Pastor calls murder-suicide at Cornerstone Church ‘worst day of a lot of our lives’

Mark Vance is lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa.
Mark Vance is lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. | Screenshot: Cornerstone Church

Mark Vance, lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa, where two Iowa State University students were shot dead by a man who took his own life in the church’s parking lot last Thursday, couldn't find a word to describe the heartbreak he's experienced since the worst day of his life.

“Thursday, June 2, 2022, was the worst day of my life," Vance told his congregation on Sunday. "It was the worst day of a lot of our lives, a lot of people in this room, family members who lost loved ones, many of us who just had one of the most precious places to us shattered by violence. It’s the worst day in the life of Cornerstone Church."

Vivian Flores, 21, and her friend Eden Montang, 22, were at the church to participate in a worship program for college students known as The Salt Company, Vance said.

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The Salt Company is a student-led ministry that planted Cornerstone Church in Ames in 1994. Some 1,300 students usually attend the ministry’s weekly large group gathering.

Montang and Flores were outside the church at approximately 6:50 p.m. when Johnathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, shot them with his Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol before turning the gun on himself, authorities say. 

According to The Des Moines Register, Montang and Whitlatch, who served in the same Iowa National Guard unit, had been in a romantic relationship that had recently ended. Two days before the shooting, Whitlatch was arrested for allegedly harassing Montang but was released after posting bond.

The late Johnathan Whitlatch (L) and Eden Montang (R)
The late Johnathan Whitlatch (L) and Eden Montang (R) | Facebook/Eden Montang

“I looked for a word to try to capture how I feel, but I don’t have one. It’s like I’ve known deep grief before. It’s like a basement below the depth of grief,” Vance told worshipers. “It’s like the bottom fell out of your world. Instead of celebrating the first full week of summer this week, Eden and Vivian will have their funerals here at Cornerstone.”

Montang’s funeral is scheduled to be held in the main auditorium at Cornerstone Church at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. Flores’ funeral service will follow at the same venue at 2 p.m. on Thursday.

Vance said both Montang and Flores were deeply committed Christians who were part of the same connection group at The Salt Company.

“Thursday, June 2, 2022, they died walking into Salt Company. Precious people. If you’ve ever walked into Salt Company, if you’ve ever heard the phrase 'party in a can,' … I feel really angry because that innocent place was stolen,” Vance said. “Those beautiful people. I feel sad. I feel all the things at the same time. I feel things. I don’t know when they’re going to hit me. I don’t know why I cry when I cry.”

Vance said he was in the middle of an elders meeting at the church when they received news of the attack in the parking lot.

“Jason Tuttle, one of our elders in training, is a commander at Ames Police Department and was the first law enforcement official on the scene. As he sprinted out of our elders meeting across the parking lot … the rest of us soon followed,” he said.

“It quickly became clear that something terrible had happened. As I arrived and looked over, I saw Salt Company students, who instead of walking into Salt were performing chest compressions before the medical personnel got there."

The pastor said students and staff were "running in fear for their lives." 

"Every one of us there ... saw things we desperately wish we had never seen and wish we could somehow unsee,” Vance said. “At the end of it all, three people were dead, two of them precious Salt Company leaders Eden Montang, Vivian Flores, and a shooter who took his own life after taking theirs. And all of us now here are heartbroken.”

Montang's father, Terry Montang, praised his late daughter’s faith at a June 3 prayer service at Cornerstone.

"What I want everyone to know is that she walked the walk. She died for her faith. I’m proud to have been her father. I'm not sure what more there is to say than she is with the Lord,” he said, according to The Ames Tribune

Flores' siblings told The Des Moines Register that she was active in Valley Church's student ministries before she started college and read the Bible every day. Her favorite song was “All Hail King Jesus.”

"We would pray a lot, especially before going to bed. We would pray together about the day,” her fraternal twin, Valarie Flores, said. “She used to say, 'First one to Heaven wins.' … There’s no doubt in my head that she’s in Heaven.”

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