The Rev. Thomas L. Gross, the founder of a growing Baptist church in Southeast Washington, died early yesterday morning from a single gunshot in the head, the victim of an apparent robbery attempt, police said.
Gross was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car, which was parked in an alley behind the 1200 block of Congress Street SE in the city's Congress Heights section. He had been shot one time from behind, and his pockets had been turned inside out, police and a relative said.
He was found about 11 p.m. Tuesday by police officers responding to a report of a shooting in the alley, which runs behind houses and has only one outlet. Gross, mortally wounded, was taken to the D.C. medical examiner's office and pronounced dead at 1:30 a.m.
Investigators provided few details, and it is unclear whether Gross, who was 48, drove to the alley voluntarily or was forced there. Police sources, as well as several neighbors, said the alley and the surrounding blocks are known for drugs and prostitution.
Those who knew Gross said he often worked late at True Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church, which is on the 4200 block of Wheeler Road SE, about a half-mile south of where he was found. Police did not say what Gross had been doing earlier in the evening. His wife, Viola, declined to speak to reporters.
News of the shooting surprised the congregation, which has about 300 active members and an attendance that sometimes reaches 500. The church's three deacons and nine deaconesses learned of the slaying by 2 a.m. yesterday, when word spread quickly by telephone.
By 1 p.m., a line of cars was parked in front of Gross's home, which is on the 900 block of Barnaby Street SE, adjacent to the church parking lot. Members of the congregation, some carrying food, entered the two-story town house. Others gathered inside the church, a brick building that once was a branch office for the National Bank of Washington. Only last month, members said, Gross proudly presided over the erection of the steeple, a simple white tower with blue windows.
His cousin, Willie Ogburn, a church deacon, said Gross had earned a reputation as a charismatic preacher, one whose sermons often made members sit up, sometimes in shock. Once, he referred to Jesus as the trashman, and then, when he had everyone's attention, explained that Jesus sought and removed the trash "in all of us."
Gross, like Ogburn, was born in White Oak, Md., a small town that at the time had no electricity or running water.
"I'm just a little country boy that God picked out of the junkyard of life," he would tell his congregation, Ogburn said.
"He was going for the Golden Gloves when God called him to preaching," Ogburn said. "He would tell you, 'Just like a fight, that's how I'm fighting the devil.'
"He told us how the Lord laid it in his heart to go and start a church."
Gross first preached in his own church 17 years ago, standing in a living room of a first-floor, rent-free apartment in Langley Park. The congregation then rented a building on Kennedy Street NW before buying the former bank branch.
Ogburn and the Rev. Charles Mellion, a former deacon at the church who is now studying at Washington Baptist Seminary, said Gross would seek out crowds. He would walk out of his house singing, "Tramping, Tramping, Trying to Make my Heaven Home," march in known drug areas in Southeast, preach at street corners or wherever a group gathered. Often, he would go into a neighborhood pool hall and try to make churchgoers out of the players.
"He would go the extra mile just to save a soul. That was his main interest," said Eloise Odom, a church member.
Gross and his wife were married for about 20 years. They had no children. Several weeks ago, when he confused a case of acute heartburn with a heart ailment, Gross told Ogburn that he did not fear dying.
He said: "If the Lord takes me, I don't mind because I'm ready."