WINONA, Texas (AP) — A 21-year-old man who hid from police in an East Texas church was charged with first-degree murder and felony assault in a shooting that left the pastor dead and two other people injured Sunday, a local sheriff said.
Authorities had been using dogs and drones to search for the man late Saturday in woods near Winona following a car chase, and the pastor of the nearby Starrville Methodist Church discovered him hiding in a church bathroom Sunday morning, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said at a news conference.
Smith said police were initially pursuing the man because he was suspected of brandishing a shotgun through the sunroof of a Volkswagen Jetta he was driving Saturday. Authorities believe the suspect, identified as 21-year-old Mytrez Deunte Woolen of Marshall, Texas, broke into the church after police had left the area around 2 a.m. Sunday.
Pastor Mark Allen McWilliams, 62, drew a gun and ordered Woolen to stop, Smith said, but Woolen grabbed the weapon and began shooting with it. McWilliams was killed, a second person was injured by gunfire and another was hurt in a fall.
Woolen then stole the pastor’s vehicle and fled east before being arrested by deputies in nearby Harrison County, Smith said. He said Woolen was hospitalized Sunday afternoon with gunshot wounds to his hand, but that it’s unclear when he was shot.
Woolen was charged with felony assault and capital murder. He’s being held at Smith County Jail, and bond is set at $3.5 million.
The shooting was reported around 9:20 a.m., and there were no services going on at that time, said Sgt. Larry Christian, of the sheriff’s office. Smith said the pastor, his wife and two other people were in the church at the time.
Woolen appears to have taken shelter in the church out of convenience and there’s nothing to indicate the shooting was motivated by religious animus, the sheriff said.
“This is not a church-related, religion-related offense,” said Smith.
Gov. Greg Abbott sent his condolences.
“Our hearts are with the victims and the families of those killed or injured in this terrible tragedy,” he said in a statement.
It’s unclear exactly when Woolen entered the church in Starrville, near Winona, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Dallas.
Representatives of Starrville Methodist could not be immediately reached for comment. Starrville Methodist was built in 1853, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
The shooting came a little more than a year after a gunman opened fire at a church near Fort Worth, killing two people before he was fatally shot by a congregant.
Texas officials hailed the congregant’s quick action, saying it prevented further killing and showed the effectiveness of the state’s permissive gun laws, including a 2019 measure that affirmed the right of licensed handgun holders to carry a weapon in places of worship.
That law was passed in response to the 2017 massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where a man fatally shot more than two dozen people at a Sunday service before taking his own life.
Since then, a cottage industry has sprung up in Texas and other states to train and arm civilians to protect their churches using the techniques and equipment of law enforcement.