Three young men with black sweatshirt hoods pulled over their heads walked into a packed church service in Richmond on Sunday, where one of them opened fire and wounded two teenagers sitting in the pews, police said.
The three suspects – who may have been juveniles – fled after the brash 12:30 p.m. attack at New Gethsemane Church of God in Christ, as the singing of the choir was replaced by frightened screams, said Richmond police Sgt. Bisa French.
The two victims, a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man, were hospitalized and were expected to survive. However, French said, they were not willing to help investigators try to track down their assailants.
“The key people aren’t being cooperative,” she said.
A church deacon who was present during the shooting, Charles Miller, said one of the victims was struck in the leg and the other in the shoulder. It was not clear, both he and French said, whether they were intended targets.
Miller said some of the more than 120 church members who witnessed the shooting told him the suspects had paced up and down an aisle – apparently looking for one or more targets – before shooting the victims near the back of the church.
Church members “were going to ask them to remove their hoods” before the shooting, he said.
“I was listening to the choir and all of a sudden there was a ‘pop pop pop pop pop,’ ” Miller said. “Everyone hit the floor. I didn’t know the shooting was inside the church at first, until I heard all of the hollering and screaming.”
The shooting, at 2100 Roosevelt Ave., comes amid a violent beginning to the year in Richmond, which has already recorded seven homicides. The city is still recovering from a violent gang rape outside a high school homecoming dance last year that made national headlines.
“Obviously it was a very brazen attack – in broad daylight during a church service,” French said. “It’s very unusual. You’d think a church is a safe place that people can go no matter what circumstances they have in their life or where they are in their life. After today, obviously not.”
French said investigators were talking to witnesses and believe some of them can identify the suspects. But French said the congregants – apparently scared to get involved – were unwilling to look at photo lineups.
“I don’t understand,” French said. “Where do you draw the line?”
She said witnesses to violent crime in Richmond often believe they will face repercussions on the streets, but rarely do.
Miller, 64, said he was deeply troubled by the shooting, which showed a lack of respect for his church and its members.
“It’s terrible when you come to the house of the Lord and start doing this,” he said. “It’s just something you don’t do.”
But after police emptied the church and processed the crime scene inside, Miller said, he and some of the congregants returned to finish services, which had begun at 11 a.m.
“We went on and had church anyway,” Miller said. “We were giving thanks that nobody was killed. We wanted to go and serve the Lord anyway.”