A woman was killed by two off-duty officers after police said she opened fire with an AR-15 rifle that had a sticker with the word "Palestine" on it inside celebrity pastor Joel Osteen's megachurch in Texas.
The 36-year-old woman had on a trenchcoat and a backpack and was accompanied by her young son when she entered the west side of Lakewood Church just before 2 p.m., Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said in a press conference later that day.
The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office told Scripps News the suspect was identified as Genesse Ivonne Moreno. Police said the suspect has been known to use multiple names, including the name Jeffery Escalante, but that she has always identified as female based on their findings.
The suspect died at the scene after a shootout with an off-duty Houston police officer and an off-duty agent of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission who were off-duty at the church. Police said the Houston officer was approved to work at the church as security personnel outside of his job with the department. Texas law does not prohibit firearms in religious places of worship.
The 7-year-old boy, who police later said was her son, and a 57-year-old man were both wounded, but it’s unclear whose gunfire struck the two victims. Police said the boy was shot in the head and is in critical condition at a local children’s hospital.
During a separate press conference Monday afternoon, Finner said the 57-year-old victim had been released from the hospital.
At some point after she was shot, the woman threatened that she had a bomb, but officers did not find any explosives in her backpack or her vehicle. Finner said the woman was also spraying some type of substance on the ground when she entered the church but they did not specify what it was determined to be.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena said preliminary testing done at the scene indicated there was no chemical exposure risk to the church attendees at the scene.
It’s unclear what the shooter’s motivation was and authorities said they can't speculate. However, police later said investigators found "anti-semitic writings" in the suspect's possessions.
Police also said the shooter acted alone and is not believed to be a part of a bigger group.
In addition to the AR-15 the suspect fired inside the church, a .22-caliber rifle was recovered from the shooter's bag at the scene, police said. One of the guns had been purchased legally in December.
Investigators also said there had been an ongoing dispute between the suspect and her ex-husband and ex-husband's family, who are Jewish.
Criminal records show the suspect had faced several charges in the past, including assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, evading arrest and unlawful carrying of a weapon. Police said she also has a history of mental health issues, according to her family.
The FBI is assisting with the ongoing investigation, but the Houston Police Department is the lead on the case.
During Sunday's news conference, Osteen said his congregation was “devastated” and that he would pray for the victims, suspect and their families. It was not clear where he was at the time of the shooting or how many attendees were in the church at the time.
“We’re going to stay strong and we’re going to continue to move forward,” he said. “There are forces of evil, but the forces that are for us — the forces of God — are stronger than that. So we’re going to keep going strong and just, you know, doing what God’s called us to do: lift people up and give hope to the world.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement saying “our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston. Places of worship are sacred.”
Osteen’s church is the third-largest megachurch in the U.S. with 45,000 regular attendees each week, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The enormous building was previously an arena for the NBA’s Houston Rockets and has a 16,000-person capacity.
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