COLLEGE PARK, Ga. (AP) — A man suspected in Wednesday’s fatal shooting at a Georgia megachurch was once committed to a mental health facility in Maryland after facing various criminal charges including attempted murder, according to court records.
Police in Georgia said Floyd Palmer, 51, walked into a chapel at World Changers Church International just before a 10 a.m. service and opened fire, killing church volunteer Greg McDowell, 39, while he was leading a prayer.
“He walked in calmly, opened fire, and left as calmly,” Fulton County Police Cpl. Kay Lester said.
Palmer was a former facilities maintenance employee at the church who resigned in August for “personal reasons,” Lester said. He previously lived in Maryland.
The church’s well-known founder and leader, the Rev. Creflo Dollar, was not there at the time.
Palmer was taken into custody without incident a few hours later at an upscale mall in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, Lester said. Police spotted his car in the parking lot of Lenox Square. They didn’t recover a weapon.
He was being charged with homicide and possession of firearms in commission of a homicide, with additional charges pending.
Court records show a man named Floyd Lester Palmer, born on the same day in 1960, was charged in Baltimore in 2001 with attempted murder, assault and handgun charges. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 2004 after pleading not criminally responsible to lesser charges. The records show he was released the next year subject to conditions that were to remain in effect for five years.
The court filings include motions by the defense for a dangerousness evaluation, which was later withdrawn.
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department did not have arrest records in the case, which is not unusual in cases where someone has been committed. Palmer’s attorney in the case, Kenneth Ravenell, was out of the country on Wednesday, his staff said.
About 20 to 25 people were gathered in the chapel when the shooting happened. No other people were wounded and the gunman fled in a black Subaru station wagon with tinted windows that was later spotted by police at a mall in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.
Investigators were working to determine if Palmer and McDowell knew each other.
“We do not know if the victim was targeted,” Lester said. “We are looking into that as he was the only person that was shot.”
Ken Terry, a pastor at the church who is acting as a spokesman for McDowell’s family, said the church family was distraught and trying to comfort McDowell’s family.
“He would be considered a model dad,” Terry told reporters. “To have this happen is just devastating.”
Although the campus has security officers and surveillance cameras, Lester said the suspect was known to some at the service, so his presence wouldn’t have been unusual.
The violence upset members and neighbors of the church, which is one of the largest in the United States, claiming 30,000 members at the main campus and a ministry of satellite churches across the country.
Along with Bishop Eddie Long, Dollar is one of the most prominent African-American preachers based around Atlanta who have built successful ministries on the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches.
Dollar didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press, but he preached Wednesday evening at a Bible study in the campus’s larger World Dome sanctuary. He repeated the importance of having faith in God even when bad things happen and rejecting fear and doubt.
“We pray for this family,” he said, referring to McDowell. “We pray for both families and then we pray for every family that’s in here tonight.”
Earlier Wednesday, several church members walked over to the scene after hearing about the shooting.
“Why would anyone want to hurt the church?” asked Adolph Hanley, 66, of College Park, who has attended the church for two years. “That’s the devil’s work.”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Hanley said. “People don’t want the real Word.”
Albert Henry, 55, of Riverdale, said his 5-year-old son was in day care near the chapel when the shooting took place. He said staffers called and told him to pick up the child.
“I can’t believe someone just did it in the House of the Lord,” said Henry, as his boy sat in the back seat.
Linda Pritchett, 43, a church member for 10 years, said the shooting didn’t make her feel less secure attending services. She said people cannot give in to fear. But she said she grieved for the victim and his family.
“When something happens to one of us, it hurts all of us,” she said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)