OGDEN, Utah (AP) — A Utah man is expected to survive after his son-in-law walked into Father’s Day Catholic Mass and shot him in the head in front of a congregation of 300 people, many of whom hit the floor, then helped try to stop the bleeding and chase after the suspect.
James Evans, 65, was in critical condition Monday, but has made steady progress, said Dr. Barbara Kerwin, the director of the intensive care unit at McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. The bullet went through his ear and out his cheek, missing his brain.
Police say Charles Richard Jennings Jr., 35, walked into Mass hand-in-hand with his wife, Evans’ daughter, just before noon Sunday at Saint James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden. Authorities said Jennings went straight up to Evans and shot him in the head. He and his wife, Tara Evans, were standing right before communion.
“He turned his head just at the right time,” said Tara Evans on Monday, crying.
If her husband hadn’t turned, the bullet would have hit the back of his head and killed him, Tara Evans said.
Jennings, known to most as “Ricky,” and his wife, Cheryl Jennings, had a history of domestic disputes, said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle. Those problems appear to have spilled over into the extended family, she said, though she stopped short of stating a motive. They suspect Jennings may have been using drugs or alcohol at the time of the shooting, she said.
Jennings had previously made threats, said the Rev. Erik Richtsteig, speaking on behalf of the family, but he declined to go into details. Croyle said they don’t yet know the full scope of the relationship between Jennings and his father-in-law.
There were about 300 people in Mass when the shot was fired, including dozens of children. When they heard the gunshot, parishioners hit the floor, said Richtsteig, who himself ducked behind the altar.
“They were a mess — they were worshipping God and this man came in and did an act of violence,” Richtsteig said.
After the initial shock, many parishioners came to the aid of Evans, putting pressure on the wound and keeping his airway clear, Richtsteig said. Others ran after Jennings, who fled the church.
Jennings stole a truck at gunpoint from a nearby house and drove north on the highway trying to elude police. He was caught later on foot after the truck ran out of gas, Croyle said.
Jennings was booked on suspicion of attempted aggravated criminal homicide, aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted user. The Weber County District Attorney is expected to file formal charges Tuesday.
Authorities don’t foresee any charges being filed against Evans’ daughter, the wife of the shooter. She was not at Monday’s news conference at the McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden.
James Evans will need reconstructive surgery and rehab to learn to swallow and speak again, Dr. Kerwin said. He was awake, nodding yes and no, writing and using hand signals to communicate, she said. Evans and his wife had just returned from a trip to the Holy Land in Jerusalem with Richtsteig.
“Jim is one of the kindest people I have ever known,” said Richtsteig, who has known the couple for 10 years. “No one deserves this, but I can’t think of a person who would deserve it less this less than Jim.”
Richtseig said the church is offering psychological counseling to people in the church at the time of the shooting.
Sunday evening Mass had to be cancelled to allow police to do crime scene work, he said, but the church was back on schedule Monday morning. Richtseig wants to keep the focus on kindness and bravery exhibited inside the church after the shooting — not the shooter.
“I really didn’t want evil to win, so we had Mass at 8:30,” Richtsteig said.
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