People who knew the shy computer `nerd’ can’t reconcile the churchgoer with the man who killed 7 near Milwaukee
Two weeks after Terry Ratzmann shot to death seven people before killing himself during a church service, his friends struggled to connect the gentle gardener they knew with the madman who took aim at the pastor, his family and other worshipers.
Ratzmann, 44, of New Berlin, Wis., looked at the world differently than most, with a sense of humor so dry and quirky that people weren’t always sure when he was joking. As a 20-year member of the Living Church of God, he believed that Jesus had saved him but that a series of devastating events signaled the end of the world was near.
How the Worldwide Church of God changed from being a cult of Christianity (theologically) to embracing mainstream Christianity
But why he showed up at a March 12 church service at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel in suburban Milwaukee with a Beretta 9 mm pistol instead of a Bible remains unclear.
“This has evil written all over it,” said Thomas Geiger, whose son, Robert, 12, survived the ordeal. Robert watched his cousin, Bart Oliver, 15, die.
Equally shocked was Ratzmann’s former high school buddy, Michael Ruzicka, 44, of Belleville, Mich., who described Ratzmann as a socially awkward redhead who was teased relentlessly during his days at Brookfield Central High School.
“He and I pretty much fit the classic definition of nerds,” said Ruzicka, who graduated with Ratzmann in 1978.
Yet Ratzmann, a computer programmer, “didn’t strike me as somebody who would be violent. He could take quite a bit of teasing,” Ruzicka said.
The day of the shooting, Ratzmann was seen at the Sheraton before the 12:30 p.m. service, carrying a briefcase. He apparently went home, leaving behind the briefcase containing a Bible, and returned with the handgun.
He arrived about 20 minutes into the service, and immediately began shooting people sitting in the back rows, including the pastor, Randy Gregory, 51, of Gurnee, and his son, James, 16, both of whom died. Also critically injured was Gregory’s wife, Marjean, who is recovering from a wound in her torso.
“I did not know it was Terry Ratzmann until after he killed himself,” said church member Chandra Frazier, 31. “I stood there in disbelief, thinking, Terry Ratzmann, why? I thought he must have been very angry at the minister.”
Robert Geiger later told his father, who arrived at the service late, that he looked at Ratzmann and saw fury in his eyes. After dropping to the floor, the boy watched a shower of shell casings fall at Ratzmann’s feet. There was a pause as Ratzmann reloaded, Thomas Geiger said his son told him.
Another church member yelled for Ratzmann to stop, and at that time, a serene look crossed the shooter’s face and he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger, Thomas Geiger said.
Church members have recounted to police their impressions of Ratzmann, describing him as a man who had battled depression but seemed harmless.
Two weeks before the shooting, Ratzmann was supposed to deliver the closing prayer at the end of the two-hour service, but he missed the opportunity when he left to use the restroom, Thomas Geiger said.
“My sister kidded him about not being there for the prayer,” Thomas Geiger said. “Terry’s reaction was not normal. He turned away and his face flushed and his jaw clenched.”
But church members are not sure if Ratzmann harbored anger over that incident or over a sermon or some other problem.
He was socially clumsy throughout his life–especially around women–and was becoming increasingly desperate to find a wife, preferably one who attended the same church, and start a family, Frazier said.
“He would make sly comments,” she said, recalling how he once ribbed her parents after Frazier missed three consecutive church services. “He had a way of insulting you, but you didn’t know it until five seconds later.”
But he also was generous, giving money anonymously to people in need, sometimes slipping bills in an unmarked envelope and tucking it into their Bible during Saturday’s service.
“He had a pleasant demeanor and personality, a ready smile,” said David Fiedler, 59, of Waukesha, who was Ratzmann’s pastor when both were members of the Worldwide Church of God.
About 10 years ago, the Worldwide Church changed its teachings, aligning more closely with mainstream evangelical Christian beliefs. Ratzmann and other members left the group, joining stricter splinter churches that adhered to the original Worldwide doctrines promoted by founder Herbert Armstrong.
“Imagine one day, the biggest leader in your group saying [the equivalent of], `Well, we’re not keeping Christmas and Easter anymore,'” Fiedler said. “There were even families where the husband went to one group and the wife to another.”
Ratzmann appeared content with the new church, although his mother–according to a report by the Waukesha County medical examiner–said “her son did not agree with the new pastor’s point of view, but didn’t harp on it.”
Ratzmann was an avid gardener, fascinated with Venus flytraps. He joined an online club, often responding to questions about horticulture.
He lived with his mother, Shirley, and a sister, Cheryl, in a small, wood-frame house where three elevated planter beds remain in the back yard. He raised trout and designed a system in which he used trout waste to fertilize his greenhouse plants, neighbors said.
Ratzmann earned average grades in high school but taught himself electronics, gardening, soapmaking, photography and other skills when the subjects fascinated him, Ruzicka said.
In the mid-1980s, after serving in the Coast Guard, Ratzmann began working for a landscaping company. The last time Ruzicka saw him, Ratzmann was in a hospital recovering from an injury sustained while operating a snowblower.
“He said that he was saved, and that he had found Jesus,” said Ruzicka, who said the spiritual awakening was not related to the snowblower accident.
Since the shooting, church services have been moved to an elementary school and may be moved again, Frazier said. Members are meeting at each other’s homes and with counselors to deal with their grief.
“I don’t believe, in all honesty, that was Terry Ratzmann who walked in,” said Thomas Geiger, who had known Ratzmann for 20 years. “I believe he was under control of a high-ranking demon, and maybe the highest one.”
mar. 29, 2005
Lisa Black, Tribune staff reporter