Thousands brave freezing cold in vigil for Illinois shooting victims

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

By Robert Chiarito

AURORA, Ill. (Reuters) – More than 2,000 people braved icy rain in sub-freezing temperatures in Illinois on Sunday for a vigil paying respects to five people killed and five police officers wounded by a factory worker who opened fire on Friday after losing his job.

Solemn mourners stood before five white crosses with the names of the dead that became a shrine to the victims bearing pictures and hand-written remembrances outside the factory where the shooting took place in Aurora, about 40 miles (64 km) west of Chicago.

“My heart is broken again for the family members of the victims,” said Mary Kay Mace, mother of the late Ryanne Mace, who was killed 11 years ago in a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University.

“I’m living proof that you can survive it, however. It’s a hard, difficult trek but it can be done,” said Mace, 55, who drove three hours from Petersburg, Illinois, and wore a university pin to honor shooting victim Trevor Wehner, a 21-year-old intern from NIU who was on his first day on the job.

The other fatal victims were Josh Pinkard, the plant manager; Clayton Parks, the human resources manager; Russell Beyer, a mold operator and union chairman; and Vicente Juarez, a stock room attendant and forklift operator.

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

A sixth employee and five police officers responding to the scene were wounded. The gunman himself was slain about 90 minutes later in a gunfight with police who stormed the building.

Friday’s bloodshed marked the latest outbreak of gun violence in a nation where mass shootings have become almost commonplace and came a day after the first anniversary of the massacre of 17 people by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Several local pastors spoke and the vigil drew people of many ages.

Barbara Fultz, a 72-year-old retired woman who has been living in Aurora for more than 50 years, said her church, Main Baptist Church in Aurora, had told members about the vigil and she has a cousin who works at the Henry Pratt Company factory, a maker of industrial valves.

“It’s a tragedy all over,” Fultz said. “We’ve never had anything like this here. It’s so sad.”

Michelle Lamos, a 40-year-old healthcare worker, stood with her 14-month-old daughter.

“We need to come together. This is awful,” Lamos said.

The gunman was a violent felon who obtained a state permit to buy a firearm despite being legally barred from owning one, officials said.

(Reporting by Robert Chiarito; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Florida bank shooter killed five women in apparent random attack

Zephen Xaver, 21, a suspect in the shooting at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, south of Orlando, Florida, U.S., is seen in this booking photo released on January 23, 2019. Courtesy Highlands County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – The 21-year-old gunman accused of carrying out a deadly bank shooting in a small Florida town killed five women in what police said on Thursday appeared to have been a random attack.

The attack took place around lunchtime on Wednesday at a SunTrust Bank branch in Sebring, a town of about 10,000 people 95 miles (153 km) south of Orlando, authorities said.

“We have no information at this time as to what his true motive may have been. We believe it was a random act. We believe no one was specifically targeted,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said during a news conference.

The suspect, Zephen Xaver, called the 911 emergency number just after 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT) and told dispatch he had shot five people inside the bank, according to authorities.

When officers arrived at the scene, they found he had barricaded himself inside. After more than an hour of negotiations, police entered the bank and took Xaver into custody.

Hoglund said all the victims were women, and named two of them as Cynthia Watson, a bank customer, and Marisol Lopez, a bank employee. He did not give their ages.

The police chief said the families of the other three victims had asked that their names not be released, but added that all of the victims aside from Watson were employees.

“We have no known connections to the suspect or any of the victims at this time. … We have no known motive that he’s targeting this bank for any particular reason,” Hoglund said.

Xaver was being held without bail, according to booking records on the Highlands County sheriff’s website. He faces five counts of premeditated murder in the first degree.

Xaver lived for a time in northwestern Indiana, according to local media reports there.

A man who identified himself as the suspect’s father, Josh Xaver, told CNN on Wednesday that he was heartbroken for the victims. He said his son moved to Florida about a year ago, and that “he wasn’t raised to be like this.”

“He’s always been a good kid. He’s had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone before,” Josh Xaver told CNN. “This is a total shock.”

A woman who said she used to date the suspect, Alex Gerlach, told Indiana TV station WSBT that he was fascinated with death and guns and often talked about wanting to harm people.

“I never understood where it started. For some reason (he) always hated people and wanted everyone to die,” Gerlach told the station, adding that she tried to warn people in the past but no one believed her.

SunTrust Banks Inc Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Rogers said on Wednesday that bank officials were working with law enforcement and addressing the needs of all individuals and families involved.

“Our entire team mourns this terrible loss,” Rogers said in a statement.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Joey Ax in New York; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)