Alabama church gunman drank alcohol moments before opening fire, survivor says

Police and firefighters respond to a shooting at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, on June 16, 2022. | Screenshot: ABC 33/40

A survivor of the shooting during a potluck dinner at an Episcopal church in Alabama that left three dead recalled that the suspected gunman sat alone and rejected invitations to socialize before the killing started. 

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills was hosting a "Boomers Potluck" for older attendees when the suspect, who authorities identified as 70-year-old Robert Findlay Smith, produced a handgun and began shooting. 

The man is a formerly licensed federal gun dealer cited by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Feb. 7, 2018, for shoddy recordkeeping. According to authorities, he's now facing capital murder charges for the deaths of one man and two women related to the shooting incident.

As The Associated Press reported Sunday, 73-year-old Susan Sallin was seated at a table with the three people who died. She remembered that Findlay seemed "disengaged," sitting by himself and drinking from what appeared to be a small bottle of scotch.

While Findlay had previously attended services at the church and gatherings for baby boomers, Sallin claims he didn't interact much with others.

"I personally invited him to come and sit at our table twice because I wanted him to feel a sense of inclusion, but he did not come," she said. 

A woman married to a man who was later killed in the shooting had offered to fix a plate for Smith, but he declined. 

Sallin didn't remember any arguments or conflicts breaking out before the shooting started. But she did recall hearing a "loud metallic sound," which she mistook for a metal chair falling over.

"And then there was another sound and another sound, and I realized it was a gun," she said. "People were diving for the floor. I was diving for the floor. When I got down to the floor, I realized that two of my girlfriends who were sitting at the table with me had been hit."

The woman crawled across the floor to reach her friends to calm them, saying, "'You are not alone. You are not alone.' That's the message that I wanted them to get." 

The Rev. Doug Carpenter, a former pastor at St. Stephen's who retired in 2005, heard another man at the potluck subdue the gunman by hitting him with a folding chair before wrestling him to the ground and taking the gun.

"I did see him get the gun out of the man's hand and hit him on the head with the gun," Sallin said.

During a Friday press conference, Vestavia Hills Police Captain Shane Ware called the man who subdued the gunman a "hero," stating that the act was "extremely critical in saving lives." He also revealed that police officers and the Vestavia Hills Fire Department were dispatched at 6:22 p.m. to deal with the active shooter situation. 

Ware identified 84-year-old Walter Rainey and 75-year-old Sarah Yeager as victims who died at the church. An 84-year-old woman was also injured during the shooting and taken to the hospital. 

An update posted on the Vestavia Hills Police Department's Facebook page Friday afternoon revealed the third victim succumbed to her injuries and died. 

Bishop Glenda Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama discussed the shooting during a prayer vigil at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook on Friday. 

"I am proud of my people for praying, for hitting their knees," she said. "We're going to help everybody walk through it by reminding them that we're a people of hope."

Curry said services will continue as scheduled throughout the diocese and encouraged people to "come to church." 

"Go to a church and pray for peace and pray for healing and pray for the love of Jesus to transform the world," she said. "When Christians are slapped, they try to reach out in love. That's what we do and we try to pray for guidance which is beyond us when things beyond us are happening."

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