News & Reviews

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

Amid shouted anti-Christian epithets, gunman murders 7 at a church service
'Why did this have to happen?'
At Wedgwood Baptist Church in southwestern Fort Worth the night of Sept. 15, children's minister Kim Herron led a group of about a hundred singing "Jesus Loves Me." Little did they know, at that very moment, a gunman was screaming anti-Christian epithets and spraying bullets at the youth group. Sydney Browning, 36, director of the children's choir, was the first to die at Wedgwood. Witnesses said she was standing near the door to the sanctuary when an unkempt man wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a bandanna, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, entered. She casually greeted him. The man, Larry Ashbrook, 47, a neighborhood recluse known for his temper, responded by shooting her. Then, it was chaos. According to police, Mr. Ashbrook shot three people in rapid succession as he moved from the lobby toward the sanctuary, including a janitor who approached him and a woman sitting on a lobby couch. The gunman entered the sanctuary, where more than 150 young people were gathered for a "See You at the Pole" prayer rally for high-school students, and fired repeatedly. Some youths said they thought at first the gunshots were blanks, and it all was part of a skit. "We thought it was a joke," said Kristen Dickens, 14, who was sitting in the second pew. "But then Cassie [Griffin] got hit in the throat. She never got up." People screamed, ran, and crawled under pews. Band members ducked behind their instruments and speakers. At least one pipe bomb exploded during the pandemonium. All the while, witnesses said Mr. Ashbrook spewed anti-Christian swear words. After emptying several clips from his large-caliber pistol, he sat down on a rear pew and shot himself in the head. Just after the shooting, a pipe bomb exploded on a balcony above the sanctuary, but police did not know of any injuries. The whole thing was over, witnesses estimated, in no more than three minutes. Soon after the gunman killed himself, a familiar scene broke out outside the red brick church. TV crews showed crying teenagers as their friends were carried on stretchers. Helicopters buzzed overhead as the bomb squad, police, and paramedics scoured the scene. Neighbors, frantic parents, and onlookers crowded the suburban sidewalks, adding to the horrid scene. Chris Hightower, 15, and his mother found each other and embraced. "I just saw my best friend get killed," he cried. "Why did this have to happen?" At 11:30 p.m. that same night, this message appeared on Wedgwood's website: "We don't understand why these things happen. An incomprehensible tragedy occurred this evening.... God, we don't understand. But you don't call us to understand ... just to serve. We still serve an awesome God!" The site also listed the casualties: "8 dead (including the gunman); 7 injured; everyone else-changed." Six of the victims, including teenagers, died at the church; a seventh, Kristi Beckel, 14, died at the hospital overnight. Six others were in hospitals, some in critical condition, late last week. Police last week were reluctant to attribute a motive to the gunman, but a picture was emerging. Investigators found anti-Christian screeds among the ammo boxes and debris left behind in Mr. Ashbrook's trashed apartment. "He was evidently a very emotionally disturbed person," FBI agent Bob Garrity said of the gunman's old journals. "Some were religious and some were anti-religious."

-At World's deadline, details and reasons were still unclear. We plan to publish a thorough account in next week's issue. theories circulate after five back-to-back attacks
Terrorism in Moscow
Fear bordering on panic gripped Russian apartment dwellers after living through a wave of terrorist attacks in recent weeks. Muscovites awoke to the news that another apartment building exploded in southeast Moscow last week. The blast was so powerful that within seconds the eight-story structure disintegrated into a pile of burning rubble, killing at least 121 persons, including almost everyone who slept inside. Then, another overnight attack in Volgodonsk south of Moscow left at least 17 sleeping residents dead and 115 injured. Several theories circulate about who is behind the attacks. Some blame rebels from breakaway Chechnya. Chechen guerrilla leaders deny responsibility. Islamic separatists fighting Russian troops in Dagestan are also fingered. Others blame Moscow's warring political clans; parliamentary elections are scheduled for Dec. 1. On the streets, some believe even Kremlin forces are stirring up the turmoil in order to declare emergency rule and cancel the elections. Two apartment blasts in Moscow, an explosion in a central shopping mall, and a car bomb at a military complex in Dagestan have all killed 275 people in less than a month. Moscow residents are unaccustomed to terrorism. After the latest explosion many headed to country homes, and police tightened security at nuclear plants, airports, and power stations, as well as apartment lobbies. World in brief
Middle East hardening
At the opening of another round of talks to resolve territorial disputes, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders seemed to harden mutually exclusive positions. In his first visit to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank as prime minister, Ehud Barak told settlers, "Every house you have built here is part of the state of Israel. Forever. Period." At the same time, Palestinian negotiators reiterated demands for an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. Kosovo again?
Last week the Indonesian province of East Timor was emptying like the hillsides of Kosovo. And the keepers of the peacekeepers were trying to figure out a way to send in multinational troops without repeating the cycles of exodus and bloodletting still continuing in the Yugoslav province. UN workers said one-fourth of East Timor's population left homes and villages after pro-Jakarta militias attacked voters who turned out in favor of an August referendum for independence. Thousands have been killed in the violence, and hundreds of thousands are hiding in mountainous jungles. Australia is expected to lead a peacekeeping force to the area. It will also take in East Timorese refugees, housing them in military camps just relinquished by displaced Kosovo Albanians. President Clinton reversed an earlier announcement that the United States would not send peacekeepers. Easing up
The Clinton administration will ease Korean War-era economic sanctions on North Korea after Pyongyang agreed to a temporary freeze on ballistic missile tests. North Korea said it will not fire any long-range missiles as long as the two sides continue talks toward normal economic relations. Japanese intelligence sources were angered by the U.S. move and said North Korea has not called off long-range missile tests. At least one North Korean soldier isn't waiting to find out. Dong Il-Sop defected to South Korea Sept. 14, swimming to freedom. This year, 86 North Koreans have defected. International Religious Freedom Report issued
1,000 pages of suffering
The State Department's first Report on International Religious Freedom cited Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan as among the most repressive countries. The report, issued on Sept. 9, fills more than 1,000 pages and covers 194 countries. The first-ever report submitted to Congress on religious freedom, it is intended to guide U.S. policy toward countries that persecute. The No-Comment Zone

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