VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (NewsNation) — A gunman opened fire inside a suburban Alabama church Thursday, killing three people before being taken into custody, authorities said.
Law enforcement agencies rushed to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills at 6:22 p.m. Thursday for reports of an active shooter.
According to police, 84-year-old Walter Rainey, of Irondale, 75-year-old Sarah Yeager of Pelham and an 84-year-old Hoover woman were killed when a lone suspect went into a small church gathering and opened fire on the group.
The suspect was subdued and held by an attendee of the event until police arrived Thursday evening, sparing the congregation from further violence, police Capt. Shane Ware said.
“It was extremely critical in saving lives,” Ware told a news conference. “The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero.”
Prosecutors charged Robert Findlay Smith, 70, with capital murder Friday in connection to the shooting.
Motive for the shooting is unclear.
The church’s website listed a “Boomers Potluck” scheduled for Thursday night. “There will be no program, simply eat and have time for fellowship,” the flyer read.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. John Burruss, found out about the shooting while in Greece on a mission trip, but used social media to share a prayer with the congregation.
“When I don’t have words to say, I often turn to one of the sources of comfort, my Book of Common Prayer, Burress said in his video address.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement late Thursday lamenting what she called the shocking and tragic loss of life at the church. Although she said she was glad to hear the suspect was in custody, she wrote, “This should never happen — in a church, in a store, in the city or anywhere.”
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry told reporters his “close-knit, resilient, loving community” had been rocked by “this senseless act of violence.” The bedroom community is one of the wealthiest cities in Alabama, home to many businesspeople, doctors and lawyers who work in nearby Birmingham. Vestavia Hills is known for top-flight schools and a family-centered, suburban lifestyle. It has nearly 40,000 residents, most of whom are white.
The Rev. Rebecca Bridges, the church’s associate rector, led an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page Friday morning. She prayed not only for the victims and church members who witnessed the shooting, but also “for the person who perpetrated the shooting.”
“We pray that you will work in that person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray that you will help us to forgive.”
Bridges, who is currently in London, alluded to other recent mass shootings as she prayed that elected officials in Washington and Alabama “will see what has happened at St. Stephen’s and Uvalde and Buffalo and in so many other places and their hearts will be changed, minds will be opened.”
“And that our culture will change and that our laws will change in ways that will protect all of us,” she added.
Thursday’s shooting took place just over a month after one person was killed and five others injured when a man opened fire on Taiwanese parishioners at a church in Southern California. It also comes nearly seven years to the day after an avowed white supremacist killed nine people during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate WIAT contributed to this report.