VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. - A third elderly church member who was shot when a man pulled out a handgun during a potluck dinner has died, police said Friday.
Law enforcement said the 71-year-old church shooting suspect attended services at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, where the shooting occurred.
Police in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, arrested Robert Findlay Smith on Thursday night, Police Captain Shane Ware said.
Ware said prosecutors were preparing warrants to charge Smith with capital murder.
The investigation indicates Smith pulled a gun and opened fire during a potluck dinner attended by other church members. He killed an 84-year-old man and a 75-year-old woman, and left another woman wounded before a person in the room restrained the gunman. That woman died Friday.
Police responded to reports of a shooting at 6:22 p.m. CDT at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.
Police surround a church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama after a report of an active shooter incident on June 16, 2022. (WBRC)
Police found three people shot. Police said 84-year-old Walter Rainey was dead at the church and 75-year-old Sarah Yeager died at a hospital. Police said a person in the room restrained the gunman.
"It was extremely critical in saving lives," Ware told a news conference. "The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero."
People were gathered at the church for what's being called a "Boomers Potluck."
Police said another woman was injured and went to UAB Hospital.
Ware said the suspect and the three victims were all white.
Multiple local law enforcement agencies were at the scene assisting as well as state resources, the FBI, ATF, and U.S. Marshals Service.
Late Friday afternoon, Vestavia Hills police said they executed a search warrant on a home in connection to the shooting. No word on what officers found.
Who is Robert Findlay Smith?
Rev. Doug Carpenter said one victim’s wife and other witnesses recounted what happened. They said a man who introduced himself only as "Mr. Smith" sat at a table by himself — as he’d done while visiting a previous church dinner.
"People tried to speak to him and he was kind of distant and very much a loner," Carpenter said.
At Thursday’s dinner, church member Walter Bartlett Rainey invited the visitor to join his table, Carpenter said, but the man declined. He said Rainey’s wife noticed the visitor wasn’t eating.
"Linda Rainey said he didn’t have any food and she offered to fix a plate for him, and he turned that down," said Carpenter.
Soon afterward, Carpenter said, the man drew his gun and opened fire — shooting Walter Rainey and two other church members. Carpenter said another member, a man in his 70s, grabbed a chair and charged the gunman.
"He hit him with a folding chair, wrestling him to the ground, took the gun from him and hit him in the head with his own gun," Carpenter said.
"Why would a guy who’s been around for a while suddenly decide he would go to a supper and kill somebody?" said the Rev. Carpenter, St. Stephen’s pastor for three decades before he retired in 2005. "It doesn’t make sense."
Ware said Smith and the three victims were all white. He said police are investigating what motivated the suspect, who occasionally attended services at the church. Authorities executed a search warrant Friday at Smith’s home, less than three miles away.
Records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show Smith is a licensed gun dealer whose business is listed at his home address. Court records show Smith filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Samford University, a private university in metro Birmingham, alleging campus security wrongly detained him and accused him of impersonating a police officer.
Emergency crews surround a church just southeast of Birmingham, Alabama after a report of a shooting on June 16, 2022. (WBRC)
What we know about the Alabama church shooting victims
Rainey lived in Irondale, Alabama, according to police. His wife of six decades wasn’t harmed.
"We are all grateful that she was spared and that he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears," Rainey’s family said in a statement.
Yeager was a Pelham, Alabama, resident. She died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The identity of the third victim has not been released.
All three shooting victims were members attending a monthly dinner at the church, said Carpenter, who still attends Sunday services there but wasn’t present Thurdsay night. A Facebook post referred to the gathering as a "Boomers Potluck."
Reaction to Alabama church shooting
Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church Michael B. Curry published a video of a lengthy prayer on Facebook.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey released a statement about the shooting:
"As we are learning about the shocking and tragic loss of a life at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia, we want to offer our prayers for the victim's family, the injured and the entire church community. I am glad to hear the shooter is in custody. This should never happen — in a church, in a store, in the city or anywhere. We continue to closely monitor the situation."
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry said officers "handled this crisis in an exemplary manner." He said his "close-knit, resilient, loving community" of 39,000 had been rocked by "this senseless act of violence."
What is capital murder in Alabama?
A "murder wherein two or more persons are murdered by the defendant by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct" falls under one of several definitions for capital murder in Alabama, according to state code.
Alabama church shooting continues to highlight gun violence
Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry told reporters his "close-knit, resilient, loving community" was rocked by "this senseless act of violence." It’s home to nearly 40,000 residents, most of them white, including many businesspeople, doctors and lawyers who work in Birmingham.
The baffling violence in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham stunned a community known for its family-centered lifestyle. It also deepened the unease in a nation still reeling from recent slaughter wrought by gunmen who attacked a Texas school, a New York grocery store and another church in California.
Thursday’s shooting happened just over a month after one person was killed and five injured when a man opened fire on Taiwanese parishioners at a Southern California church. It also came 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.
A message posted by St. Stephens said it would hold Sunday services, adding: "We will gather at the Table that has taught so many that love is always breaking through in this world, no matter what we experience, whether it be doubt, anger, loss, grief, or death — but yet also joy and life."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.