Texas Gunman Tied to Hate Groups; Writings Show Persecution Feelings

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The vague profile of Larry Gene Ashbrook, who authorities say killed seven churchgoers, wounded seven more, then killed himself, developed more dimensions Friday, even as this city fought for perspective on the havoc Ashbrook wrought.

The man most people first learned of after his Wednesday rampage at Wedgwood Baptist Church called and wrote to newspapers, feared imagined persecutors--and may have mingled with Texas hate groups, people who had met him said.

After a Thursday prayer service that drew hundreds, meanwhile, citizens strained to adjust to experiences so dreadful they sometimes seemed like gory cinema. Churches and schools mobilized dozens of counselors to help students wade through their emotions. Officials consulted with those in Littleton, Colo., on handling the type of tragedy that is supposed to happen only in other people's cities.

By Friday, at the red brick church where Ashbrook pounded on the door before bursting in to shoot the worshipers, FBI agents and local police had wrapped up their evidence collection, allowing church members to pour inside to prepare for Sunday services. They planned to strip the bloody carpet, scour the walls and fill in bullet holes as quickly as possible, officials said.

While those services will cater to the congregation, acting Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said the city was also helping to organize a municipal service at a downtown stadium. Officials in Littleton, where two students at Columbine High School launched a killing spree this spring, advised Fort Worth to prepare lots of space for mourners, Mendoza added.

Police officials also continued studying the details of the killing spree, revealing that they had two home videos of Ashbrook made by church occupants.

The videos, made by two members of the congregation that had gathered for a Christian rock concert and youth service, showed friends and church leaders before focusing directly on Ashbrook when he began to fire. Then both videos stopped abruptly at the same moment.

Though Mendoza said he couldn't discern Ashbrook's statements as he fired, the skinny black-jacketed intruder was shooting "slowly and methodically."

"The gunman stood there and fired shot after shot," he said. "To watch him do what he did and not seem to worry about it, not seem to be panicked about it, you know, it [made me] very angry."

But Fort Worth officials said they had limited interest in recent outside leads and speculation about Ashbrook's past. "We're not doing a biography on this subject," city spokesman Pat Svacina said Friday.

The most intriguing new detail came from Houston writer and private investigator John Craig, who said he had interviewed Ashbrook in the presence of several Ku Klux Klan members in spring 1997.

Co-writer of a book on white supremacists, Craig said that Ashbrook boasted of his membership in the Phineas Priests, a loose-knit, virulently racist movement that advocates the killing of minorities and Jews. Buford Furrow, who allegedly shot up a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles in August, is also believed to be a Phineas Priest.

Craig said he notified the FBI after the interview and called the Fort Worth police numerous times after realizing he knew the shooter at Wedgwood Church. An FBI official said there were no plans to pursue Craig's story, and police spokesman Lt. David Ellis said he had no knowledge that Craig had called.

Though it's unclear how any racist views Ashbrook might have held would have prompted the attack, Craig noted that a recent message from the Texas Baptist Convention to area churches riled some white supremacists. They were upset by the church's call for Baptists to convert Jews. One of the most furious opponents of the project, he said, was white supremacist Charles Lee, who organized the 1997 interview with Ashbrook.

Craig spoke to The Times on Friday, a day after the Houston Chronicle first reported his comments.

Several representatives of organizations that monitor hate groups said Ashbrook appeared nowhere in their databases. But they said Craig's story was plausible and they were interested in confirmation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wisenthal Center in Los Angeles said it is crucial for authorities to follow up on the report. "If it's established that that meeting took place, and we can conclude that Ashbrook was impacted by the Phineas Priesthood, then a second shiver can go down our collective spine."

Combative and suspicious of his neighbors, Ashbrook repeatedly contacted journalists over the years, rambling fearfully less than a month ago in a phone call to a reporter at the alternative FW Weekly.

"My life has been destroyed by these people--Air Force personnel, Tarrant County sheriff's deputies, the Klan," P. A. Humphrey wrote in his accout of Ashbrook's complaints. Ashbrook also was obsessed with serial murders and could recite minutiae about several recent crimes, Humphrey recalled.

Ashbrook also wrote two agitated letters touching on the CIA, oppressive co-workers and fears of false criminal accusation to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this summer. He also paid a visit to the newspaper's office, meeting City Editor Stephen Kaye within the last few weeks.

"He was very cordial. He was very apologetic for bothering me," Kaye told Associated Press, adding that he told Ashbrook it was hard to help with his numerous concerns.

To both journalists, Ashbrook complained that no one seemed to take him seriously. The complaint was to resurface even in his final ramblings, when some members of the congregation, confused, thought he was part of a religious skit.

"This is real!" Ashbrook reportedly shouted as he fired.

Two days later, Fort Worth's survivors are still coming to terms with how very real the mayhem was.

The gunman's brother and two sisters released a statement, offering prayers for the victims and the Wedgwood congregation. "We know that there can never be a satisfactory explanation for this action," they said. "We only know that we are heartsick along with everyone in Fort Worth and the nation."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°