NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The man accused of opening fire at a church near Nashville on Sunday, leaving one parishioner dead and six wounded, had previous encounters with local police, including one after a relative worried he was suicidal, according to police records released Monday.
Police were called twice this year for domestic disputes between Emanuel Kidega Samson and a woman described as his girlfriend, though no arrests were made in either case. The woman was not among the victims Sunday.
Samson’s father also called police in June to report that Samson had sent a text message suggesting he was having suicidal thoughts.
Nashville police have charged Samson, 25, with one count of murder and said additional charges will follow. The FBI and the Justice Department have launched a hate-crime investigation into the shooting at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn.
Samson is black and moved to the United States from Sudan when he was a child. The church has a predominately white congregation.
On Monday night, several hundred people gathered in a field next to the boarded-up church for a candlelight vigil.
The racially diverse group of parishioners, neighbors and area residents sang religious hymns while faith leaders and Nashville’s mayor pleaded for harmony.
One of the speakers at the vigil was Dimas Salaberrios, an African-American preacher from Brooklyn who flew to Nashville to help console the community. Salaberrios noted he had also been in Charleston, S.C. two years ago after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine people in a shooting rampage at a black church there.
“The devil tried to start a race war there and I believe he is trying to start one here but he will not be victorious,” Salaberrios said to a smattering of “amens.”
Nashville’s mayor, Megan Barry, also pleaded for the community to not pre-judge the motivations behind the shooting.
“I want the people of Nashville to know we are a community that lifts up others and that is what we are here to do tonight,” Barry said. “And over the next few days and months we will know what happened to this particular person.”
Several parishioners who were inside the church during the shooting said they are still trying to process what happened. Several said they are eagerly awaiting more news about the suspect’s motives but are already prepared to forgive him.
“He is a young man and we are praying for him and for his family,” said Brenda Andersen, 58. “Only he can answer why he did this.”
Desi Smith, who is black and an associate pastor at another nearby church, said she doubts the incident will inflame racial or ethnic tensions in Nashville, a city where the faith community has historically embraced refugees and immigrants.
“But whenever there is a difference in races, there is always a chance for it to become racially motivated,” Smith said. “I was wondering why they opened a civil rights investigation -- I guess they are looking at something - but probably it’s just someone disgruntled.”
“At least that’s what I pray,” she added.
The gunfire erupted while worshipers were gathered in the sanctuary for Sunday morning services, praying at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, which Samson used to attend. Police said Samson told them he was armed with a handgun when he opened fire outside the church.
The worshipers who were shot and survived were between the ages of 64 and 83, according to police. All but one remained hospitalized in stable condition Monday, officials said.
Police said Monday that Samson had two semiautomatic pistols on him when he entered the church. Both were still loaded with multiple rounds after the shooting ended, and Samson was wearing a “tactical vest” with three more loaded magazines of ammunition, said Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
At a news briefing Monday, Aaron said authorities are “continuing to investigate the motive,” and he declined to answer a question about whether the shooting was random or targeted.
According to the Nashville police, Samson said he arrived at the church at about 10:55 a.m. Sunday. He sat in his car, police said, waiting for several minutes before church let out.
Samson then began to shoot when he saw Melanie Crow Smith, 39, of Smyrna, in the parking lot. Smith died at the scene. According to Nashville police accounts, Samson then charged into the church and began “firing randomly,” hitting six people inside, all without seeming to say a word.
Police have not said whether there was any relationship between Samson and Smith or whether anyone was targeted on Sunday.
Also injured was Robert Caleb Engle, whom police identified as a church usher. Engle confronted Samson and was pistol-whipped. As the two men struggled, police said, Samson’s gun went off, hitting him in the chest, and he fell to the floor.
“Engle, despite his head injuries, ran out to his car in the parking lot and retrieved a pistol,” police said in a statement. “He held Samson at gunpoint until police arrived.”
Samson was treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center — the same facility that on Monday was still treating people shot at the church. After Samson was discharged, still wearing blue medical scrubs, he was taken to jail. He is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday morning.
No attorney of record was listed for Samson on Monday, according to the office of the criminal court clerk, which said attorneys are normally not appointed until a person’s initial appearance.
A June 27 police report says that Samson sent a text to his father at 12:23 a.m. that read: “Your phone is off, I have a gun to my head, have a nice [expletive] life.” Vanasio Samson saw it about seven hours later and tried to call his son, the police report said, while officers were dispatched to an apartment in Murfreesboro that is Samson’s last known address.
The officers who arrived at that location could not find Samson, and his car was not there. His phone was traced to an address in Nashville, the report states.
Sgt. Kyle Evans, a spokesman for the Murfreesboro police, said Monday that Nashville police contacted Samson at the address where his phone pinged, but he told officers he was not suicidal. Because of his demeanor, and the fact that he was at work, he was deemed not to be a threat to himself and the case was closed without any arrests.
In a January police report, an officer who responded to a reported domestic disturbance said a woman identified as Samson’s girlfriend had gotten into an argument with him. The woman said Samson had punched a small television, breaking it and cutting his hand, dripping blood on the floor. Samson also broke a small figurine, the woman said, adding that she tried to leave the room but he demanded she speak with him. The woman also said Samson took her phone “to look at whom she had been talking to,” the report states, so she went to a neighbor’s to call the police.
Samson “reiterated” what the woman said, the report notes, and she opted not to seek a vandalism warrant.
Six weeks later, police were called to the same address for another domestic dispute. Samson told the officer that he and the woman no longer dated and he was trying to break off contact with her, but “she keeps coming around,” the report stated. In the report, Samson is quoted saying that the woman banged on his door, got loud when he spoke with her and then pushed the door open when he tried to close it.
“Mr. Samson stated that he was in fear because she has struck him in the past,” the report stated. “Mr. Samson advised there was no assault or threats today.”
Samson’s ex-girlfriend told police that she came over because Samson “told her to and because she has property in his apartment,” the officer wrote. The officer got the woman’s things out of the apartment and the woman left and was told not to come back, the report concludes.
Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.