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Jim David Adkisson of Powell, Tennessee, enters the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the morning performance of a children’s play, Annie Jr., and opens fire. Two people die from gunshot wounds; seven others are injured. No children are injured by Adkisson’s shooting spree. Greg McKendry, an usher, is shot while trying to protect members of the congregation and dies immediately. Linda Kraeger is shot in the face and dies shortly thereafter. Betty Barnhart, Joe Barnhart, Jack Barnhart, Linda Chavez, Allison Lee, Tammy Sommers, and John Worth Jr., are injured, three critically. (Spencer 7/28/2008)
Shooting - Adkisson enters the church quietly and removes a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun from a guitar case. He gets off three shots before being wrestled to the ground by church members. (Celizic 7/18/2008; Spencer 7/28/2008) (Early news reports claim Adkisson fires up to 13 shots, a contention that is later proven erroneous.) (Agence France-Presse 7/27/2008) According to eyewitness Sheila Bowen, the music director sees the shooting and yells, “Get the hell out of here, everybody!” (Dewan 7/28/2008) “We heard the first shot,” says eyewitness Marty Murphy. “It sounded like a bomb went off. We thought it was part of the program at first. The second shot is when everyone started calling 911 and telling everyone to get down.” (Hickman and Jacobs 7/28/2008) During the shooting, Adkisson shouts “hateful things,” according to witness Barbara Kemper, who minutes later attempts to comfort a young boy whose mother is wounded in the head by Adkisson’s shots. Kemper will not give details of what Adkisson shouts. (Fowler et al. 7/27/2008) Adkisson has a large cache of ammunition in his possession, but is unable to reload his weapon before being restrained; one of the congregants who tackles Adkisson, Jamie Parkey, later says that he and his fellow members “dog piled” Adkisson to the floor. “He had the gun leveled in our direction,” Parkey later tells a reporter. “That’s when I pushed my mother and daughter to the floor and got under the pew. When I saw the men rushing him was when I got up to join them.” Another eyewitness, Marty Murphy, later recalls: “There were shotgun shells all over the place, so he must have thought he was going to get more shots in. He had those shells everywhere.” Parkey’s 16-year-old daughter is in the play; his six-year-old daughter is in the sanctuary with Parkey. Neither are injured, though the younger daughter is extremely upset and covered in a victim’s blood. Police respond to the shooting within minutes and arrest Adkisson. Members Mark and Becky Harmon witness the shootings; Becky Harmon later tells a reporter: “Within seconds people were tackling him. The hardest part was there were so many children there and they all had to see this. It was just devastating.” (Celizic 7/18/2008; Knoxville News Sentinel 7/27/2008; Spencer 7/28/2008) Bowen says one of the men to wrestle Adkisson to the ground, history professor John Bohstedt, thought for a time that Adkisson had a bomb with him. She says of Bohstedt: “He moved very quickly and he assessed the situation very quickly. He’s sitting on this guy. He had a package with him, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, and John was afraid that that might be a bomb, so John was screaming at everyone to get out.” The package turns out to be a prop for the play. (Dewan 7/28/2008) Two witnesses call the first victim, McKendry, a hero for attempting to protect other congregants. “Greg McKendry stood in the front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us,” says Kemper. Taylor Bessette, McKendry’s foster son, adds, “Make sure everyone knows that Greg McKendry was a hero, a total hero.” McKendry acted as a human shield to protect the children on stage. “He stood in front of the bullets and… actually took the bullets to save the child,” Bessette says. (Fowler et al. 7/27/2008; Knoxville News Sentinel 7/27/2008) Amira Parkey, a teenaged friend of Bissette’s, says of Adkisson: “This guy does not realize how many lives he totally destroyed. People who do this, they think they’ve got problems, but they destroy so many other people’s lives.” (Dewan 7/28/2008)
Reactions from Congregation, Others - Parkey later says: “For the situation, everyone responded phenomenally. [Two TVUUC members] mobilized and got the kids out the back.” The play’s director, Vicki Masters, calls for the children to evacuate the building, and another woman ushers the children to a nearby Presbyterian church after Adkisson is subdued. “Everybody did exactly what they needed to do,” says Parkey’s wife Amy Broyles. “There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It’s a remarkable congregation of people. I’ve never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.” TVUUC member Mark Harmon says: “This is a very courageous congregation. Not just the three or four people who tackled the gunman, but also the religious education director who got the children out of the way, and the people afterward who consoled each other.” Unitarian Universalist Association president William G. Sinkford says after the shooting: “A tragedy such as this makes us acutely conscious of the beauty and fragility of our lives and those of our loved ones. I am especially saddened by this intrusion of violence into a worship service involving children and youth. I know that many people, both in Knoxville and around the country, are struggling with shock and grief right now. I pray that those so affected will find strength and comfort.” Parkey and Broyles are at the church to visit, but after the day’s events, they decide to join the church. Broyles later tells a reporter, “Now that this has happened, having experienced that with them today, we definitely want to be part of this congregation.” (Celizic 7/18/2008; Spencer 7/28/2008)
Personal, Racial, Political Motives for Shooting - Adkisson apparantly has both personal and political motives for the shooting. His ex-wife, Liza Anderson, had been a member of the church years before, which may have been a personal reason for him selecting the church as the target of his violence. Additionally, Adkisson seems to have been triggered by a virulent hatred of liberals, blacks, gays, and Jews. Police find a four-page statement written by him in his car. According to Knoxville Police Department Chief Sterling Owen IV, Adkisson’s shooting was motivated by his “hatred of the liberal movement.… Liberals in general, as well as gays.” Owen also says that Adkisson blames liberals for his failure to get a job (see July 27, 2008 and After). TVUUC, like many UU churches, is active on behalf of the gay community. (Spencer 7/28/2008; Mansfield 7/28/2008) “It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred for the liberal movement,” Owen says. And a longtime acquaintance, Carol Smallwood, tells a reporter that Adkisson is a loner who hates “blacks, gays, and anyone different from him.” In 2000, Adkisson’s ex-wife, Alexander, took out an order of protection against Adkisson, telling police that Adkisson often drank heavily and had threatened “to blow my brains out and then blow his own brains out.” She told a judge that she was “in fear for my life and what he might do.” (Chancery Court of Anderson County, Tennessee 3/1/2000 ; Mansfield 7/28/2008; CNN 7/28/2008)
Guilty Plea - Several months later, Adkisson will plead guilty to the shootings, and will release the document to the press (see February 9, 2009).
Jim David Adkisson, charged with killing two and wounding seven in his attack on a Tennessee church congregation (see July 27, 2008), pleads guilty to all charges in a Knoxville, Tennessee, courthouse. Adkisson has accepted a sentence of life in prison. District Attorney General Randall Nichols tells the court that Adkisson “knowingly created a great risk of death to two or more persons other than the victims murdered,” and that the murders “were committed in the course of an act of terrorism.” In his explanation for his actions, given in a four-page document found in his car in the minutes after the shooting (see July 27, 2008 and After), Adkisson said his motives were rooted in patriotism and a desire to kill political liberals. The same day he pleads guilty, Adkisson releases the document to the press, though the local sheriff denies him access to reporters who may wish to interview him. Adkisson’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, says he advised Adkisson to go to trial using an insanity defense, but Adkisson refused, saying the plea deal is “the honorable thing to do.” Stephens adds: “He pled guilty to everything he was charged with. He accepted his responsibility. I’m sorry for those folks that went through that ordeal.” One of the congregation members who wrestled Adkisson to the ground during the shooting spree, John Bohstedt, responds to Stephens’s contention by saying: “There’s no insanity defense that I can see, unbalance, yes, bitter, yes, evil, yes.… I’m sickened that he shows no signs of remorse.” Tammy Sommers, who is recuperating from shotgun wounds inflicted by Adkisson, says, “He needs to stay in prison, which is what’s happening.” A convict who spent time in jail with Adkisson, Matthew David Chamberlain, says Adkisson told him that the motive behind the attack was purely ideological. “He said if he got out [of prison], he’d do it again,” Chamberlain says. Local citizen Brian Griffith believes Chamberlain is correct, and echoes the sentiments of many local residents by saying he was offended by Adkisson’s demeanor in court. “Today, he just sat there and sneered and seemed proud of it,” Griffith says. Church choir leader Vicki Masters, a witness to the shootings, agrees. “When he first came out into the courtroom, he had a look of sheer evil, he really did—evil as well as arrogance,” she says. “And he sat down after he looked around, and then he used his third finger to scratch the back of his head, with an air of arrogance and just pure evil. Those are the only words I can use to describe what I saw.” However, many church members say they are glad Adkisson chose to accept a plea, thus avoiding the necessity of the children who witnessed the shooting having to relive it in court. The Reverend William Sinkford, president of the Universalist Unitarian Society, says, “I am glad that the perpetrator is able to acknowledge publicly in the legal process what he did, and I am also glad that this community and church are not subjected to public trial.” (CNN 2/9/2009; Satterfield 2/10/2009; Kim 2/10/2009)
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