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‘We are armed now’: In Kentucky, shootings leave a black church and the white community around it shaken

Congregants leave a Sunday service at First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown in Kentucky, where authorities say Gregory Alan Bush attempted to enter before driving to a Kroger and killing two black shoppers. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

JEFFERSONTOWN, Ky. — He came here first, to the front door of this historically black church 15 miles east of Louisville.

A white man tried to enter the First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown on a fall afternoon, not long after its Wednesday noonday Bible study had ended.

Surveillance video showed the man — later identified by police as Gregory Alan Bush — banging on the doors, which have been kept locked ever since a white supremacist killed nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

First Baptist administrator Billy Williams still shudders to think what might have happened if he had heard Bush, 51, knocking. “I would have welcomed him in,” Williams said.

Instead, Bush, who had a black ex-wife and a history of domestic violence, left the church and drove to a nearby Kroger supermarket, where police say he gunned down two African American shoppers.

The Oct. 24 Kroger shooting was quickly overshadowed by the discovery of pipe bombs mailed to more than a dozen critics of President Trump and a rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead. But the burst of racial violence in Jeffersontown has left this church and the predominantly white community around it deeply shaken.

That dread was still palpable on a November Sunday, as more than 200 church members arrived for the 11 a.m. service. A security guard waited outside, atop the steps to the brick church, which was founded 185 years ago by free blacks and freed slaves.

Inside, light streamed through the stained-glass windows as worshipers held hands and prayed. “Please don’t let the spirit of fear dominate our lives, but have a spirit of love that conquers fear,” the minister intoned.

Ushers smiled and greeted visitors. The choir sang. The minister preached. But there was one chilling difference about this Sunday service.

Before the Kroger shooting, which is being investigated by the FBI as a possible hate crime, church officials had been opposed to any of their 1,600 members bringing firearms into the sanctuary. But after it, Williams sought permission from First Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin L. Nelson, to ask members who work in law enforcement or have permits to carry weapons to bring their guns inside the church during services and Bible study.

“They used to leave them in the car,” Williams said. “No longer are they leaving them in the car.

“We are armed now.”

'It was so deliberate'

On the day of the shooting, Maurice Stallard was in the school supplies aisle with his 12-year-old grandson when Bush entered the Kroger at 2:46 p.m., according to Jeffersontown police.

He walked past dozens of white shoppers in the 50-aisle supermarket, police said, before he spotted Stallard kneeling in the rear of the store.

Stallard, a 69-year-old retiree, was shot in the back of the head as his horrified grandson watched. The boy was able to escape into the parking lot.

Pam King, who is white, was two aisles away buying Halloween candy when she heard the gunfire. She had no idea that it was Stallard, her longtime neighbor, being targeted.

“I couldn’t believe I was hearing gunshots because I was in a grocery store,” said King, who lives down the street from Stallard. “I was expecting the store to make an announcement to disregard the noise.”

Then she heard three more shots. “It was so deliberate,” she said. “It wasn’t bang, bang, bang. He stood there and looked at that man and shot him three more times with his grandson standing there.”

Police said Bush holstered his semiautomatic handgun and walked out of the store, where he fatally shot Vickie Lee Jones, a 67-year-old black woman, in the back of the head.

Bush walked by more white customers in the parking lot — allegedly telling one, “Whites don’t shoot whites” — before allegedly shooting at a black couple. Dominic Rozier and his wife, Kiera Rozier, had just arrived at the store to buy cupcakes for their son’s birthday.

Dominic Rozier, who police said has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, drew his gun and shot back at Bush.

The two exchanged gunfire in the parking lot, with bullets shattering car windows, before Bush fled in his car, police said. Neither Bush nor Rozier was injured in the shootout. Minutes later, Bush was stopped by police and arrested on a street adjacent to the shopping center.

‘They was killing black people’

Inside the store, King ran to a stockroom and called her husband, who works as a meat cutter at a different Kroger and happened to be off that day. “Her voice cracked,” Tim King, 59, recalled. “She said, ‘There is somebody shooting up here.’ ”

He raced to the store. It took hours for his wife and the other customers inside to file out, as police checked to see what each had witnessed.

“The lady was laying in the parking lot the whole time,” Tim King said. “It was so long you could see the blood soaking through the sheet.”

'No Guns!'

On Nov. 2, relatives of Stallard and Jones gathered in the back of a Jefferson County Circuit courtroom, where Bush was being arraigned.

He had been indicted by a grand jury on two counts of murder, one count of criminal attempt to murder and two counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree. Prosecutors said Kentucky could not charge Bush with a hate crime because the state’s limited statute does not apply to murder. But the FBI may bring federal hate crime charges against Bush.

FBI data shows hate crimes are on the rise. In 2016, there were 6,121 crimes motivated by bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender — the highest number since 2012.

When Bush walked into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit, with his hands and feet shackled, a man seated in the back stood up and yelled, “You piece of [expletive].”

In a hearing that took fewer than three minutes, Bush did not speak. His public defender, Andrew H. daMota, entered Bush’s plea of not guilty. The judge accepted the plea and continued Bush’s $5 million bond. Then Bush walked out of the courtroom surrounded by guards.

According to court records, Bush has a history of domestic violence against his parents, his brother and his ex-wife, who is African American.

Sheryl Bush married Gregory Bush in 1997, according to court records. They had a son in 1998, before separating in 1999. According to divorce records, Gregory Bush attempted suicide in 2000 while his 2-year-old son slept in a bed in the next room.

In 2001, Sheryl Bush filed a domestic violence petition, telling a court that when she went to pick up her son from Bush’s home, he threatened her and called her the n-word.

In 2009, Gregory Bush’s father, William Bush, filed a restraining order against his son, telling a court that Gregory Bush “put his hands around my wife’s neck and picked her up by her neck and put her down.”

The court ordered Bush to comply with mental health treatment and prohibited him from possessing a weapon. A judge wrote on the order, “No Guns!”

'Vickie's last song'

Mourners wearing pink and white walked earlier this month into the Church of the Living God Temple #45, where a sign outside declared: “Rest in Peace Vickie Jones. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.”

A police car sat guarding the intersection.

Inside, bouquets of white and pink carnations decorated the casket, where Jones lay. The words “Trust in the Lord” were pinned inside the casket — as well as a pink ribbon, signifying that she was a breast cancer survivor.

Jones, who was born in Louisville in 1951 and grew up amid segregation and the civil rights movement, had one daughter and two sons and 12 grandchildren. Her husband, George Lee, to whom she was married for 36 years, died in 2010.

Jones, who was a member of the Church of the Living God all her life, was one of the sponsors of the church’s annual breast cancer awareness program.

“Vickie loved everybody. She touched everybody in a positive way. She loved her family. She loved the Lord. She loved the church,” the Rev. A. Keith Smith told mourners.

In a sermon titled “Vickie’s last song,” Smith told the congregation that hate had “struck the city of Louisville, Kentucky, in a major way — Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby and the home of Muhammad Ali.”

Amid a chorus of “Amens,” Smith continued: “This is not the 1940s, this is not the 1950s, this is not the 1960s, this is not the Jim Crow law days. These are the days where people of all races, all nationalities, all religions stand up together. We will not tolerate hate crimes anywhere.”

Who killed Alberta Jones, Louisville’s first black female prosecutor?

'Our neighbor, our friend'

In the integrated Louisville neighborhood where Stallard lived, the streets are lined with orange ribbons tied to mailboxes with notes that read: “We will miss you Maurice, our neighbor, our friend.”

Stallard used to stand in his driveway and greet neighbors — black and white.

“When we moved in 20 years ago, Maurice and Charlotte were one of the first families in the subdivision,” said the Rev. Charlie Davis, pastor of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church. Stallard’s wife, Charlotte, “was our kids’ school counselor,” said Mendy Davis, who is married to the pastor.

Stallard retired from General Electric more than a decade ago. “He cared about his family, all his kids, and grand kids, and nieces and nephews,” Charlie Davis said. One nephew played basketball at Morehead State, a two-hour drive from Louisville.

Stallard “was at every game,” Davis said.

Pam King sat at her kitchen table last week, still horrified that she had heard her neighbor being gunned down — the beginning of a week of hate-fueled violence.

“I don’t recall anything like it in my lifetime: The [pipe] bombs. The Jewish center,” King said. “It was a 1-2-3 punch.”

Stallard and Jones, she said, “were killed because they were black. Someone goes to the grocery, and a family is planning a funeral because of the color of his skin.”

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