Church Massacre In Wisconsin

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Police, Church Seek Motive in Hotel Shooting

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The gunman’s motive for killing seven congregants at a weekend church service may never be known since he also killed himself, but police said on Monday it probably involved the church.



In Saturday’s massacre at a Living Church of God service held in a meeting room at a suburban Milwaukee hotel, Terry Ratzmann, 44, shot 11 people including the pastor and his son. The pastor’s wife remained in critical condition and two others were also wounded.

"The motive is not clear but we are starting to concentrate our efforts more in the area of the church than it being related to his employment or any other situation," Det. Phil Horton of the Brookfield, Wisconsin, police told reporters.

Ratzmann had worked as computer programer but was losing the job.

Police said they believe Ratzmann targeted some of his victims while others were shot at random.

Some other congregants have said Ratzmann angrily left the church’s service two weeks earlier where a taped sermon was played.

A church official who was visiting the wounded at a Wisconsin hospital said the sermon aired at the Feb. 26 service was nothing out of the ordinary, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper reported.

"It had nothing to do with prophecy or any kind of sensational topic," church official Charles Bryce told the newspaper. "There are some people who are saying that perhaps he was called upon to give the closing prayer and just got kind of nervous at the end, and that’s why he walked out."

A message left at the church’s Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters was not immediately returned.


A family photo of Terry Ratzmann, the 44-year-old New Berlin, Wisconsin man who shot 11 persons, killing seven before killing himself with a 9mm handgun in Brookfield, Wisconsin at the Sheraton Hotel March 12, 2005. The victims were attending a Church of the Living God service when the shooting took place. Photo by Reuters (Handout)

Diane Clohesy hugs her five-year-old son Casey at a makeshift memorial outside the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield, Wisconsin, March 13, 2005. A New Berlin man, Terry Ratzmann, opened fire with a 9mm pistol killing eight persons, including himself, and wounding four others in Brookfield, Wisconsin on March 12, 2005. The victims were attending a Church of the Living God service at the hotel when the shootings occurred. (Allen Fredrickson/Reuters)

A makeshift memorial of flowers has been placed outside a Sheraton Hotel March 13, 2005 after a New Berlin man, Terry Ratzmann, opened fire with a 9mm pistol killing eight persons, including himself, and wounding four others, police said in Brookfield, Wisconsin, March 12, 2005. The victims were attending a Church of the Living God service at the hotel when the shooting occurred. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

Peter Leiby, Director of Operations at the Brookfield Sheraton Hotel, brings flowers left at the hotel’s main desk from anonymous donors in the community to a makeshift memorial, March 13, 2005. A New Berlin man, Terry Ratzmann, opened fire with a 9mm pistol killing eight persons, including himself, and wounding four others, police said in Brookfield, Wisconsin March 12, 2005. The victims were attending a Church of the Living God service at the hotel when the shooting occurred. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

March 14, 2005 After Shootings in Wisconsin, a Community Asks ‘Why?’


BROOKFIELD, Wis., March 13 – Two weeks ago, Terry Ratzmann stalked out of a meeting of his church, upset about something in the sermon. On Saturday, he stormed in late to the weekly service at the Sheraton hotel here and without a word began spraying the congregation with bullets.

The authorities remain unsure whether Mr. Ratzmann’s rampage, which killed seven members of the Living Church of God, including the pastor, and ended in suicide, was a result of religious frustration. Church members said he had been suffering from depression and had just lost his job.

What they do know is that Mr. Ratzmann, 44, a computer programmer with a fondness for gardening who had no criminal record, ignored pleas from a friend to stop, instead popping a second magazine into his 9-millimeter handgun and firing 22 bullets in a minute or less.

"Nobody has told us anything from prior actions or prior contacts where they would have anticipated anything like this happening," Capt. Phil Horter of the Brookfield Police Department said at a news conference in this Milwaukee suburb on Sunday morning. "At this point we’re unable to determine if he had specific targets or if he just shot at random. At this time, we have no clear motive."

The day after the worst mass killings in this state since 1914, when the chef at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Spring Green, killed seven people, the police were combing through encrypted files on three computers taken from the home where Mr. Ratzmann lived with his mother and sister. No suicide note was found. At the same time, neighbors were trying to reconcile the quiet man who brought them tomatoes and zucchini with the carnage wrought at the hotel. And church members here and across the country searched for meaning in the killings.

"Sometimes he was up and sometimes he was down," Kathleen Wollin, 66, a church member who was present Saturday, said of Mr. Ratzmann. "When he was down, you couldn’t talk to him." Several weeks ago, Ms. Wollin recalled, Mr. Ratzmann showed her pictures of a recent trip to Australia, "and he was fine." But, she added, "people tell me he wasn’t talking lately."

Sunday evening, two dozen people said the Lord’s Prayer and held candles in the frigid night air in a vigil outside the Sheraton.

The Living Church of God was founded in the mid-1990’s by Roderick C. Meredith after he was kicked out of one of the many groups that splintered from the Worldwide Church of God upon the death of its leader, Herbert W. Armstrong. It claims 7,000 members in 288 congregations. Many of them, like the one here, meet in hotels or other public spaces with itinerant pastors.

The Living Church holds that people from Northwest Europe are descendants of the Bible’s 10 lost tribes of Israel, "possessors of the birthright promises and accompanying blessings" of Abraham’s descendants, according to a statement of beliefs from its Web site. It observes the Sabbath on Saturday and counsels members to remain apart from the secular world by not participating in juries, politics or the military.

The church’s view of history, which asserts that humankind is moving inexorably toward the "end times," when the world will go through a series of cataclysms before the second coming of Christ, is not uncommon among evangelicals. While most evangelicals eschew specific predictions about "end times," however, Dr. Meredith preached in a recent sermon broadcast internationally that the apocalypse was close, warning members to pay off credit-card debt and hoard savings in preparation for the United States’ coming financial collapse.

Sherry Koonce, 47, said her brother, Glenn Diekmeier, a deacon in the church, was at the podium on Saturday warming people up for the pastor’s sermon when Mr. Ratzmann burst through the back door.

"He did not see the gun, he didn’t see that he had a gun, he heard the shot," Ms. Koonce said of her brother. "When he heard the shooting stop, he got up and he saw what happened. He saw my dad and he went over by him. He looked and he wasn’t moving. The paramedic checked and there was not a pulse."

In addition to Ms. Koonce’s father, Harold Diekmeier, 74, of Delafield, Wis., who had been a member of the church and its progenitors since 1972, the dead included the pastor, Randy L. Gregory, 51, and his 16-year-old son, James, of Gurnee, Ill.; Gloria Critari, 55, and Richard W. Reeves, 58, both of Cudahy, Wis.; Gerald A. Miller, 44, of Erin, Wis.; and Bart Oliver, 15, of Waukesha.

The pastor’s wife, Marjean, 52, was injured, along with three others: Angel M. Varichak, 19; Matthew P. Kaulbach, 21; and a 10-year-old girl named Lindsay whose last name was not released.

At the Sheraton on Sunday afternoon, two of Bart Oliver’s friends laid a white cardboard sign saying he would be missed, along with a poem, on a shrine that included eight wooden crosses, two dozen bouquets, stuffed animals and pictures.

"Do not stand at my grave and cry," read the poem, by Mary Frye, which the teenagers pulled off the Internet. "I am not there. I did not die."

Mr. Gregory, a former engineer at I.B.M., became a paid minister in the church about five years ago, and moved from Texas to Gurnee so he could minister to congregations in both Chicago and Milwaukee. Neighbors said they could set their clocks by Mr. Gregory’s daily 2 p.m. stroll around their subdivision. They said the family was gone most of the weekend conducting church services in multiple locations.

"The church was everything" to the family, said a neighbor, Toni D’Amore. "Their social activities were pretty much with the church."

The police said there were 50 to 60 people in the hotel conference room for Saturday’s service, which started at 12:30 p.m. rather than at the usual 10 a.m. because it was to be followed by a potluck dinner and a talent show. When Mr. Ratzmann began shooting from the back of the room, Captain Horter said, church members "took what action they thought to be necessary, safeguarding themselves, safeguarding family members, safeguarding others."

Ms. Wollin said she was seated in the front and "heard pop-pop."

"I turned around, I saw Terry shooting, I hit the ground," she said.

The first 911 calls from church members’ cellphones came in at 12:51 p.m., and officers arrived on the scene three minutes later. Mr. Ratzmann, the police said, was against the wall at the back of the room, dead of a gunshot to the head.

In searching Mr. Ratzmann’s home, about two miles away in New Berlin, the police found 9-millimeter bullets that, with the 22 shots fired and those remaining in the handgun, added up to the 50 that come in a box. They also recovered a .22-caliber rifle and the computers, but nothing to explain the massacre. They are trying to construct a timeline of Mr. Ratzmann’s activities in the 24 hours before the killings.

No one answered the door on Sunday at the Ratzmanns’ wood-frame house, where someone had left a bouquet of flowers and two teddy bears. A woman who picked up the telephone there said only, "At this time the family really has nothing to say."

Neighbors said Mr. Ratzmann was a computer programmer and had lately been out of work. A spokeswoman for Adecco, a human resources firm, said Mr. Ratzmann was an employee of the firm and had recently been on assignment for GE Healthcare, which released a statement saying the company was cooperating with investigators and offering prayers to the victims’ families.

Shane Colwell, who lives across the alley, said he and Mr. Ratzmann traded tools as they both built garages. He said Mr. Ratzmann caught rabbits in "humane traps" and drove them 20 miles away rather than shooting them, and he wore a tie, jacket and dress pants for services every Saturday.

Mr. Colwell said he last spoke to Mr. Ratzmann two days before the shooting, while shoveling snow. Mr. Ratzmann was getting seedlings ready for planting, Mr. Colwell said, and was planning a camping trip out West for the summer.

"I didn’t know things were this bad; had I known, I would have tried to talk to him," he said.

Kenneth Stump, 83, a retired warehouse worker who lived next door, said Mr. Ratzmann took him acid-free tomatoes "because he knew I couldn’t eat stuff with acid." Mr. Stump said Mr. Ratzmann picked up his lawn clippings to fertilize his garden and would help Mr. Stump move firewood from the garage.

On Saturday, Mr. Stump said he saw Mr. Ratzmann leaving for the Sheraton. He waved, and Mr. Ratzmann waved back.

Reporting for this article was contributed by David Bernstein from Gurnee, Ill., Daniel I. Dorfman from Wisconsin, Neela Banerjee from Washington and Laurie Goodstein from New York.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: