OGDEN, Utah (AP) — It was a quiet part of the Father’s Day Mass as about 300 people stood up in preparation for communion. A parishioner, known by many at the church as Ricky Jennings, entered through the glass doors in back, holding his wife Cheryl’s hand.
Seconds later, police say Jennings fired a single shot at the back of Cheryl’s father’s head, nearly killing him. The loud bang pierced the silence, sending people diving for cover beneath pews and the priest behind the altar.
“It was echoing in my head so loud,” said Rebecca Ory Hernandez, who was only a few feet away with her 5-year-old son. She grabbed the boy, threw him under the pew and got on top of him. She said she heard the pastor blurt out an expletive into his microphone. “I was waiting for another gunman,” she said.
The shooter ran from the church, the pastor and a half dozen other men close on his heels. Ory Hernandez and other parishioners went to James Evans. They used scarves and a shirt to help soak up the blood, and she cradled his head. His wife, Tara, who had been standing next to him, and others prayed.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Evans kept saying, as blood spilled from his mouth.
Meanwhile, Charles Richard Jennings Jr., 35, stole a truck from a nearby neighbor at gunpoint and led police on a highway chase, police said. He was caught hours later on foot after the truck ran out of gas.
Jennings was charged Tuesday with attempted murder. The Weber County attorney also charged him with two counts each of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.
Jennings made a brief court appearance by video. Bail was set at $105,000. His next court hearing has been set for Thursday afternoon. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Jennings’ attorney were not immediately successful. He has not yet entered a plea.
Police are still trying to determine why Jennings shot his father-in-law, said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle on Tuesday. They think he may have been drinking or on drugs, and detectives know the couple had a history of domestic disputes that may have triggered Sunday’s shooting, she said. But, she said Jennings has not given any specific confession as to why he shot Evans.
The Evans family, meanwhile, is grateful for a small miracle.
Evans, who turns 66 on Tuesday, was struck at the side of his head, the bullet going through near his ear and out his cheek and missing his brain, said Dr. Barbara Kerwin, the director of the intensive care unit at McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden.
“He turned his head just at the right time,” his wife said Monday, crying at a hospital news conference. “If didn’t turn his head, he would have been hit in the back of the head and he would have been dead.”
Evans was upgraded to fair condition Tuesday and moved out of the hospital’s intensive care unit. Doctors expect him to survive, although he’ll need reconstructive surgery and rehab to learn to swallow and speak again, Kerwin said. He was awake on Monday, nodding yes and no, writing and using hand signals to communicate.
Court records show Jennings has a criminal record going back to 1996, when he pleaded no contest to several traffic-related misdemeanors. Over the years, he’s pleaded no contest to felony charges of failing to yield to police and attempting to receive a stolen vehicle, and misdemeanor charges for traffic violations, criminal trespassing and theft. He’s also pleaded guilty to theft charges and a felony charge of attempting to tamper with a witness or juror.
Lt. Croyle said his wife, Cheryl, stayed inside the church after her husband fled. There is no indication she knew what her husband was going to do, and authorities don’t expect to file any charges against her, Croyle said.
After paramedics rushed James Evans to the hospital, the Rev. Erik Richtsteig returned to the brick church that sits on the east side of Ogden at the foot of a steep rock mountain called Jumpoff Canyon, surrounded by middle-class houses with manicured lawns and rose bushes.
As doctors operated on James Evans, who had recently accompanied the priest on a trip to the Holy Land in Jerusalem, Richtsteig told his congregation who the shooter was, and asked them to pray for the couple and their 3-year-old son.
Then, for those who stayed, he finished the Mass, explaining his reasons matter-of-factly, Ory Hernandez said.
“Evil will not prevail,” Richtsteig said.
The congregation is shaken, Richtsteig said Monday: “They were a mess — they were worshipping God and this man came in and did an act of violence.”
Ory Hernandez says she has cried, enraged that violence came to the house of worship, and was at a loss for words when her son told her, “I didn’t know there were any bad guys in this town, mommy.”
But it won’t stop her from coming back to church.
“The bad guy doesn’t get to win this time,” she said.
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