NASHVILLE — A gunman wearing a ski mask stormed into a Nashville-area church on Sunday, shooting seven people, including the pastor, before attacking a church usher who ultimately subdued him with a personal weapon, Nashville police said.
The shooting — which left a 39-year-old woman dead — occurred shortly before noon at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., about 12 miles southeast of downtown Nashville. Police identified the shooter as Emanuel Kidega Samson, 25, of Tennessee, a Sudanese native who they said is a legal resident of the United States and apparently had attended worship services at the church in recent years. Police said Samson will be charged with murder and attempted murder.
Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, said Samson drove up to the church and shot and killed a woman who was standing near her vehicle in the parking lot. The shooter — who police said was armed with two handguns — then entered the church through a rear door, shooting and wounding six people inside.
At some point, the gunman also pistol-whipped a church usher, causing “significant injuries” to the man, Aaron said. The usher, 22-year-old Robert “Caleb” Engle, confronted the gunman, police said, and during a struggle, Samson was wounded by a shot from his own gun. The usher then ran to his car and retrieved a handgun, police said.
Aaron said the usher ensured the gunman did not make any more movements until officers arrived. “It would appear he was not expecting to encounter a brave individual like the church usher,” Aaron said.
Police Chief Steve Anderson praised Engle for intervening: “We believe he is the hero today.”
The shooting comes a little more than two years after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine people inside an African American church in Charleston, S.C. Roof is awaiting execution after being convicted in federal and state cases.
Authorities on Sunday did not release a motive for the Antioch attack. But in a statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville said it had opened a federal civil rights investigation.
“The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence,” said David W. Boling, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “As this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time.”
Police identified the deceased victim as Melanie Smith, 39, of Smyrna, Tenn. The six surviving victims, all described as being between the ages of 60 and 83, are being treated at Nashville-area hospitals, as is the usher. The church’s pastor, Joey Spann, 60, and his wife, Peggy, 65, were among the injured.
Smith was a longtime church member with two teenage children, said Linda Grimes, 51, of nearby La Vergne, who is friends with Smith’s sister. “She was a devout Christian and she loved God,” Grimes said. “It’s a sad day for everyone here in the flesh, but she’s face-to-face with her maker. I’m sure of that.”
Police said Samson was taken to a hospital to be treated for a gunshot wound to the chest. He was later released and was expected to appear before a judge late Sunday night.
Police said Samson moved to the U.S. from Sudan in 1996. Nashville has a vibrant Sudanese community, and the city’s churches frequently host and help care for refugees.
Aaron said the gunman left his vehicle idling after he pulled up to the church, and he was wearing a “neoprene mask, best described as a ski mask.” About 50 parishioners were inside the church at the time, police said.
Police said the mask concealed the shooter’s identity, but when police told parishioners who had been arrested, several gasped because they remembered him attending the church multiple times one or two years ago.
Jimmy Merritt, 68, of La Vergne, said he was near the front of the sanctuary when he heard the shots. He thought they were fireworks but then saw “folks started going down” and, after the shooter was subdued, saw “people lying everywhere and blood everywhere.”
Merritt said he met and spoke with Samson when he attended the church a few years ago. He said Samson and three other men who came together seemed like nice guys.
Doug Ramey, 45, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he met with Engle, the usher, at TriStar Skyline Medical Center, where he was being treated for injuries including a separated shoulder. Ramey said Engle told him he sprang into action after hearing gunshots inside and outside the church.
Engle told Ramey that he approached the shooter thinking he had his handgun on him, but he realized that he didn’t and instead engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle. After Samson was shot in the struggle, Engle’s father stood guard over him while Engle went to get his firearm from his vehicle. When he returned, Engle put his gun on Samson and held him down with his foot, Ramey said.
“Robert said the guy didn’t say a word,” Ramey said as he stood at the police barrier at the church on Sunday afternoon, waiting for Engle’s girlfriend, who remained with other worshipers as police continued to gather evidence. “He had a mask on the whole time.”
Shortly before the shooting, Samson appears to have left cryptic messages on what appeared to be his Facebook page.
“Everything you’ve ever doubted or made to be believe as false, is real. & vice versa, B.,” said one message, apparently posted shortly before the attack.
“Become the creator instead of what’s created. Whatever you say, goes,” another read.
Samson’s other recent posts dealt with fairly routine matters, including photographs of what appeared to be his physical progression as a body builder and concerns over the hurricanes threatening the United States.
Aaron said authorities are working on determining a motive for the shooting but are not ready to release it publicly.
“There are certain things that have come to our attention that are under investigation, but that remains to be announced,” Aaron said.
A massive police presence remained at the Burnette Chapel on Sunday afternoon, with a police officer standing guard on Pin Hook Road a quarter mile from the church, turning away motorists.
The church is in Antioch, a working-class neighborhood and one of Nashville’s most diverse. Located in a rural area in the southeastern corner of Nashville’s combined city-county boundary, the church also serves La Vergne in neighboring Rutherford County, where auto factories are among the region’s largest employers.
On social media, the church has posted inclusive messages and photographs showing a congregation that reflects the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, which is majority white, but also includes sizable black, Hispanic, and foreign-born populations.
In a statement, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said the shooting was a "terrible tragedy."
"My heart aches for the family and friends of the deceased as well as the wounded victims and their loved ones," Barry said. "My administration, especially Metro Nashville police, will continue to work with community members to stop crime before it starts, encourage peaceful conflict resolution and promote nonviolence."
Craig reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.