"On This Side of Heaven" Questions Remain Unanswered

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    Paramedics work on a victim at Wedgewood Baptist Church in 1999.

    A Texas church where a gunman left seven people dead and seven wounded marked the tragedy's 10-year anniversary on Sunday with a chilling recollection of the 12-minute rampage and videotaped messages from the victims' families.

    The church's pastor, Rev. Al Meredith, said the healing process continues, even a decade later.

    "God has been faithful and he's brought us through," Meredith told the morning congregation. "What makes us triumph is the grace he gives over us."

    Youth pastor Jay Fannin described the 12 minutes of Sept. 15, 1999, walking the gunman's path across the back of the sanctuary. But he said he didn't believe Larry Gene Ashbrook intended to kill any of the roughly 200 teenagers gathered for the Christian rock concert.

    Fannin said Ashbrook was using profanity and making derogatory comments about Christianity when he began shooting. Yet he kept asking where the adult prayer meeting was being held.

    Most of the teens, many from other churches, dove under pews and tried to crawl outside.

    Ashbrook walked halfway down several aisles shooting but stopped and returned toward the back -- possibly because he caught a glimpse of the white stained-glass cross at the top of the front wall, Fannin said.

    "Was that what stopped him?" Fannin asked. "We like to think so."

    He said Fannin then lit a pipe bomb and rolled it down an aisle, but because it exploded upward -- not outward -- it didn't injure anyone. Several pieces of shrapnel still remain in the sanctuary ceiling, as does one bullet hole in a church door.

    Ashbrook sat down in a pew and killed himself. He was mentally ill and had no connection to the church, Fannin said.

    Those who died were Kristi Beckel, Joseph Ennis and Cassie Griffin, all 14; Justin Ray, 17; Kim Jones and Shawn Brown, both 23-year-old seminary students; and children's choir director Sydney Browning, 36.

    During the evening service, video messages from victims' relatives and shooting survivors were shown on screens in the sanctuary. They talked about how faith helped them through their grief.

    "A lot of things we'll never understand this side of heaven, and we don't need to, but we can trust him," said a tearful Kathy Jo Rogers, who was married to Shawn Brown when he was killed.

    Justin Laird, who turned 16 on the day of the shootings and was paralyzed by a bullet, he said he now tries "not to sweat the small stuff" like sitting in traffic because "you know it could always be worse."

    The church has since erected a simple black granite memorial etched with the seven victims' names, pictures and a favorite Bible verse, saying or sentiment from their family.

    Jeff Laster, now 44, told The Associated Press that he was sitting with a group of friends just inside the door that night when he saw an angry looking man approaching with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Laster got up to tell him that smoking wasn't allowed in the building.

    But before Laster could say anything, the man opened the door, asked where the prayer meeting was and pulled a gun from underneath his sweat shirt. Laster was the first person shot.

    He's now the church's minister to adults. He has a few lingering health problems from being shot in the stomach, but said he has never been bitter or considered not returning to the church.

    "Right after it happened, I turned to the book of Job and thought that God allowed it to happen," Laster said. "We live in an imperfect world, but I know that God's in control."