Cover Story

'This is for real'

Bits and pieces of the tragedy in Fort Worth have been reported. With a high-decibel youth rally going on in the sanctuary, and two already dead, Larry Gene Ashbrook took aim at the teenagers-who at first thought he was an actor in a skit. As it turned out, he was serious. Deadly serious. Here's the full story.

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

in Fort Worth, Texas - On the way to Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, David Payton had no idea that before the night was over, he would remove a smoking Ruger 9-mm handgun from the dead hand of the worst mass murderer in the city's history. Young people in Fort Worth, Texas, who met around school flagpoles on Sept. 15 to pray for their schools and communities-as part of the nationally coordinated See You at the Pole prayer effort-flocked to Wedgwood that night for a local youth rally celebrating the event. Youth leaders from area churches imported scores of kids into the massive, 2,000-member church's red brick complex. Mr. Payton, a youth pastor, brought 20 from Meadow Lane Baptist Church. Wedgwood is only a mile from Interstate 20, but shaded blocks of respectable-looking suburban homes shelter it from the bustle of heavy traffic. Except for the special youth rally, Sept. 15 was an ordinary Wednesday night of family activity: kids' missions programs, choir practice, a prayer meeting (which was moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall to make room for the rally). As the rally began, Mr. Payton's group clustered with more than 125 other kids, mostly teens, near the front of Wedgwood's enormous fan-shaped sanctuary. Most of the audience stood among the center pews; the crowd stretched back about halfway to the rear of the church. Caleb Payne-a sandy-haired 12-year-old "Wedgie," as enthusiastic church members call themselves-sat with friends three rows back from a piano planted permanently to the left of the stage. (On the right side sits the church organ.) The Christian band Forty Days banged out rock 'n' roll in a decibel range few adults appreciate, although some adults dotted the auditorium. In the front row near center stage stood Wedgwood college and career minister Dax Hughes, along with Trey Herweck, a 24-year-old youth worker and student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In a rear pew on the piano side of the church, paramedic Art DeForde chatted above the roar of the band with Shawn Brown, another Southwestern Seminary student. Mr. Brown was 10 minutes from eternity. Behind the paramedic and the seminarian, in the long, wide hallway behind the curved rear wall of the sanctuary, 17-year-old Mary Beth Talley handed programs to youth-rally latecomers. Printed on those programs was a schedule of events. Following the Forty Days performance: a skit dramatizing the preciousness of life. It was a skit that would never be performed. What took place instead would change Wedgwood forever. Wedgwood staff counselor Kevin Galey dropped off some paperwork in offices across from the sanctuary's rear doors. He crossed the hallway where Mary Beth was passing out programs, and popped into the sanctuary to check out the rally. "I was in the sanctuary kidding around with other adults about how loud the music was," said Mr. Galey, 38. "We were laughing and yelling 'What'd you say?' at each other. It was too loud for me and I left the auditorium." Mr. Galey stepped back into the hallway through the rear, piano-side door of the sanctuary and struck up a conversation with three women who were already out there, including Dax Hughes's wife Christy. Mr. Galey noticed a cache of Forty Days' CDs on display at a table in the wide hallway just outside the sanctuary doors. "I thought, 'Hey, these guys are pretty uptown, got their own CD and everything.'" He scanned the Forty Days CD and tape labels. From where he stood, Mr. Galey had a clear view of the church foyer, about 40 feet away. But the foyer seating area was around a corner to the left, hidden from his view. That's where several old friends sat and chatted-as they usually did on Wednesday nights before choir, said Glynda Clark, wife of church organist Larry Clark. That night, Mrs. Clark, who teaches elementary school music, sat on the right end of a maroon couch, nearest the corner wall that faced a set of three glass double doors that stretch across the width of the south entrance to the church. At the other end, nearest the entrance to the hallway leading back to the sanctuary, sat Sydney Browning, a children's choir director and a close friend of the Clarks for more than 10 years. In the middle, Jaynanne Brown sat next to her best friend Sydney, as she did each Sunday in the sanctuary choir loft. The next Sunday, though, only Miss Browning's crimson choir robe and a long-stemmed rose of the same color would occupy her seat in the choir loft. At least three chairs faced the couch. Larry Clark sat in the one closest to his wife. Next to him sat Jeff Laster, a Southwestern student and part-time church custodian. Choir member Sara Thompson sat in a chair facing Miss Browning's end of the couch. The close-knit little group looked forward to these Wednesday-night visits, making good-natured small talk and catching up on family news. As the friends chatted, a man in a green jacket approached the center set of glass doors. He was smoking a cigarette. "We focused on that cigarette," Mrs. Brown told WORLD. "We were all sitting there thinking, 'Hello? Put your cigarette out.'" Mr. Laster stood as Larry Gene Ashbrook opened the door and entered the foyer, hands in pockets, cigarette clamped between his lips. "Sir, you'll need to put that cigarette out," he said kindly to Ashbrook. Ashbrook drew his Ruger from his right jacket pocket and shot Mr. Laster in the stomach. As soon as Mrs. Clark saw the gun, she says events sped up and merged together. Ashbrook moved toward the couch and fired again and again. Sara Thompson hit the floor and pulled her chair over on top of her. Sydney Browning and Jaynanne Brown drew together in a huddle of terror. "I saw him pull the gun out," says Mrs. Clark. "I kept thinking, 'Is that a real gun? Is this real?'" She grabbed a little sofa pillow and put it over her face. "All I could think of was that I needed to get as flat as I could on that sofa." Ashbrook then turned his gun on Mr. Clark. "No! Please God! No, no!" he yelled as he dove for a narrow refuge between the right couch arm and the wall. Ashbrook continued firing, hitting Miss Browning in the head, stomach, and leg. A bullet, possibly the one that passed through Sydney's head, sliced open the back of Mrs. Brown's scalp. Crouching behind the couch arm, his head still down, Mr. Clark reached up to grab his wife's shoulders to try to pull her over the couch arm to safety. He would later say she was so stiff he thought she was dead. "We heard the shots, bang, bang, bang ..." says Mrs. Brown. "He put in another clip and kept shooting. I thought, how long is this going to last? I just wanted those noises to stop." The heavy odor of gunpowder shrouded the foyer. When the hail of bullets paused momentarily-Ashbrook may then have been reloading-Mr. Clark slowly raised his head to peer over the couch arm. Oddly, he remembers smelling Ashbrook's cigarette. What he saw: Ashbrook eight feet away, staring at him, gun raised, from Miss Browning's end of the couch. Mr. Clark ducked as fresh gunfire rang out. Two bullets slammed into the wall above his head. Then, inexplicably, Ashbrook turned and walked out of the foyer, up the hall toward the sanctuary. Sydney Browning was dead. Kevin Galey also heard the shots-and saw them. "I was standing there looking at tapes and I heard this pop-pop sound," he told WORLD. "I looked up and saw this guy-with a gun-shooting. Pop-pop ... pop!" From the CD display table, Mr. Galey looked toward the foyer as the popping noises continued. Ashbrook moved into view, shooting in the direction of the couch. One of the women by the table remarked that the gunman must be part of the skit portion of the youth rally. With an offhand thought, he brushed off the gunman as a stunt of "those crazy youth ministry people." Then Larry Ashbrook aimed his gun at him. "He shot at me and missed," said Mr. Galey. "So I'm thinking he's trying to play this role and [the bullet] was a blank." He continued his advance, but Mr. Galey, thinking the skit guy was going into the sanctuary, looked away. Ashbrook fired again and hit his mark. A bullet pierced Mr. Galey's chest below his right breast and exited beneath his right arm. "I reached down to grab [my chest] and looked and my hand had this kind of red, smooth stuff on it," he says, adding that the wound stung. "I thought, 'Well that looks like paintball paint.' I'd always known paintballs sting, and I thought, 'Man, that lousy guy hit me with a paintball and I'm not even part of this thing.'" Seconds passed as Mr. Galey processed his paintball theory and, in a simultaneous act of chivalry, turned to shield the women from flying paintballs. But the women had already fled. Ashbrook fired a third time. A bullet ripped through Mr. Galey's right rear hip and he went down, rolling underneath the table where he'd been standing looking at tapes a moment before. Ashbrook, apparently believing Mr. Galey was dead, walked past the table and partially opened the piano-side sanctuary door about eight feet away. "He opens the door and puts his foot down to block it," Mr. Galey said. "I could see that the sanctuary was dim inside and I could hear the rock music and see some of the kids." He watched as Ashbrook held the gun up, released an empty magazine, snapped a fresh one into place and racked the slide to chamber a new round. "That's when I saw that it was real gun." With his back to the table and Forty Days' driving rock spilling through the sanctuary door, Ashbrook didn't notice Mr. Galey roll from beneath the table and escape down the hall. From inside the sanctuary, Art DeForde and Shawn Brown had heard Ashbrook shooting at Mr. Galey. Mr. Brown, the seminary student, went to see what the popping noises were and, leaving Mr. DeForde standing in the rear piano-side pew, exited through the same door where Ashbrook had reloaded. It's possible that the shooter saw Mr. Brown coming and backed out of the doorway into the hall. Police theorize that, once outside the sanctuary, Mr. Brown immediately encountered Ashbrook and turned to run. Ashbrook shot him in the back. He fell to the floor and crawled a short distance before dying in front of the door to the pastoral offices. About 30 seconds after Shawn Brown left the sanctuary, Mr. DeForde, a paramedic, turned to follow, but reversed course when the windows in the door erupted in a spray of glass. He wheeled around, raced up the aisle, and out a door to the left of the stage and choir loft. Skirting the outside of the building, Mr. DeForde met and stabilized critically wounded Jeff Laster, the student custodian Ashbrook had shot in the foyer. Meanwhile, gunshots were shattering the sanctuary door windows. As rally-goers turned to investigate the noise, Ashbrook entered. Witnesses say Ashbrook was initially calm beneath his gray, tousled hair. He fired at the stage and the members of Forty Days scattered. "They all just ran off the stage and somebody yelled 'Duck down! Duck down!'" remembers 12-year-old Caleb Payne. Some had already ducked. "We all got down, but we didn't know what was happening. We thought it was a skit ... we thought we would play along. He shot at the stage and we were like, 'OK, this is scary.'" But some knew Ashbrook was for real. Caleb says he heard his best friend's sister crying softly. And when Mary Beth Talley heard shots in the foyer and ran into the sanctuary, she spotted Heather MacDonald, an 18-year-old friend who has Down Syndrome. Mary Beth told Heather's mother, "Laura, there is a guy with a gun, we need to get down." The two helped Heather lie low. Southwestern seminary student Kim Jones, who had come to Christ just three years earlier, also crouched beside Mrs. MacDonald. According to witnesses, talking and giggling filled the sanctuary. "My friends were [saying,] 'It's a skit ... it's part of the play,'" said Caleb. From their vantage point in the front pew, Dax Hughes and Trey Herweck reported the same thing: "People would just stand up and taunt him and laugh," Mr. Hughes said, adding that he saw one boy stand up, wave his arms and sing out, "Shoot me! Shoot me!" Ashbrook did not fire on that youth, but began to get angry. "He was irritated because nobody believed him," said Mr. Herweck. "He wasn't getting the respect he wanted." "I really believe he was in shock over our reaction," Mr. Hughes said. "He kept yelling out, 'This is for real! This isn't bull___!" Ashbrook, while increasingly agitated, was still methodical. He paced back and forth across the rear of the sanctuary, occasionally yelling anti-Christian epithets, most frequently, "Religion is bull____!" He seemed drawn to sounds or sudden movements. When he spotted a human target, he pointed his gun and fired. The two guarding the Down Syndrome child caught his attention. "The gunman immediately went over there and fired," Mr. Hughes recalls. Ashbrook's gunshot killed Kim Jones. Mary Beth Talley felt a bullet wound burning in her back. "I looked straight down most of the time," she remembers. "After I was shot I kept thinking, 'Keep breathing, keep breathing, keep your eyes open, keep Heather calm.' I could see [Ashbrook's] feet pacing back and forth." Mary Beth saw her own blood on Heather, on Heather's mother, the pew, and the floor. "I had blood all over my hands, but I was just rubbing [Heather's] arm, saying, 'Heather, you just got to stay down here with me and be quiet.' She trusts me." Gun reports were echoing off the high sanctuary ceiling as Ashbrook alternated between two weapons, the 9-mm semiautomatic and another .380 caliber handgun. "He would pull out one gun and shoot, then put that one back and pull out the other," says Dax Hughes. "But he didn't always shoot. We were held captive." When he did shoot, Ashbrook cut down kids with bullets that flew into the right, left, and center pew sections. Aaron Clark, the 16-year-old son of the church organist Larry Clark, saw Ashbrook shoot, but not kill, Robert DeBord, 18, who was next to him. Aaron says Ashbrook then aimed at him, but Aaron quickly ducked and the bullet nicked the top of the pew above his head. Ashbrook's attack also wounded Nicholas Skinner, 14, and Justin Laird, 16, a junior varsity football player who is now paralyzed. Ashbrook's sanctuary shooting spree would take the lives of Kristi Beckel, Joseph Ennis, and Cassandra Griffin, all 14 years old. Ashbrook also killed Justin Ray. Justin had been videotaping the concert from the church balcony and thought Ashbrook was part of the planned skit. He descended from the balcony to the main floor of the sanctuary and walked up the aisle toward Ashbrook, taping as he went. When Ashbrook saw Justin, he became enraged and fired at him seven times. Police say Justin's videotape shows a girl sitting in a pew who must also have been convinced that Ashbrook was an actor: Each time the gunman fired, the tape shows the girl reaching up as though to catch the bullets. Although some of his bullets found their marks at the front of the sanctuary, witnesses say Ashbrook himself seemed stuck at the back of the sanctuary. Mr. Hughes and Mr. Herweck say that several times, the gunman hesitantly walked three or four rows up an aisle-almost shaking-then retreated. "I kept wondering why he never came to the front," says Mr. Herweck. "If he had, this would have been a massacre. Looking back, I think he encountered a Holy God every time he stepped into that aisle. Everything he had intended and planned was falling to pieces." Which may explain what Ashbrook did next: For the first of three separate times, Ashbrook put his gun to his head to take his own life. But as he was about to pull the trigger, he noticed a woman with a second video camera. Lowering his gun, he fired repeatedly. A round smashed into the camera, knocking it to the floor, but the woman was unharmed. By comparing the number of gun reports counted on the two videotapes to the number of slugs and shell casings recovered in the sanctuary, police now estimate that Ashbrook fired approximately 45 more rounds after his first aborted suicide attempt. After knocking out the second camera, Ashbrook extracted a small pipe bomb from his pocket, lit the fuse with his cigarette, and tossed it down an aisle. After the ensuing explosion, he resumed his methodical assault: pacing, firing, pacing, firing. As fresh volleys of gunfire reverberated through the sanctuary and the gunman continued to curse, many of Ashbrook's hostages concluded that this attack was indeed real. Caleb decided that a church skit would not include real cursing. Mr. Hughes knew the gunman was genuine when Justin Ray fell. Some people with cell phones dialed 911. But many continued to believe Ashbrook was still part of the scheduled rally skit. Mr. Herweck reports that kids continued to pop up from behind pews laughing. He himself, hearing others laugh and talk, hovered between conflicting thoughts: Is this real or a skit? Several factors, he says, prolonged the illusion that Ashbrook's spree was an ill-conceived Christian drama meant to simulate Cassie Bernall's experience at Columbine. "The weird thing about it was you couldn't hear anything being broken or shattered (by bullets). You didn't hear anyone scream. And with the lights down and people being on the other side of the pews from you, you couldn't see anyone" who was dead or injured. Like others WORLD spoke with, Mr. Herweck says he entertained thoughts of rushing and overpowering Ashbrook, but "then I'd think, no, no, I don't want to ruin the skit. My sense of disbelief was overriding logical thought." Again, Ashbrook turned the gun on himself, this time taking a seat in a pew on the back wall of the sanctuary. But again, he became distracted by movement. Mr. Hughes says Forty Days' lead guitarist, perhaps frustrated by what he thought was an overlong skit, climbed back on stage. He spread his arms in a defiant shrug and fixed Ashbrook with a challenging stare. The gunman got back up, shouting something like "You're a fake! All Christians are fakes!" and fired repeatedly at the musician, missing every time. After a moment, the guitarist simply walked off the stage. At this point, Mr. Herweck says Ashbrook appeared to be extremely frustrated by his uncooperative audience. His expression was angry, but also perplexed. Still standing at the back of the sanctuary, he fired a couple of shots over the piano-side pews, then a couple over to the right. His hands then flopped at his sides in a what's-with-these-people? gesture. Witnesses offer varying versions of what happened next. Two eyewitnesses, Caleb and Mr. Herweck, saw the same thing: an older youth with a goatee seated in a pew toward the rear of the sanctuary, near the center. The youth, with eyes closed and head bowed, appeared to be praying. This may have been Jeremiah Neitz, 19, of South Wayside Baptist Church. Other press accounts have Mr. Neitz entering the church after the shooting began, and verbally confronting Ashbrook. But both Caleb and Mr. Herweck say they saw the youth, who matches Mr. Neitz's description, seated in the church before the confrontation began. What is clear is that Mr. Neitz, the last person to speak with Ashbrook, told the murderer he needed Jesus. From his seat in the rear pew, Ashbrook began yelling at Mr. Neitz: "You believe in all this stuff? You believe in this religious bull___?" According to Mr. Hughes and others, Mr. Neitz stood facing Ashbrook and testified to the value of faith. Mr. Neitz's youth pastor Adam Hammond, who was lying on the floor near Mr. Neitz, reportedly tugged on Mr. Neitz's pants leg and told him to get down and out of danger. But Mr. Neitz would not relent. Mr. Herweck believed "he was fearless." Ashbrook did not fire on Mr. Neitz. Instead, defeated or exhausted, he slumped down on a pew against the rear wall of the sanctuary. Witnesses say the sanctuary was dead silent. The gunman just "sat there for a second, almost in disbelief," says Mr. Herweck. "Then he yelled out 'This religion is bull___!'" They were Ashbrook's last words. He put the gun to his own head and a final shot rang out. Blood appeared on Ashbrook's right temple and a bullet hole appeared in the wall to the left of his head. In the seconds that followed, someone yelled, "The shooter's down! Everybody get out!" The sanctuary door burst open and Chip Gillette, the off-duty police officer who lives across the street from Wedgwood, rushed into a stream of fleeing teens. As he reached the shooter, Mr. Gillette said Ashbrook was just beginning "a death roll," slumping sideways in the pew, falling right to left. But the 9-mm handgun with which Ashbrook ended his own reign of terror was gone. After he heard the gunman's final muffled shot, Mr. Payton, the Meadow Lane youth pastor and also a former police officer, crawled through pews to snatch the weapon from Ashbrook's hand. He then carried it quickly from the sanctuary out into the hallway, where he placed the weapon on the floor and reported his action to one of the uniformed officers that were by then swarming over the scene. "The whole time the guy was shooting and I was lying on the floor with my kids, I just kept thinking that getting the gun out of the guy's hand was the one way I could stop what was going on," says Mr. Payton. "I guess that was still on my mind. I was still very fearful when I took the gun from him. Maybe I've seen too many movies where the bad guy comes back. But I wanted to make sure he couldn't hurt anyone else. I just wanted to be sure."

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