The red brick church sits along a busy two-lane highway on the east side of Maryville, a fast-growing village of more than 7,000 about 20 miles northeast of St. Louis. A farm sits directly across from the church, but subdivisions of newer homes can be seen from every side.
"Things like this just don't happen in Maryville," Mayor Larry Gulledge said. "We've lost one the pillars of our community, one of our leaders."
Sharla Dryden, 62, pulled into the church parking lot for a 9:30 a.m. service Sunday to see "just a lot of chaos, lot of police, fire, and people just devastated."
"I would have been devastated if anyone had been shot, but to hear it was the pastor was terrible," Dryden said. "You just never expect this to happen at a church."
At Winters' two-story brick home in Edwardsville, several friends gathered to pay their respects but declined comment. Family members also declined comment.
A statement on First Baptist's Web site asked for prayers for Winters' family, the congregants who tackled the gunman, the gunman and his family, and church members.
More than 20 investigators remained inside the church hours after the shooting, said First Baptist spokesman Marty King. An evening prayer service was planned for members at Metro Community Church in nearby Edwardsville.
Last month, a man shot and killed himself in front of a cross inside televangelist Robert H. Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. In November, a gunman killed his estranged wife in a New Jersey church vestibule as Sunday services let out.
In July, two people were killed and six wounded in a shooting rampage at the Tennessee Valley United Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tenn. An out-of-work truck driver who police say targeted the church for its liberal leanings pleaded guilty to the shootings and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.