Texas shooterremains a puzzle

No hint of motive, just wreckage of life, serial killer dreams

Bush blames `wave of evil'

September 17, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The man who walked into Wedgwood Baptist Church on Wednesday did not look like he belonged to the congregation. No one apparently knew Larry Gene Ashbrook or what this man in blue jeans and a black leather jacket might want. People would later learn that he was a jobless loner, an ex-sailor prone to foul moods and feared by several of his neighbors.

But at that moment, the only thing that seemed strange was that he was smoking a cigarette in church. A janitor approached him about the cigarette, and authorities say Ashbrook shot him. He shot a woman sitting nearby in the head, they say.

And then he followed the sounds of music and voices into the sanctuary, where hundreds of teen-agers had gathered for a contemporary Christian music concert. He walked inside and began firing.

"People were crying," said Bob Bollinger, a Sunday school director. "They didn't understand it. They were in shock."

By the time the night was over, seven people were killed, three of them teen-agers, and Ashbrook became the eighth fatality when he shot himself. Seven other people were wounded, two of whom remained in critical condition yesterday.

As investigators gathered evidence about Ashbrook's rampage and as local officials sought to comfort a grieving city, the suspect emerged as an angry, desperate man who apparently had called two local newspapers in recent months to say he fantasized about serial killers.

In Washington, President Clinton decried the attack and offered the nation's sympathy to the victims, their families and the people of Fort Worth. "Yet again, we have seen a sanctuary violated by gun violence, taking children brimming with faith and promise and hope before their time," he said.

Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, canceled campaign appearances in Michigan and went to Wedgwood Baptist in the afternoon to comfort the families of the victims.

The Texas governor said "a wave of evil" -- not a lack of gun control laws -- is the cause of rampant gun violence in America. "I don't know of a law -- a governmental law -- that will put love in people's hearts."

Ralph Mendoza, Fort Worth's acting police chief, said Ashbrook, 47, apparently screamed insults about "the Baptist religion" during the shooting, but investigators had not discerned his motives. Ashbrook did not leave a suicide note or written evidence of his intentions, the police chief said. He lived several miles from Wedgwood Baptist, and members of the church had no idea why he chose them as a target.

"He was saying, `Your religion is nothing, it's not worth anything, it means nothing,' " said Mary Beth Talley, 17, who was wounded in the attack.

Local police and federal agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms searched the home Ashbrook had shared with his parents until their deaths and uncovered the raw materials for a pipe bomb.

Mendoza said Ashbrook threw a pipe bomb into the front of the sanctuary during his attack. Investigators said Ashbrook used semiautomatic handguns, a 9 mm Ruger and a .380-caliber AMT. He fired at least 30 shots, and officers found 10 Ruger ammunition clips in his pockets and near his body. He bought both guns in February 1992 at licensed firearms dealers in a flea market-type operation called Trader's Village just outside Forth Worth, investigators said.

Fearing that Ashbrook may have brought more than one pipe bomb into the church, investigators sent in robotic bomb-sweeping equipment in the hours after the attack.

To a large degree, Ashbrook remains a puzzle to investigators. At least publicly, Mendoza and other officials said they weren't certain of his motives. However, he had apparently called the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and an alternative newspaper, FW Weekly, in recent months and told them he fantasized about serial killers.

Ashbrook lived in a modest brick ranch house in Forest Hill, a lower middle-class, incorporated bedroom community in southeast Fort Worth, about seven miles from the church. At 47, Ashbrook was the youngest of five siblings, and he lived at home with his elderly father, Jack, until he died two months ago.

Police searching his home found holes punched in walls, cement poured in toilets, family photographs shredded -- and several old journals. But nothing yielded an explanation for why he opened fire in the church.

The journals, some going back 10 years, indicated that Ashbrook had been upset about his inability to keep a job. Mendoza said Ashbrook's only known police record was a 1971 arrest for marijuana possession.

"I think he was just somebody who was a social outcast," FBI spokesman Bob Garrity Jr. said. "We found evidence that he was a very emotionally disturbed person."

His father had retired after 35 years as a switchman for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad and had been a fixture at the Pleasant Ridge Church of Christ for 40 years. Neighbors said the suspect had been close to his mother, Ethel Muriel Ashbrook, who died in 1990.

"You could never tell what kind of mood swing he was in, so I kept away from him," said Venita Hord, 50, who lived across the street. "I never did trust him."

James Branum, who grew up a block away, last saw Ashbrook six months ago. Branum and others said he never held a steady job. "When his daddy died, he got the house because nobody was left. But he couldn't pay for it."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/17/99

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