Police can’t find what prompted the rampage that killed seven. But some fear a sermon may have pushed Terry Ratzmann over the edge.
BROOKFIELD, Wis. — In a humble brown house outside Milwaukee, 44-year-old Terry Ratzmann lived with his Venus’ flytraps, his trout that he raised in the basement and periodically ate for dinner, his computers, his mother and his demons.
Ratzmann learned recently that he might lose his job as a computer technician. Then, last month, the leader of Ratzmann’s church warned in a sermon of pending financial ruin — that a “colossal financial iceberg” was going to “sink” America.
On Saturday, Ratzmann fired 22 bullets during a service here, killing seven members of his church before taking his own life. Police on Sunday stressed that the investigation was in its infancy and that they did not yet understand his motive. But church members, investigators and acquaintances said they feared the specter of financial collapse may have pushed Ratzmann — already known as an eccentric and a depressive loner — over the edge.
If that’s what was behind the shootings, church leaders said, it would represent a wild overreaction to the message delivered by the evangelical leader of the Living Church of God, Roderick C. Meredith.
“I don’t know of anything that would trigger this sort of response,” said J.D. Crockett III, director of business operations at the church’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. “Our sermons are played in congregations all over the world. I know of no outcry over this one.”
The shootings took place at a Sheraton hotel in Brookfield, a tidy and amiable suburb of tree-lined streets, strip malls and about 40,000 people. Like most of the church’s 288 worldwide congregations, the group here does not have a permanent worship hall, but rents a small meeting room every week at the hotel. Meredith, once a high-ranking evangelist in the Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, which was founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong, started the Living Church of God in 1998.
Brookfield Police Chief Daniel Tushaus said Sunday that more than 50 people were inside when Ratzmann, who lived in the adjoining town of New Berlin, entered the room about 20 minutes into the service. Without a word, he opened fire, Tushaus said. The gunfire lasted about a minute.
Ratzmann, who attended services regularly, finished one magazine of bullets, then reloaded and resumed firing. After a friend called to him by name — shouting “Stop! Why?” — Ratzmann shot himself in the head, Tushaus said. He had four rounds left in his gun, authorities said.
Police identified the victims Sunday. They include the congregation’s pastor, Randy L. Gregory, 51, of Gurnee, Ill., and one of his two sons, 16-year-old James Gregory.
Randy Gregory moved his family to Gurnee about five years ago to become a regional pastor for the church. He traveled the Midwest to serve a number of congregations and directed one of the church’s summer camps where preteens learned “canoeing and Christian living,” Crockett said.
“We’ve lost a wonderful minister,” Crockett said. “He was a fine man.”
Also killed were Harold Diekmeier, 74, of Delafield, Wis.; Gloria Critari, 55, and Richard Reeves, 58, of Cudahy, Wis.; Gerald Miller, 44, of Erin, Wis.; and 15-year-old Bart Oliver of Waukesha, Wis. Four others remained hospitalized, including Gregory’s wife, Marjean Gregory, 52, and a 10-year-old girl identified only as Lindsay.
Ratzmann had been assigned by a human resources company, Adecco USA, to work on a contractual basis at the Waukesha offices of GE Healthcare, a company that provides financing for the healthcare industry, spokeswomen for the companies said. Ratzmann’s friend and neighbor, Shane Colwell, 36, said Ratzmann was working as a computer technician.
Brookfield Police Capt. Phil Horter said investigators had learned “nothing that would jump out as to why he would have done this.” However, he said, interviews conducted with church members and Ratzmann’s relatives suggested that “there are some issues in regards to his employment.”
Ratzmann also appeared to have become agitated by recent messages delivered by Meredith, the church leader. Ratzmann “walked out of the room” two weeks ago during a church service, Horter said.
Acquaintances and church members said Sunday that Ratzmann may have been deeply affected in particular by Meredith’s recent messages, delivered in taped sermons and editorials in the church’s magazine, predicting financial collapse. One editorial written by Meredith said the United States would soon face “total bankruptcy.” Meredith called for church members to pay off their credit cards and all other debts.
“We should also have at least the equivalent of 60 days’ living expenses in case of a sudden breakdown in the banking system,” he wrote.
A spokesman said Meredith was not available to comment Sunday.
The sermons and editorials were seen as a somber warning by many of the church’s 7,000 members worldwide. The message, said Scott Winnail, a church elder in Wyoming, was that there could be a “potential collapse of the U.S. currency.”
However, Winnail and other leaders said the messages were not seen as particularly controversial among church members. They were, he said, “not received poorly.” Indeed, in many ways they fit into the church’s warnings over the years of an impending apocalypse.
After Armstrong’s death in 1986, the Worldwide Church of God underwent changes that, while subtle at first, set it on a path toward schism. By 1995, its leadership had repudiated much of Armstrong’s “end-time” theology and even jettisoned hallmarks that helped define the church — worship on Saturday instead of Sunday, for example, and mandatory tithing. It also accepted the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which Armstrong had disavowed.
The turn toward mainstream Christianity prompted the formation of eight breakaway churches. One was led by Meredith, who remained faithful to Armstrong’s doctrines. After another split, Meredith founded the Living Church of God.
Ratzmann struggled for years with depression, said church member Kathleen Wollin, and often declined to speak to anyone when he showed up at church events. But he was a devout follower, volunteering to coordinate video and sound, for instance, during the church’s annual Feast of Tabernacles.
In his neighborhood in New Berlin, south of Brookfield, where he lived with his mother and sister, he was seen as a harmless eccentric. Ratzmann, who had thick glasses and a mop of sandy hair, once fashioned a homemade Roman candle firework “out of a piece of tube pipe with sulfur,” said Colwell, his neighbor. He raised trout at home and used the fish’s waste to fertilize the tomatoes and Venus’ flytraps, in his greenhouse.
“I knew him as a normal guy,” he said. “He was an intelligent guy. We never saw this coming.”
Ratzmann’s relatives could not be reached for comment.
A memorial to the victims was growing Sunday atop a pile of snow outside the hotel. Someone had set up a row of crosses, each painted with the name of a victim. One card read: “Bart Oliver: We’ll miss you and never forget you.” A teddy bear had a note attached: “To the little girl, 10 years old.”
Linda Rykwalder, 54, a registered nurse from Brookfield, was among those who placed flowers at the site. Tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t even look at this,” she said to no one in particular as she walked away. “It’s just so sad. Life is so fragile.”
Staff writer Larry B. Stammer contributed to this report. Gold reported from Brookfield, Hart from Houston and Stammer from Los Angeles.
Mar. 14, 2005
Scott Gold and Lianne Hart, Times Staff Writers