OGDEN — Charles "Ricky" Jennings walked into the St. James the Just Catholic Church Sunday about an hour after Mass had started, holding his wife's hand.
The Rev. Erik J. Richtsteig thought it was a bit strange, noting that Jennings didn't attend church very often.
"I saw him walk in, and I thought something was odd. But I figured it was Father's Day, maybe he's bringing Cheryl to be with her dad. So I looked down, and then I heard the gunshot."
James Evans, Jennings' father-in-law, was in the back pew of the church with his family. Without saying a word, Jennings went over to Evans, and just as he had knelt down to pray, allegedly shot him in the head.
"He turned his head just at the right time. If he didn't turn his head, he would have been shot in the back of the head and be dead," his wife, Tara Evans, said during a press conference Monday at McKay-Dee Hospital Center.
"He turned his head just at the right time. If he didn't turn his head, he would have been shot in the back of the head and be dead."
After he was later arrested, Jennings allegedly told police: "I thought I missed." He said he didn't see what happened to his father-in-law after firing his shot because the rest of the congregation was coming "at him" so he ran off, a Weber County Jail report states.
The bullet entered near Evans' right ear and exited through his opposite cheek. Doctors say Evans has several more procedures and reconstruction surgeries ahead of him, but he should otherwise make a full recovery. He remained in critical condition Monday but was communicating with doctors and family members at the hospital through nodding, writing and hand gestures. He had received a tracheotomy and was unable to talk.
Jennings, 35, was arrested about 3 ½ hours after the shooting. Police say he carjacked the vehicle of a man watering his garden with his 1-year-old child about a block away from the church. The pickup truck he allegedly stole at gunpoint eventually ran out of gas and police say he essentially turned himself in. He was booked into the Weber County Jail for investigation of attempted murder, aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.
"I'm really proud of my parishioners. No one panicked. Their first response was to help Jim, then help Tara — then they were praying. So what more can you ask of people?" Father Richtsteig said.
He said counselors would be available for parishioners who were traumatized by the shooting, particularly the many children attending Mass on Sunday. Approximately 300 people were in the church, 495 N. Harrison St., at the time of the shooting.
Motive remains unknown
The purpose of Monday's press conference was to thank the public and update everyone on Evans' condition. Police could not speculate Monday on a possible motive.
"Not knowing the state that Richard Jennings was in at the time, the motive is still a little unclear. It is believed there had been some domestic violence relationship problems that did expand into the extended family," said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle.
She said there were recent reports of domestic abuse between Jennings and his wife but details weren't immediately known Monday. Detectives were looking at the possibility of drugs or alcohol being a factor in the shooting and Croyle noted that toxicology tests had been sent to the Utah State Crime Lab for analysis. Despite the arrest, she said the case is still an "active investigation" with search warrants being served and many people being interviewed.
As of Monday, there was no evidence to suggest that Cheryl Jennings knew what was going to happen, even though she walked into the church with her husband, Croyle said. After the shooting, she ran off. The couple also have a young son who was staying with other relatives during the shooting.
It was not immediately known where Jennings, who is restricted from having firearms, got the gun he allegedly used in the shooting.
Neighbors describe relationship between Evans family and Jennings
by Andrew Adams
OGDEN — The violence exhibited in the shooting of Ogden resident James Evans doesn't surprise his neighbors. The suspected shooter, Evans' son-in-law Charles "Ricky" Jennings, is a dangerous man, they say.
"He threatened (his wife), 'If you leave me, I'll kill your parents,'" said neighbor Kelsey Hahne. "So they felt that (fear) forever, for a really long time. It was something that was an ongoing situation."
Enough so, Hahne says the Evans' kept guns in their home to defend themselves. She said their daughter had wanted to leave Jennings for some time.
"Several times, the daughter would come home and have bruises all over her, and she lived in a lot of fear," Hahne said.
Next-door neighbor Charlie Vogt said there were more troubles, including several over the Evans' grandson.
"Jim wasn't embarrassed of it at all. He talked about it, he talked about the problems and the fact that they were hurt not being able to see the young fellow," Vogt said.
Evans has been regarded by his neighbors as a kind man; a devout Catholic who loves to lend a helping hand.
"(Sunday was the) one day out of the year where he should have felt glad to be a father. It's just a sad situation," Hahne said.
Focusing on the good
Other than talking about James turning his head, Tara Evans — who held the hand of her daughter, Karen, throughout the press conference — declined to make any comments.
"Thank you to all the people who are praying for him," she said.
Father Richtsteig said he only wanted to focus on Evans.
"There have been threats (between Jennings and Evans), but I really don't want to go into that," he said. "Really, what I think we need to focus on is how much good we saw yesterday, not one act of evil. A lot of bravery, a lot of kindness, a lot of charity.
"They were at Mass, they were worshiping God and this man came in and did an act of violence. They're the ones we should be concerned about," he said.
After the shooting, several parishioners put pressure on Evans' wound and cleared his throat so his airway wasn't obstructed. One of the congregation members was also a nurse and helped until paramedics arrived.
Father Richtsteig had just returned Friday from a trip to Jerusalem with Evans and his family. He described him as a person who constantly helped out around the church doing little tasks.
"Jim is one of the kindest people I've ever known," he said. "No one deserves this. But I can't think of anyone who deserves it less than James."
Because of the shooting, Sunday night Mass was canceled. But Father Richtsteig said he wasn't going to let evil triumph, so he held Mass at 8:30 a.m. Monday. About 50 people showed up.
Bishop Wester extends blessings
The Most Reverend Bishop John C. Wester said he extended his blessings to everyone.
"The family, of course, itself, and the people, the parishioners," Bishop Wester said. "We pray for them and also we pray for the perpetrator, we pray for everybody, asking God's healing."
Many churches in Utah open their doors daily for not only members of the faith, but anyone who wishes to pray or to sit quietly. There is security for Mass with the ushers, Bishop Wester said. He has no plans to change that in the diocese.
Bishop Wester has stood with those who call for stricter laws on the sale and use of firearms. He said he believes most Utah gun owners are responsible, but he remains concerned.
"We need to really tackle the root causes and to get at mental illness and to get at the anger," he said.
After discussion with Father Richtsteig, Bishop Wester said there will be a Liturgy of Reparation service Thursday at St. James the Just Church, blessing both the inside and the outside of the building.
"We're going to pray for healing, all evil will be expunged from the church," he said. "God doesn't give back a gift. He has consecrated the church. It's a holy place, it will always be a holy place. But there's been an incident, so we need to redress that promise through prayer."
The Weber County Attorney's Office was expected to consider filing formal charges on Tuesday.
Contributing: Mike Anderson and Jed Boal