I'm really proud of my parishioners. No one panicked. Their first response was to help Jim, then help Tara — then they were praying. So what more can you ask of people? —Rev. Erik J. Richtsteig
OGDEN — Charles "Ricky" Jennings walked into the St. James the Just Catholic Church Sunday about an hour after Mass had started, holding his wife's hand.
The Rev. Erik J. Richtsteig thought it was a bit strange, noting that Jennings didn't attend church very often.
"I saw him walk in, and I thought something was odd. But I figured it was Father's Day, maybe he's bringing Cheryl to be with her dad. So I looked down, and then I heard the gunshot."
James Evans, Jennings' father-in-law, was in the back pew of the church with his family. Without saying a word, Jennings went over to Evans, and just as he had knelt down to pray, allegedly shot him in the head.
"He turned his head just at the right time. If he didn't turn his head, he would have been shot in the back of the head and be dead," his wife, Tara Evans, said during a press conference Monday at McKay-Dee Hospital Center.
After he was later arrested, Jennings allegedly told police: "I thought I missed." He said he didn't see what happened to his father-in-law after firing his shot because the rest of the congregation was coming "at him" so he ran off, a Weber County Jail report states.
The bullet entered near Evans' right ear and exited through his opposite cheek. Doctors say Evans has several more procedures and reconstruction surgeries ahead of him, but he should otherwise make a full recovery. He remained in critical condition Monday but was communicating with doctors and family members at the hospital through nodding, writing and hand gestures. He had received a tracheotomy and was unable to talk.
Jennings, 35, was arrested about 3 ½ hours later after police say he carjacked the vehicle of a man watering his garden with his 1-year-old child about a block away from the church. The pickup truck he allegedly stole at gunpoint eventually ran out of gas and police say he essentially turned himself in. He was booked into the Weber County Jail for investigation of attempted murder, aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.
"I'm really proud of my parishioners. No one panicked. Their first response was to help Jim, then help Tara — then they were praying. So what more can you ask of people?" Father Richtsteig said.
He said counselors would be available for parishioners who were traumatized by the shooting, particularly the many children attending Mass on Sunday. Approximately 300 people were in the church, 495 N. Harrison St., at the time of the shooting.
The purpose of Monday's press conference was to thank the public and update everyone on Evans' condition. Police could not speculate Monday on a possible motive.
"Not knowing the state that Richard Jennings was in at the time, the motive is still a little unclear. It is believed there had been some domestic violence relationship problems that did expand into the extended family," said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle.
She said there were recent reports of domestic abuse between Jennings and his wife but details weren't immediately known Monday. Detectives were looking at the possibility of drugs or alcohol being a factor in the shooting and Croyle noted that toxicology tests had been sent to the Utah State Crime Lab for analysis. Despite the arrest, she said the case is still an "active investigation" with search warrants being served and many people being interviewed.
As of Monday, there was no evidence to suggest that Cheryl Jennings knew what was going to happen, even though she walked into the church with her husband, Croyle said. After the shooting, she ran off. The couple also have a young son who was staying with other relatives during the shooting.
It was not immediately known where Jennings, who is restricted from having firearms, got the gun he allegedly used in the shooting.
Other than talking about James turning his head, Tara Evans — who held the hand of her daughter, Karen, throughout the press conference — declined to make any comments.
"Thank you to all the people who are praying for him," she said.
Father Richtsteig said he only wanted to focus on Evans.
"There have been threats (between Jennings and Evans), but I really don't want to go into that," he said. "Really, what I think we need to focus on is how much good we saw yesterday, not one act of evil. A lot of bravery, a lot of kindness, a lot of charity.
"They were at Mass, they were worshipping God and this man came in and did an act of violence. They're the ones we should be concerned about," he said.
After the shooting, several parishioners put pressure on Evans' wound and cleared his throat so his airway wasn't obstructed. One of the congregation members was also a nurse and helped until paramedics arrived.
Father Richtsteig had just returned Friday from a trip to Jerusalem with Evans and his family. He described him as a person who constantly helped out around the church doing little tasks.
"Jim is one of the kindest people I've ever known," he said. "No one deserves this. But I can't think of anyone who deserves it less than James."
Because of the shooting, Sunday night Mass was canceled. But Father Richtsteig said he wasn't going to let evil triumph, so he held Mass at 8:30 a.m. Monday. About 50 people showed up.
On Thursday, he said he plans to hold a Liturgy of Reparation, blessing the inside and outside of the church.
"We're going to pray for healing, all evil will be expunged from the church," he said. "God doesn't give back a gift. He has consecrated the church. It's a holy place, it will always be a holy place. But there's been an incident, so we need to redress that promise through prayer."
The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese, spoke Monday of his gratitude for the quick response of parishioners at St. James.
"They showed their love for their neighbor in a very tangible way,” he said. “They responded courageously, heroically."
Bishop Wester has called for stricter laws on the sale and use of firearms. He said he remains concerned but doesn’t want to overreact.
"We needn't panic,” he said. “This is a very, thanks be to God, out-of-the-ordinary and not, obviously, something that happens with regularity. So, I don't think we need to get too worried or to turn our churches into armed fortresses."
He added: "We need to really tackle the root causes and to get at mental illness and to get at the anger."
The Weber County Attorney's Office was expected to consider filing formal charges on Tuesday.
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