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The 70-year-old suspected gunman in a shooting that killed three people at an Alabama church sat by himself drinking liquor, rejecting offers to join the others gathered at the potluck dinner, before gunfire shattered the peace of the evening, a survivor recalled.
“It felt like he was disengaged,” Susan Sallin, 73, said. Sallin was seated at the same table at the “Boomers Potluck” with the three people who died in the Thursday night shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.
The suspected gunman had previously attended church services and a few church gatherings for people of the Baby Boomer generation and older, but didn’t seem to interact much with others, she said. That night, he sat at a table by himself. While wine was available at the potluck, he was drinking from what appeared to be a small bottle of Scotch, and shunned invitations to join the others.
“I personally invited him to come and sit at our table twice because I wanted him to feel a sense of inclusion, but he did not come,” Sallin said. She said a woman, whose husband would be killed moments later in the shooting, “realized he had not fixed himself a plate and went up and offered to make him a plate.” He declined that as well.
Robert Findlay Smith, 70, is charged with capital murder in the shooting that killed three people. Walter Bartlett Rainey, 84, Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, and another woman were killed in the shooting. Police did not release the name of the third victim, but friends referred to her as Jane.
The gathering was joyful, as the friends — who had not been able to gather as much during the pandemic — chatted about the food before them that night, their favorite cars and other light-hearted topics. Sallin said she doesn’t remember hearing any arguing or heated conversation before the gunfire suddenly erupted.
Nearby, Linda Foster Rainey cradled her husband. According to a family statement, “he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears.”
The church had been closed off for several days as a crime scene, but the congregation returned Sunday for worship services with a message of choosing love over hate.