A pastor shot and killed during his Sunday sermon deflected the first of the gunman's four rounds with a Bible, sending a confetti-like spray of paper into the air in a horrifying scene that congregants initially thought was a skit, police said.
The gunman strode down the aisle of the sprawling First Baptist Church shortly after 8am and briefly spoke with The Rev. Fred Winters, then pulled out a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and began firing until it jammed, Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent said. Churchgoers wrestled the gunman to the ground as he waved a knife, slashing himself and two other people, Trent said.
None of the about 150 congregants seemed to recognize the gunman and investigators do not know details of Winters' conversation with him, but they planned to review an audio recording of the service, Trent said. The service was not videotaped.
"We thought it was part of a drama skit ... when he shot, what you saw was confetti," said congregant Linda Cunningham, whose husband is a minister of adult education at the church. "We just sat there waiting for what comes next, not realizing that he had wounded the pastor."
Winters had stood on an elevated platform to deliver his sermon about finding happiness in the workplace and managed to run halfway down the sanctuary's side aisle before collapsing, Cunningham said.
Two congregants tackled the gunman as he pulled the 4-inch (10-centimeter) knife, and all three were stabbed, police said. The gunman suffered "a pretty serious wound to the neck" while one congregant had lower back wounds, Trent said.
Congregants knocked the gunman between sets of pews, then held him down until police arrived, said church member Don Bohley, who was just outside the sanctuary when the shooting began.
Authorities didn't know whether Winters, a married father of two who had led the church for nearly 22 years, knew the gunman. Police described the gunman as a 27-year-old from nearby Troy but would not release his name pending possible charges.
Trent said investigators had not immediately uncovered evidence of a criminal background or mental illness.
"We don't know the relationship (between the gunman and pastor), why he's here or what the circumstances came about that caused him in the first place to be here," said Illinois State Police Master Trooper Ralph Timmins.
Trent said investigators found no immediate evidence of a criminal background for the suspect. He said police were investigating whether a red Jeep parked outside the church belonged to the man.
The Jeep was registered to the address of a 27-year-old man in an upscale neighborhood in Troy. No one answered the door at the residence Sunday. A woman from a neighboring home cried while hugging other neighbors in the cul-de-sac, but all declined comment.
The Rev. Mark Jones, another pastor at First Baptist, said he briefly saw the gunman but not the shooting, though he heard a sound like miniature firecrackers.
"We have no idea what this guy's motives were," Jones said outside the church.
He later urged a Sunday evening prayer service attended by hundreds at nearby Metro Community Church in Edwardsville to find resilience and spirituality after "this attack from the forces of hell."
The standing-room-only crowd cried, cradled Bibles and stretched their hands skyward as they packed into the church, many watching the service on large television monitors in overflow areas.
"We need to reassure our hearts and reinforce our minds that Pastor Fred is in that place that we call heaven," Jones said. "Church, evil does exist. Today, we saw the visible results of evil and its influence."
The gunman and 39-year-old congregant Terry Bullard underwent surgery at St. Louis University Hospital and were in serious condition, spokeswoman Laura Keller said. The other victim, Keith Melton, was treated and released from Gateway Regional Medical Center.
"I would call it heroic," Trent said. "While many understandably were stuck to their seats, they took to action."
First Baptist had an average attendance of 32 people when Winters became senior pastor in 1987; it now has about 1,200 members, according to the church's Web site. Winters also was former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to the site.
The red brick church sits along a busy two-lane highway on the east side of Maryville, a fast-growing village of more than 7,000 about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of St. Louis. A farm sits directly across from the church, but subdivisions of newer homes can be seen from every side.
At Winters' two-story brick home in Edwardsville, several friends gathered to pay their respects but declined comment. Family members also declined comment.
Last month, a man shot and killed himself in front of a cross inside televangelist Robert H. Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. In November, a gunman killed his estranged wife in a New Jersey church vestibule as Sunday services let out.
In July, two people were killed and six wounded in a shooting rampage at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. An out-of-work truck driver who police say targeted the church for its liberal leanings pleaded guilty to the shootings and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.