At a press conference four hours after three people were killed in shootings at two Jewish facilities near Kansas City, Mo., authorities cautiously noted that they did not yet know the motive. Only after prompting did John Douglass, chief of police in the sprawling suburb of Overland Park, Kans., say “We are investigating it as a hate crime.”
At 10:15 p.m. E.T., when I asked Douglass over the phone why the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City (JCC) was targeted, he reiterated, very reasonably, “We’re being very careful not to put out anything that we don’t know for certain.”
But one look at the campus of the JCC leaves little doubt. Set well back from nearby thoroughfares, nestled behind berms on the campus of Sprint’s corporate headquarters, the center is not the sort of place that a gunman finds at random.
And if history teaches anything, it’s the sad fact that when a gunman seeks out a Jewish center and opens fire, the motive is hate of an ancient vintage.
Three people were dead on Sunday, the eve of Passover, two more had narrowly escaped being wounded (in one case, a student’s backpack was hit), and a suspect was in custody. Apparently, the gunman first murdered a woman on the parking lot of Village Shalom, a Jewish-oriented retirement development, then drove a short distance north to kill a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather at the JCC.
A short time later, police arrested a bearded man in his 70s outside an elementary school a mile from the second crime scene. Reporters at the scene said he smiled as he was taken away from a white sedan with a Missouri license plate, and that he may have called out “Heil Hitler!”
Roiling dark rain clouds swept over the neighborhood as police and FBI agents began gathering evidence. They spoke to witnesses who told them that the JCC facility was bustling on Sunday at about 1 p.m. Members were working out in the fitness center, actors were rehearsing for an upcoming performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, and throngs of teenagers from throughout the metro area were gathering to audition for the KC SuperStar talent competition.
“There were tons of kids because this was about to start at 1 o’clock,” competition publicist Ruth Bigus told the Kansas City Star.
One of the victims — identified by the Kansas City Star as Eagle Scout Reat Griffin Underwood, a high school freshman — may have been on his way to the tryouts. The gunman used a shotgun to kill the boy and his grandfather, identified by the Star as William Lewis Corporon, a physician, as they arrived in the parking lot.
Overland Park police have long been sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitic violence in the area, which is home to a number of synagogues and other prominent Jewish institutions. An off-duty police officer was reportedly stationed at the JCC and may have played a role in ending the rampage. Police chief Douglass reported that the gunman may have had other weapons besides the shotgun — suggesting that he might have planned to kill more people.
As the suspect fled, staff at the community center put a well-rehearsed disaster plan into action. Dozens of people were ushered into inside rooms as outside doors were locked tight. Young musicians huddled on the auditorium floor, while others crowded into locker rooms. Given the ominous spring weather, many people initially believed they were responding to a tornado warning; only after about 15 minutes were they told about the shootings.
Douglass confirmed that an off-duty officer was at work inside the JCC at the time of the shooting. The officer helped guide people to safety, then rushed outside as the gunman was driving away. By then, calls were flooding into 911. “We realized we had an active shooter in the vicinity, so the protocol is to flood the zone with first responders,” said the chief. “We quickly found the suspect sitting in his car at the school parking lot.”
Officials at the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist congregation in nearby Leawood, Kans., reported on Sunday evening that Corporon, who died at the scene of the crime, and Underwood, who died as surgeons struggled to save him at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, were members of their church. There was nothing remotely surprising about the fact that a Christian teenager and his grandfather were visiting the JCC. Thousands of Kansas City residents of every faith (and no faith at all) are made welcome each year at the center’s many public events.
Unfortunately, that spirit of community means nothing to a bigot with murder in his heart. He sees the word Jewish and the word shalom (peace), and that’s all he needs to know.
Chief Douglass was being a careful professional when he said “It’s too early in the investigation to try to label it. We know it’s a vicious act of violence.” Douglass continued, but before calling it a hate crime “we’re going to have to know more about it.”
For the rest of us, the facts speak for themselves.