As the United States is reeling from a recent string of mass shootings stretching from New York to Texas to Oklahoma, the spate of gun violence continued Thursday in the Midwest with separate shootings at a church parking lot and a funeral that left more Americans dead or wounded.
A man shot and killed two women before killing himself in Ames, Iowa, outside of Cornerstone Church, according to police. Authorities received multiple 911 calls shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday about how Jonathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, had shot two women from the congregation — 22-year-old Eden Mariah Montang and 21-year-old Vivian Renee Flores — while a program was going on inside the church, according to the Story County Sheriff’s Office. When police arrived, the gunman appeared to have died of a self-inflicted wound, Story County Sheriff Capt. Nicholas Lennie told the Des Moines Register.
One of the women killed was Whitlatch’s girlfriend, and both Montang and Flores were students at Iowa State University, the sheriff’s office said Friday. Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald told reporters that the shooting stemmed from a “domestic situation” between one of the women and the gunman, who lived in Boone, Iowa.
“This is a very tragic event for our community but I think also nationwide as we experience violent incidents nationwide, and it only seems to increase,” Lennie said at a news conference.
The attack was denounced by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) as “senseless violence [that] took the lives of two innocent victims at their place of worship.” Mark Vance, a representative for the Salt Company youth ministry at Cornerstone Church, said in a statement that the community was “grieving deeply” over the tragedy.
“Our hearts break for all involved, and we are praying for everyone affected, especially the family of the victims,” he said.
In Racine, Wis., two women were shot at Graceland Cemetery on Thursday afternoon during a funeral for a man who was killed by police last month. Residents heard between 20 and 30 shots fired before 2:30 p.m. as loved ones gathered to remember Da’Shontay L. King Sr., a 37-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by police following a foot chase after an attempted traffic stop on May 20, according to the Racine Journal Times.
“We were at the gravesite trying to get prepared to bury him, and bullets started flying everywhere,” Natasha Mullen, King’s sister, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Authorities have not released additional details, such as the motive or names of the suspected shooter or the victims, who suffered non-life-threatening injuries. No suspects are in custody as of Friday. A 35-year-old woman was airlifted to a hospital and is in stable condition after surgery, while the other, a 19-year-old woman, was treated and released, WISN, a Milwaukee ABC affiliate, reported. The shooting led Racine Mayor Cory Mason (D) to call on police to enforce an 11 p.m. curfew for all people younger than 18 through the weekend.
“The violence has got to stop!” Mason said in a statement posted by the Racine Police Department. “Revenge is not the answer.”
Thursday’s violence in the Midwest comes as President Biden called on Congress to take immediate action on gun control, seeking to transform emotion and anger into change. In a rare prime-time address, the president called for sweeping changes to the country’s gun laws, including banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity magazines, following the recent attacks at a grocery store in Buffalo, an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., and a hospital in Tulsa. The political dynamics in the evenly divided Senate make the odds on those proposals remote. Biden said that if it were politically impossible to ban assault weapons, Congress should at least raise the age when they can be legally purchased from 18 to 21.
“I respect the culture and the tradition and the concerns of lawful gun owners,” he said. “At the same time, the Second Amendment, like all other rights, is not absolute.”
On Thursday, Tulsa police said a man who blamed his doctor for pain after back surgery last month bought guns in recent days before storming into a medical building, killing four people and then himself earlier this week. Shortly before the attack at St. Francis Hospital on Wednesday, Michael Louis, 45, bought a semiautomatic rifle and drove to the medical building, specifically looking for his doctor, Preston Phillips, Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin told reporters. He killed Phillips, Franklin said, as well as another doctor, Stephanie Husen, receptionist and nurse Amanda Glenn and William Love, whose family said he was accompanying his wife to an appointment.
“They stood in the way and he gunned them down,” Franklin said.
There have been more than 200 mass shootings in the United States this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group. Mass shootings, where four or more people — not including the shooter — are injured or killed, have averaged more than one per day so far this year. Not a week in 2022 has passed without at least four mass shootings.
About 80 high school and college students were inside the church in Iowa for the first night of a summer youth Bible study group, Fitzgerald said. After he recently broke up with one of the victims, Whitlatch was arrested Tuesday on charges of third-degree harassment and impersonating a public official, Fitzgerald told reporters. He posted bond and was scheduled back in court next week.
On Thursday, Whitlach drove his pickup truck to the church parking lot and began firing his 9mm handgun.
“He went right into action when he got there,” Fitzgerald said. “He was there for a specific purpose, which he accomplished.”
A third female who was with Montang and Flores was able to run to safety and was not injured in the shooting, police said. Authorities are still investigating whether Whitlatch legally purchased the firearm.
Kacey Pierce, who went to Cornerstone Church for Thursday night’s program for college students, told KCCI, a Des Moines CBS affiliate, that he saw people ducking behind their cars for safety when he and his friends arrived at the church. When he learned of the shooting in the church parking lot, Pierce was in disbelief with the rest of the Ames community.
“For that to happen at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. If you would have told me that a bit ago, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Pierce said. “It’s unbelievable, honestly.”
Reynolds, who called for more mental health programs and school-security measures instead of stricter gun legislation following the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School, said she and her husband were grieving “for the families who have suffered an unfathomable loss” after Thursday’s church shooting.
“While the investigation continues and we learn more, we ask that Iowans pray for the victims and their families, the members of Cornerstone Church, and the entire Ames community,” she wrote.
The funeral for King unfolded as the state investigation into why Officer Zachary B. Brenner fatally shot him is ongoing. Police claim King had a handgun on him at the time and that King “took an action” that prompted the officer to shoot. The state’s Justice Department did not mention the “action” referenced by police, and family members have questioned their account of what happened. Brenner, a four-year veteran of the department, has been placed on administrative leave.
A funeral home employee who was working at Thursday’s funeral told The Washington Post that the shooting began during the service, and that people in attendance also had guns and returned gunfire. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he ducked behind a gravestone at the cemetery to take cover, adding that the incident left him “very shook up.”
Tre Brantley was playing basketball at the court next to the cemetery when he heard dozens of gunshots ring out Thursday afternoon, including bullets whistling past him and his friends, he told WISN.
“It was terrifying,” Brantley, 19, said. “Within 30 seconds we were all running off the court. We didn’t stop to grab any of our stuff. We didn’t stop to talk about it.”
Since police were examining the white casket carrying King’s body that had been struck by gunfire, he could not be immediately buried, the funeral worker told The Post. The service was not completed until after 6 p.m. Thursday.
As members of law enforcement were interviewing witnesses near the casket, the man’s sister reflected on how she and others were almost killed in another act of gun violence in the United States.
“I was just trying to bury my brother and almost lost my life doing so,” Mullen told the Journal Sentinel.
Tyler Pager, Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis, Júlia Ledur and Kate Rabinowitz contributed to this report.