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Police Search for Motive in Wisconsin Slayings

Churchgoer Who Killed 7 Was About to Lose Job; No Note Found, but Computer Files May Hold Clues

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A03

BROOKFIELD, Wis., March 13 -- The sermon had begun when Terry Ratzmann entered from the back of the room and started firing. The shots came so quickly that a churchgoer said it sounded like a hundred balloons exploding. A friend called out, "Terry, don't!"

Ratzmann said nothing and continued firing. As he changed ammunition clips, people with whom he had worshiped for years at the Living Church of God screamed and ducked for cover. Some frantically dialed 911 on their cell phones. Down to his final five bullets, he shot himself in the head, leaving bodies and questions scattered around him.

Diane Clohesy of Brookfield, Wis., hugs her 5-year-old son Casey at a makeshift memorial outside the hotel where a gunman killed seven people and himself. (Allen Fredrickson -- Reuters)

Police in this Milwaukee suburb said they do not know why Ratzmann opened fire on Saturday afternoon. He killed seven people and wounded four, but left no note and no obvious clues to his troubled mind. Witnesses told detectives that Ratzmann, 44, a computer technician, was losing his job and that a recent prophesy of doom by a church elder may have upset him.

Church members said Ratzmann had walked out on a taped sermon by the national leader of the church. In a message two weeks ago, Roderick C. Meredith wrote his worshipers to prepare for calamity, saying, "We are talking about Bible prophesies that will intensify within the next five to 15 years of your life!"

The evangelical church preaches pacifism, according to its Web site, and urges its members to be conscientious objectors in times of war.

Ratzmann, who lived with his adult sister and mother in a modest clapboard house in neighboring New Berlin, was unmarried and largely kept to himself, said neighbors who were trying to make sense of a crime that matched nothing they knew about him. Investigators hoped to learn more from encrypted files discovered on three home computers.

"There was nothing in his past of any significance," police Capt. Phil Horter told reporters.

The incident at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel, where the congregation gathered every Saturday, was the second startling suicide of the week in a narrow slice of western Milwaukee suburb. On Wednesday, Bart A. Ross, who admitted killing the husband and mother of a Chicago federal judge, killed himself a few miles away in West Allis.

Outside the hotel Sunday, well-wishers had planted seven white crosses in a snow bank, one for each of Ratzmann's victims. They included Randy L. Gregory, 51, a church pastor, and his son, James, 16, of Gurnee, Ill. Randy Gregory's wife, Marjean, 52, was hospitalized in critical condition.

Also killed were Harold Diekmeier, 74, the father of another pastor; Richard Reeves, 58; Bart Oliver, 15; Gloria Critari, 55; and Gerald A. Miller, 44, according to police.

Matthew P. Kaulbach, 21, and Angel M. Varichak, 19, were hospitalized in satisfactory condition Sunday, a hospital spokeswoman said. A 10-year-old girl police identified as Lindsay also remained hospitalized.

Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher inspected the conference room where the shootings occurred.

"It was heartbreaking, overwhelming. Unbelievable tragedy," Bucher said. "Surreal is probably what comes to mind."

Investigators pieced together a portrait of the shootings after interviewing 50 to 60 worshipers. They said Ratzmann, a regular at the church, arrived 20 to 30 minutes after the first sermon began. The North Carolina-based church, founded after a split with the Worldwide Church of God, rented space in the hotel, ordering rows of folding chairs to accommodate members from Wisconsin and Illinois each Saturday, the day the church celebrates the Sabbath.

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