An article yesterday incorrectly described Conyers, Ga., as among communities made famous recently by mass homicide. Conyers was the site of a highly publicized shooting in May, in which six were wounded but none were killed. (Published 09/18/1999)
Larry Gene Ashbrook, 47, was the oddball of Marshall Street, a chronically unemployed and often disheveled man who lived alone in a tumbledown rambler. Though 6 feet tall, he weighed just 140 pounds and had long brown hair that always seemed matted and unwashed. He had no use for his neighbors, and when he spoke to them, usually it was in anger. He would sneer, gesture obscenely, accuse them of talking about him, of snickering behind his back. Once, he exposed himself to three women as they sat chatting near his house.
"Crazy Larry," said Melissa Howell, 24, who lived two doors away from Ashbrook. "I'd see him sometimes and I'd wave to him, y'know? But he'd never wave back. He'd just stare at you. He'd stare at you until you turned away."
On Wednesday night, Ashbrook did more than stare. Armed with two semiautomatic pistols and a pipe bomb, he walked into Wedgwood Baptist Church, three miles from his home, where more than 150 people, mostly teenagers, were in the sanctuary after a day-long celebration of their faith. Ashbrook began shooting shortly before 7 p.m., killing three adults and four teenagers, and wounding seven.
Then he pressed one of the guns to his head and joined the dead.
As Fort Worth mourned today -- having joined Littleton, Colo.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Conyers, Ga., and other communities on the list of places recently made famous by mass homicide -- scores of police officers and federal agents continued trying to sort out what happened, and why, inside the huge, red-brick church.
"We're still trying to make heads or tails of what he was thinking about," the city's acting police chief, Ralph Mendoza, said today. "What pushed him over the edge?"
Ashbrook had always been a brooder, a loner, deeply suspicious of the world around him, his neighbors said. But like so many neighbors of brooding loners in the annals of mass murder, they never thought of him as a suicidal gunman. And so they were "shocked" and "couldn't believe it" when they heard about his rampage.
"He was always kind of a strange type of person," said another neighbor, Tommie Branum, 70. "But I never saw a sign of something like this."
Mendoza said investigators have found no record of Ashbrook being treated, or seeking help, for psychiatric problems. He had only one minor scrap with the police, involving marijuana, in 1971, Mendoza said.
Apart from a short stint as an enlisted man in the Navy, Ashbrook lived on Marshall Street, in the little city of Forest Hill, just outside Fort Worth, for most of his life, neighbors said, most recently with his elderly father, who died in July. Searching the house today, authorities found it in "total disarray," Mendoza said. Cement had been poured into the toilets, furniture overturned, and holes punched in several walls.
They also found "rambling writings" in which Ashbrook, who had lost numerous odd jobs "is complaining about people. He's complaining about jobs. He thinks people are out to get him," Mendoza said. He said relatives and acquaintances interviewed by investigators described him as "someone that is paranoid, someone who exhibits signs of being schizophrenic."
Over the summer, Ashbrook had written at least two rambling letters to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, saying that he'd been targeted by the CIA and that there had been "continuous interference in my life and employment for a period of possibly 20 years" because he was suspected of being a "serial killer."
Nearly a month ago, Ashbrook also called FWWeekly, a local paper, and told a reporter, "I'm not a serial killer . . . although I have always been something of a failure with women." He asked, "Can you believe that some innocent person could be set up by the cops and no one would listen?"
"My back's against the wall," he said, according to the paper's Web site. "My father died two weeks ago. . . . I don't have anywhere else to go."
Ashbrook was one of four children of devoutly religious parents. His mother, Merle, who died in 1990, and his father, Jack, took the family every Sunday to Pleasant Ridge Church of Christ in nearby Arlington. In recent years it was only the father and the son in the house, and they often argued loudly, neighbors said. After his father's death, Ashbrook lacked even that contact.
As Ashbrook entered the church Wednesday night, he was smoking a cigarette, Mendoza said. When a maintenance worker approached to tell him not to smoke, Ashbrook drew a 9mm Ruger P85 handgun and shot the worker in the chest, Mendoza said. Then he turned to a woman sitting on a couch and shot her in the head. Next he shot two victims who were selling compact discs of spiritual music in the church lobby.
Then he walked into the large, fan-shaped sanctuary through a rear door.
The church, in a middle-class neighborhood of tidy, ranch-style homes, was hosting a Christian rock band. Scores of young people had shown up for the concert. Others were there to sing with the church choir.
Since morning, the teenagers had been celebrating "See You At The Pole Day," a decade-old observance popular among Christian youths nationwide. Because they are not allowed to engage in organized classroom prayer, they meet to pray outside, around school flagpoles, on the third Wednesday of each September. Here, the celebration extended into the evening at Wedgwood Baptist.
Hearing the music as he entered the sanctuary, Ashbrook shouted, "This is all [expletive]," according to Mendoza, quoting witnesses. "I can't believe you believe this junk," Ashbrook yelled. And he cried, "Religion is [expletive]." Then he squeezed off more than 30 shots.
At first, some of the young people thought it was a surprise "skit" about evil, Mendoza said. "That probably made them more vulnerable," he said, because many did not instantly run or hide. But as bodies began falling, the sanctuary filled with the screams of teenagers and adults fleeing and diving for cover. Of the four teenagers killed, one was 17 and the others were 14.
Before killing himself, Ashbrook also tossed a pipe bomb, which exploded, the shrapnel tearing into the walls.
In addition to the Ruger, Ashbrook had a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun that Mendoza said was purchased at a flea market just east of Fort Worth on Feb. 15, 1992. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said agents traced the Ruger to another gun dealer at the same flea market who acquired the weapon Feb. 13, 1992. Investigators were still trying to locate the dealer and were not sure whether the gun was sold to Ashbrook on the same day he purchased the .380.
Mendoza said police have found no evidence of wrongdoing in the sales of the weapons.
At the White House, President Clinton bemoaned the tragedy: "Yet again, we have seen a sanctuary violated by gun violence, taking children brimming with faith and promise and hope before their time." Without mentioning gun control, he added, "We know that there is nothing we can do to assure that this will never happen. But there is a lot more we can do to assure it will happen more rarely."
Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, scrapped two fund-raisers to return to Texas. Blaming a "wave of evil" for which the antidote is "more love in society," Bush said, "It's hard to explain how hatred lurks in somebody's heart to the point where he walks into a church where children and adults were seeking God's guidance and shoots them."
Staff writer Lorraine Adams and research editor Margot Williams in Washington contributed to this report.
A Violent Year
Some major multiple shootings in 1999:
Los Angeles (Aug. 10): Five people are wounded at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, followed by the fatal shooting of a Filipino-American postal worker. White supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr., 37, is charged with murder and attempted murder.
Pelham, Ala. (Aug. 5): Alan Miller, 34, is charged with killing two co-workers at their office, then killing a third person at a company where he used to work.
Atlanta (July 29): Frustrated investor Mark Barton, 44, kills nine people and wounds 13 at two brokerage firms, then kills himself.
Atlanta (July 12): Six members of a family, including four children, are shot to death by Cyrano Marks, the live-in boyfriend of the children's mother. The gunman then kills himself.
Conyers, Ga. (May 20): Six students at Heritage High School are wounded, allegedly by T.J. Solomon, a 15-year-old sophomore who fires 14 shots from a .22-caliber rifle and a .357-magnum handgun.
Littleton, Colo. (April 20): Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, kill 13 people and then themselves at Columbine High School.
Salt Lake City (April 15): Sergei Babarin, 71, opens fire in the Mormon Family History Library, killing two people and wounding four others before police shoot him to death.
SOURCE: Associated Press