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    Saturday, February 24, 2024

    Police: Shooter entered Texas megachurch with AR-style rifle, had history of mental illness

    In this screen grab taken from video provided by KTRK-TV ABC13, authorities respond to a shooting at Lakewood Church, the Houston megachurch of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (KTRK-TV ABC13 via AP)
    Flags fly in front of the Lakewood Church June 28, 2005, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan File)

    HOUSTON (AP) — The shooter who opened fire at a Texas megachurch on Sunday before being killed by security officers had a history of mental illness and used an AR-style rifle in the attack that also critically injured their 7-year-old son, authorities said Monday.

    Houston police identified the shooter at Lakewood Church as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who used both male and female aliases. However, investigators who looked at past police reports found that Moreno identified as female, Houston Police Commander Chris Hassig said.

    Houston police and federal investigators said Monday they had not established a motive for the shooting but were looking into a dispute involving Moreno and the family of Moreno's ex-husband.

    Court documents in a divorce and child custody battle indicated that Moreno's ex-mother-in-law had sought advice from church pastoral staff. Moreno's mother attends the church, which is led by evangelist pastor Joel Osteen.

    The court documents do not indicate which staff the woman contacted. Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church, said the shooter was not known to church staff and that he had not found anyone familiar with the contact described in the legal filings.

    Hassig and others said Moreno had a history of mental illness, including being placed under emergency detention in 2016, but provided no additional details.

    Investigators also found antisemitic writings by the shooter, and Hassig noted Moreno’s rifle had a “Palestine” sticker on the buttstock. He described Moreno as a “lone wolf” who was not acting as any part of a larger group.

    “We believe (Moreno) acted alone,” Hassig said.

    Police also searched Moreno’s residence on Monday in Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston.

    Police also are investigating how Moreno in December was able legally purchase the AR-style rifle that was used despite a criminal and mental health history, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said. Moreno also carried a .22 caliber rifle into the church, police said.

    Investigators said Moreno and the boy entered the church building shortly before the church's 2 p.m. Spanish service after Moreno pointed a gun at an unarmed security guard.

    Moreno began firing once inside, and the guards inside the building — off-duty Houston police officer Christopher Moreno and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Agent Adrian Herrera — returned fire and killed the shooter, investigators said. Christopher Moreno is not related to Genesse Moreno, Finner said.

    All the gunfire took place in a church hallway, and none of the violence spilled into the main sanctuary, Hassig said, describing the confrontation as a “gunbattle" that lasted several minutes.

    “They held their ground in the face of rifle fire at point blank range,” Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Chairman Kevin Lilly said of the security guards. “They were a wall that existed between worshippers and terror.”

    Both officers fired their weapons, but investigators do not yet know if Moreno's son was accidentally shot by one of them, Finner said. The boy remained in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head, authorities said Monday.

    Police said a 57-year-old man who was shot in the hip was discharged from the hospital.

    Finner said the shooter told officers after being shot that there was a bomb, but a search found no explosives.

    Records in Harris County, where Houston is located, showed that Moreno, under the names Jeffery Escalante-Moreno or Jeffery Escalante, was charged in six criminal cases from 2005 to 2011.

    The charges ranged from forging a $100 bill, to stealing socks, hats and makeup, to assault for kicking a detention officer. The August 2009 assault conviction sent Moreno to jail for 180 days.

    In a rambling 2022 application for a protective order against Moreno's ex-mother-in-law that Moreno wrote without help from an attorney, Moreno complained of being threatened and followed. Moreno also said she had received text messages from FBI Director Christopher Wray.

    In a separate court filing seeking to be named conservator of Moreno's son, the ex-mother-in-law alleged that Moreno was mentally ill and that the child was being neglected and abused.

    Telephone messages seeking comment from members of Moreno’s family were not immediately returned.

    Lakewood is regularly attended by 45,000 people weekly, making it the third-largest megachurch in the U.S., according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

    Osteen said the violence could have been worse if the shooting had happened during the earlier and larger late Sunday morning service. Iloff, the church spokesman, said Osteen was inside the church but was on the first floor during the shooting, which happened on the second floor.

    The gunfire terrified worshippers.

    Alan Guity has been a member of the church since 1998. He said he heard gunshots while resting inside the church’s sanctuary as his mother was working as an usher.

    “Boom, boom, boom, boom. And I yelled, ‘Mom!’” he said. Guity, 35, said he ran to his mother and they both laid flat on the floor as the gunfire continued.

    Osteen, 60, took the helm of Lakewood Church after John Osteen, his father and the church’s founding pastor, passed away in 1999. The church has grown dramatically under his leadership.

    Osteen is a leading promoter of what is known as the prosperity gospel, a belief that God wants his followers to be wealthy and healthy. He is the author of several best-selling books, including, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.”

    His televised services reach about 100 countries and renovating his church’s arena cost nearly $100 million.

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