By Jim Nieman
A man suspected of a double shooting that left one person dead and another person injured Saturday morning in Carthage, Mo., was arrested after a scuffle inside First Christian Church in Lamar, Mo., at around 8 a.m. Sunday—as the church’s first worship service was starting.
Lead minister Dru Ashwell, who had spoken with the 29-year-old suspect for “a minute or two” moments earlier, was in the sanctuary at the time with 80 to 100 worshippers, none of whom were even aware of the tussle that occurred as the man was arrested by police with assistance from five men in the church, including three deacons.
Ashwell said the man entered First Christian shortly after 7:30 a.m. “He asked to speak to the minister,” Ashwell said, “and it was immediately apparent he was a troubled individual.”
It’s not uncommon for a stranger to enter church and ask for money, but this person didn’t do that, Ashwell said.
“He asked me if he could make a phone call,” Ashwell said. The man cried a bit as “he said, ‘I’ve had a really bad weekend.’ He said he was going through a bad divorce and ‘I’m off my meds.’ That raised a red flag right there.”
Ashwell handed a phone to the man and left. “It seemed that there was something just not right,” Ashwell said.
“I asked my deacons to keep an eye on him. I told them, ‘Don’t let him out of your sight.’”
Just then, a deacon showed Ashwell a news story about the double shooting that had occurred the previous day about 20 miles away. The suspect pictured in that incident was the same man who was using the phone, so the deacon immediately called 911. It’s then that the sanctuary doors were closed.
When the man finished his call, he briefly spoke with a deacon and then took a seat in the church lobby. Very shortly thereafter, the first police officer arrived.
“The first words out of his [the officer’s] mouth were, ‘Let me see your hands!’” Ashwell said. As other officers arrived, the man resisted, pulling a knife. There was a scuffle, as officers and men from the church subdued the suspect. One officer suffered a minor cut.
Lane J. Stephens, 29, of Carthage will likely face numerous charges related to the shooting death of Don Pierce, 43, also of Carthage, and the shooting of the suspect’s estranged wife, Toni Stephens, 25, at the Quality Inn in Carthage at about 11 a.m. Saturday. Pierce was pronounced dead at the scene and Toni Stephens was released from a local hospital later that same day, according to a story in the Joplin Globe.
On Monday, the Jasper County Prosecutor’s Office charged Lane Stephens with two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of armed criminal action. Other charges are pending. He is being held without bond at the Jasper County Jail, the Globe reported.
After Saturday’s shooting, the suspect fled the scene and is believed to have carjacked two vehicles. Area law enforcement officials searched for him throughout Saturday afternoon and evening. Carthage police spokesman Chad Dininger told the Globe that an unsuspecting motorist reported giving the suspect a ride from Jasper, Mo., to the Lamar Lake area. Police were about to resume a search of that area when they received the call from First Christian on Sunday morning.
Ashwell said people who were in that early morning service probably weren’t aware of what happened in the church building until later that day. Ashwell himself wasn’t informed of details until after the first service . . . but he had some suspicions.
“When the service was about to start, I went up to one of our deacons [in the sanctuary] and told him my concerns,” said Ashwell, who works out with that ultra-fit man. “He left, and when he didn’t come back [into the service], I knew something had happened.”
Later, chairman of the elders Matt Bunton prepared a report that is being shared with the congregation. It says, in part,
Last Sunday before first service a man unfamiliar to us showed up. He visited with several of our early arrivers and with Dru. The men who serve as greeters and our security guys were all on alert. The decision was made to call law enforcement and the subject was apprehended and taken into custody.
Thanks to our guys! We try to always provide a safe secure place for all of you to come worship. The system in place worked. No one other than the police officer and the man arrested was hurt.
We will continue to try our best to keep you safe. We will be reviewing our system and methods for providing security. No, we probably won’t be informing you of all the details. We have been advised by law enforcement officials to not publicize our methods and strategy . . .
Please join me in praying for this man. Let’s pray for the families affected by his actions. Let’s thank God for our guys who did their job so well.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.