HOUSTON (AP) – The shooter in a Texas megachurch Sunday had a history of mental illness and brought their young son to the attack which was carried out using an AR-style rifle and ended in an exchange of gunfire with two off-duty officers , the authorities announced on Monday.
Houston police identified the shooter as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who they said was wearing a trench coat and backpack while entering the Lakewood church, led by Pastor Joel Osteen. Moreno used both male and female aliases, but investigators who reviewed past police reports found that Moreno had identified as a woman, Houston Police Commander Chris Hassig said.
The attack occurred between services at the Houston megachurch — located in a former NBA arena — and sent worshipers scrambling for safety.
During the shooting, Moreno’s 7-year-old son was shot in the head and remained in critical condition Monday, authorities said. Moreno, who was killed by the officers, was not a known member of Osteen’s congregation, church spokesman Don Iloff said.
Police and FBI investigators said they had not established a motive for the shooting, but were investigating a dispute involving Moreno and the family of Moreno’s ex-husband. Hassig and others said Moreno had a history of mental illness, including being placed in emergency detention in 2016, but provided no additional details.
Investigators also found anti-Semitic writings from the shooter, and Hassig noted that Moreno’s rifle had a “Palestine” sticker on the stock. He described Moreno as a “lone wolf” who acted alone.
Police searched Moreno’s residence in Conroe, a city more than 50 miles north of the church. Court records show Moreno has previously been arrested and was involved in a 2022 divorce and child custody battle, in which Moreno’s ex-mother-in-law indicated she sought advice from pastoral staff from Lakewood.
Court documents do not indicate which staff the woman contacted. Iloff said he couldn’t find anyone who knew the contact described in the legal documents.
Moreno appears to have legally purchased the rifle used in the December attack, and investigators were looking into how Moreno obtained it, officials 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 2 p.m. Spanish service, after Moreno pointed a gun at an unarmed security guard.
Moreno began shooting 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, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said.
All of the shootings took place in a church hallway and no violence spilled over into the main sanctuary, Hassig said, describing the confrontation as a “shootout” that lasted several minutes.
“They stood their ground in the face of point-blank rifle fire,” Kevin Lilly, chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said of the security guards. “They constituted a wall that existed between the faithful and terror.”
Both officers fired their weapons, but investigators don’t yet know whether Moreno’s son was accidentally shot by one of them, Finner said. Police said a 57-year-old man was released from the hospital after being shot in the hip.
Finner said the shooter told officers after he was shot that there was a bomb, but a search found no explosives.
Records in Harris County, where Houston is located, show that Moreno, under the names Jeffery Escalante-Moreno or Jeffery Escalante, was charged in six criminal cases between 2005 and 2011.
The charges ranged from counterfeiting a $100 bill to stealing socks, hats and makeup to assault for kicking a detention officer. The assault conviction in August 2009 sent Moreno to prison for 180 days.
In a rambling 2022 request for a protective order against Moreno’s ex-mother-in-law that Moreno wrote without the assistance of an attorney, Moreno complained of being threatened and followed and claimed to have received text messages from FBI Director Christopher Wray.
In a separate court filing seeking to be named conservator of Moreno’s son, the ex-stepmother alleged that Moreno suffered from mental illness and that the child was neglected and abused.
Telephone messages seeking comment from Moreno’s family members were not returned Monday.
Lakewood is regularly attended by 45,000 people per week, making it the third largest megachurch in the United States, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Osteen said that violence Could have been worse if the shooting had occurred during the earlier, larger Sunday morning service. Iloff said Osteen was inside the church but was on the first floor during the shooting, which happened on the second floor.
The shooting terrified the faithful.
Alan Guity has been a member of the church since 1998. He said he heard gunshots while resting in the church sanctuary while his mother worked as an usher.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom. And I shouted: “Mom! ” “, did he declare. Guity, 35, said he ran toward his mother and they both lay flat on the ground as the gunfire continued.
Osteen, 60, took over leadership of the Lakewood church after John Osteen, his father and the church’s founding pastor, died in 1999. The church grew significantly under his leadership.
Osteen is a leading proponent 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 to Your Fullest Potential.”
His televised services are broadcast in about 100 countries, and the renovation of his church arena cost nearly $100 million.
This story corrects the spelling of Genesse Ivonne Moreno’s middle name. The shooter’s middle name is spelled Ivonne, not Ivonna.
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