A gunman who took over a SunTrust Bank branch in Florida apparently made the five women inside lie down on the lobby floor before shooting them in the backs of their heads, police said Thursday.
Sebring police Chief Karl Hoglund said there’s no indication Zephen Xaver intended to rob the bank, and no apparent connection among him, the bank or the victims.
Xaver, 21, has been charged with five counts of premeditated murder in the shooting deaths of the four bank employees and a customer.
“He overtook the bank by force. He then shot everyone in the bank,” Hoglund said. “After shooting them, he called 911” and “told dispatchers that he’d killed everyone in the bank.”
According to an affidavit, all the victims were found in the bank’s lobby, lying face down with gunshots to the backs of their heads. Shell casings from Xaver’s 9mm handgun were scattered on the floor.
Another customer, Victor Sparks, told the Highland News-Sun that he found the door locked during the attack, peered inside, and saw people laying on the floor while someone walked around and between them. He then turned and stepped away, and heard gunfire. He said police arrived within two minutes after he and his wife called 911.
Dispatchers also got a 911 call from Xaver himself, saying “I have shot five people,” police said.
But Xaver refused to surrender, and would not allow officers to reach the victims, the chief said. After more than an hour of negotiations, the chief ordered a SWAT team in; they had to use an armored vehicle to break through the front doors. Xaver was found in an office in the rear.
By then, all the victims were already dead, the chief said.
Hoglund identified two of the victims: customer Cynthia Watson and bank employee Marisol Lopez. Citing Florida’s version of a victims’ rights law, he said three of the families don’t want the names released.
The community is mourning the loss of “our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our co-workers,” Hoglund said.
Authorities ended their news conference after only a few questions and didn’t respond when asked how Xaver obtained the gun.
Xaver wore a black-and-white striped prison uniform in a brief court appearance Thursday morning as he was appointed a public defender and ordered held without bond.
His father said he’s “heartbroken for the victims” and that his son “wasn’t raised to be like this.”
“He’s always been a good kid. He’s had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone ever before. This is a total shock,” Josh Xaver told CNN. The Associated Press has reached out to both parents of Zephen Xaver requesting interviews, with no immediate response.
It wasn’t a shock to Alex Gerlach, who identified herself as Xaver’s former girlfriend. She said he’s long been fascinated with the idea of killing, but no one took her warnings seriously. For some reason, he “always hated people and wanted everybody to die,” Gerlach told WSBT-TV in South Bend, Indiana.
“He got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class, and he’s been threatening this for so long, and he’s been having dreams about it and everything,” she said. “Every single person I’ve told has not taken it seriously, and it’s very unfortunate that it had to come to this.”
Gerlach told The Washington Post that Xaver said he purchased a gun last week and “no one thought anything of it” because he had always liked guns.
Xaver has no apparent criminal record in the areas where he’s lived in Indiana and Florida, and his school records are spotty: Two school districts in northern Indiana said he attended for several years but did not graduate. Xaver also briefly was an online student of Salt Lake City-based Stevens-Henager College. A spokeswoman for the college, Sherrie Martin, confirmed that Xaver was enrolled from September 2018 until December, when he withdrew.
In Florida, he tried to be a prison guard: Florida Department of Corrections records show he was hired as a trainee at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2 and resigned Jan. 9. No disciplinary issues were reported.
Public records and neighbors say Xaver and his mother had moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana, a small city south of South Bend. They lived in a nondescript pre-fabricated home about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police finished searching the home.
John Larose, who lives next door, said Xaver kept to himself, but he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.
This was at least the fourth mass shooting in Florida with five or more dead in the last three years. A gunman killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, five died at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2017, and 17 died in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a Fort Lauderdale suburb.
AP reporter David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.