VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. — The 70-year-old suspected gunman in a shooting that killed three people at an Alabama church sat by himself drinking liquor, rejecting offers to join the others gathered at the potluck dinner, before gunfire shattered the peace of the evening, a survivor recalled.
“It felt like he was disengaged,” Susan Sallin, 73, said. Sallin was seated at the same table at the “Boomers Potluck" with the three people who died in the Thursday night shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.
The suspected gunman had previously attended church services and a few church gatherings for people of the Baby Boomer generation and older, but didn't seem to interact much with others, she said. That night, he sat at a table by himself. While wine was available at the potluck, he was drinking from what appeared to be a small bottle of Scotch, and shunned invitations to join the others.
"I personally invited him to come and sit at our table twice because I wanted him to feel a sense of inclusion, but he did not come," Sallin said. She said a woman, whose husband would be killed moments later in the shooting, “realized he had not fixed himself a plate and went up and offered to make him a plate." He declined that as well.
Robert Findlay Smith, 70, is charged with capital murder in the shooting that killed three people. Walter Bartlett Rainey, 84, Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, and another woman were killed in the shooting. Police did not release the name of the third victim, but friends referred to her as Jane.
The gathering was joyful, as the friends — who had not been able to gather as much during the pandemic — chatted about the food before them that night, their favorite cars and other light-hearted topics. Sallin said she doesn't remember hearing any arguing or heated conversation before the gunfire suddenly erupted.
“I heard this loud metallic sound, and I thought a metal chair had fallen over on the floor. And then there was another sound, and another sound, and I realized it was a gun," she recalled. "People were diving for the floor. I was diving for the floor. When I got down to the floor, I realized that two of my girlfriends who were sitting at the table with me had been hit."
Sallin said she crawled across the floor to reach her friends. “I was trying to calm them and pat them and tell them, 'You are not alone. You are not alone.' That’s the message that I wanted them to get.”
Nearby, Linda Foster Rainey cradled her husband. According to a family statement, “he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears.”
Sallin said one of the men in the group, who is also in his 70s, was able to subdue the gunman. “I did see him get the gun out of the man's hand and hit him on the head with the gun,” she said.
The Rev. Doug Carpenter, St. Stephen’s pastor for three decades before he retired in 2005, said he understood the man hit the gunman with a folding chair before wrestling him to the ground and taking the gun.
“The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero,” Vestavia Hills police Capt. Shane Ware told reporters a news conference Friday, saying that act was “extremely critical in saving lives.”
The church had been closed off for several days as a crime scene, but the congregation returned Sunday for worship services with a message of choosing love over hate.
The Rev. John Burruss, the rector of St. Stephen’s, invoked the Christian story of the last supper, where Jesus invited the friend who would ultimately betray him.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that Bart and Sharon and Jane would invite their Judas again and again to sit down and share a meal, because they knew God's unconditional love," he said, using the first names that the three victims went by.
"It was their guiding ethic and they fully embodied it. ... They taught us that all are welcome at the table,” Burruss said.