Massacre in church ends America's weekend of gun murders

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The Independent US

The United States is in shock after a weekend of gun violence which culminated in the shooting of seven members of a church congregation. The gunman, a loner who lived with his mother in suburban Wisconsin, then turned the weapon on himself.

The United States is in shock after a weekend of gun violence which culminated in the shooting of seven members of a church congregation. The gunman, a loner who lived with his mother in suburban Wisconsin, then turned the weapon on himself.

It was the third serious incident in as many days, coinciding with the bloody climax to a courthouse triple murder in Georgia and the shooting of a two-year-old boy in Texas by his four-year-old brother. The toddler picked his mother's loaded pistol out of her handbag and appeared unaware to the damage he had done.

The church shootings involved a small fundamentalist denomination called the Living Church of God, which believes Anglo-Americans are one of the lost tribes of Israel and that the world is poised on the verge of the End Times, heralding the return of Jesus Christ.

Police and local media reports said Terry Ratzmann, 44, pulled out a handgun during Saturday's service - held in a Sheraton hotel in Brookfield, outside Milwaukee - and began firing at the back row of worshippers. Congregants dived under seats and behind the podium, sparing many lives. He stopped at least once to reload, then shot himself after one worshipper begged him to consider what he was doing.

Among those he killed were two teenagers, the regional pastor of the church and a 74-year-old man. Four others were injured, several of whom were in their teens or early twenties.

The motive for the shooting was unclear, although various reports suggested that Ratzmann was upset by a taped sermon sent out by the church's spiritual leader a couple of weeks ago, or that he was prone to alcoholism and depression.

An archive of sermons on the Living Church of God's website came up empty yesterday, while a message on the home page said the church was co-operating with the police to get to the bottom of the "tragedy".

Neighbours described Ratzmann as a loner who loved tending to his greenhouse, spending many hours devising a system to feed trout waste to his tomatoes and zucchini.

The shooting of the two-year-old boy happened at his home in Houston, Texas. Police said the four-year-old became angry after his brother threw a toy at him. He went to his mother's handbag, picked up a .32-calibre semi-automatic and fired at the two-year-old's head. The victim was in a Houston hospital in critical condition.

Police did not blame the boy - who was too young to understand his actions and spent much of yesterday at the hospital where his brother was being cared for- but said they might press charges against the mother. Child Protective Services said they would investigate the case. Police declined to name the family.

In Georgia, meanwhile, there was a dramatic follow-up to Friday's shooting of a judge, a court stenographer and a sheriff's deputy, allegedly by the man who they were all about to put on trial on rape charges. The suspect, Brian Nichols, escaped from the courthouse in Atlanta and evaded police roadblocks by taking a commuter train instead of a car that he had allegedly stolen from a news reporter.

He surprised an off-duty US Customs agent at his home in the suburb of Lennox, killed him and took his badge and car, police said. He then burst into an apartment complex and took a woman hostage.

By Saturday morning, the woman had managed to get out of the building under circumstances that are not yet clear and alerted the police. When Nichols realised he was surrounded by heavily armed Swat teams, he raised a white flag and surrendered.

Nichols was in custody yesterday on a charge of illegal gun possession, the minimum required to hold him while police prepare a more exhaustive charge sheet. He is expected to make his first court appearance today.

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