COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Three people were killed and at least five others wounded Sunday in two shooting sprees — one at a missionary school and another at a church — that authorities said could be connected. The gunman in the second incident was killed by a church security guard, police said.
The first shooting occurred about 12:30 a.m., when a man wearing a dark coat and a beanie entered the Youth With a Mission dorm in the Denver suburb of Arvada. When he asked to spend the night and was turned away, he opened fire, authorities said.
Tiffany Johnson, 26, and Philip Crouse, 23, were killed. Two other students were injured. Authorities said the gunman fled on foot and was able to elude a massive search.
More than 12 hours later and about 70 miles south, a gunman opened fire in the parking lot of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. He fatally shot one churchgoer who was in a car and wounded at least three others; when he tried to enter the crowded mega-church, he was gunned down by a security guard.
A witness said the gunman apparently used a smoke grenade, and authorities were investigating the possibility that he might have left several explosives behind. Officials said 7,000 people were on the New Life church grounds at the time.
Police in both cities said that they were investigating whether the shootings were connected, but that they did not have conclusive evidence.
New Life had beefed up its security after hearing of the Arvada shooting, but officials did not say whether church guards normally were armed. Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers said the “courageous security staffer . . . probably saved many lives.”
As of late Sunday, police had not identified the dead assailant or released details about the gun he used. KUSA-TV in Denver reported that the gunman had worn body armor and a tactical helmet.
“What happened today was a real tragedy,” senior New Life pastor Brady Boyd said at an evening news conference outside the church. “My heart is broken today for the people who lost their lives.”
In Arvada — a sleepy western Denver suburb where the Youth With a Mission school was housed behind another mega-church — the mood was equally grim late Sunday.
“We are mourning the senseless loss of life of young people who were committed to bettering the lives of others,” Arvada Police Chief Don Wick said at a City Hall news conference.
The school trains about 300 missionaries a year and is part of an international chain of missionary academies. Youth With a Mission has a branch office at the New Life Church.
After the shooting in Arvada, police searched the area with dogs and checked for footprints in the freshly fallen snow. They made reverse 911 calls to residents, warning them to be on the lookout for the shooter.
Hours later, services began at the Faith Hope Chapel, which houses the missionary school. Christian soft rock piped over loudspeakers in the parking lot while police cruisers kept watch. Crime-scene tape cordoned off the two-story school dormitory hundreds of yards away.
In Colorado Springs, thousands of families had flooded the football-field-size parking lot Sunday morning to attend New Life services. The complex houses a coffee shop, bookstore, playrooms and a world prayer center, where requests for prayers from around the globe flash on a giant video screen.
David Wilcox had just left the 11 a.m. service and was in his car when he saw a plume rising from the entry to the church.
“At first it was pretty surreal,” Wilcox said Sunday evening, huddled in a prayer circle around a police car. “Now it’s pretty painful.”
The FBI and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined dozens of officers in the church parking lot, where security was tight. Hundreds of witnesses were being interviewed at a nearby community college.
Boyd said the church was offering counseling to the thousands of people who were on the scene. He was one of them — he watched the shootings at 1:10 p.m. from the window of his office.
The approximately 10,000-member New Life community, Boyd said, would recover from the tragedy. “Our church,” he said, “has gone through difficult times before.”
It was an apparent reference to the scandal last year when a former male prostitute said he had had a three-year affair with the church’s founder. Ted Haggard, who was then-president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, admitted to “immorality” and resigned as leader of the church.
On Sunday evening, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said in a statement that “violent crimes of any sort are tragic enough, but when innocent people are killed in a religious facility or place of worship, we must voice a collective sense of outrage.”
Correll reported from Colorado Springs and Riccardi from Arvada.