MARYVILLE, Ill. (AP) — A new chapel, a charming new pastor and an indoor playground rivaling any at McDonald’s offer testament to First Baptist Church’s resilience. Only the surveillance cameras and stronger locks are reminders of the still-unexplained violence it witnessed nearly three years ago.
Linda Cunningham, 71, was in a back pew that Sunday when a stranger calmly strode down a center aisle as Rev. Fred Winters was giving his sermon and raised a pistol toward the pulpit. His first shot sent fragments of the pastor’s Bible flying like confetti. Another shot killed the pastor.
Cunningham and other congregants say they still think now and then about the violent demise of the man they knew as “Pastor Fred.” But they try not to dwell on it, partly because the church has moved on in many ways, and partly because the criminal case against the alleged shooter, Terry Sedlacek, dropped from view when he was sent off to a mental-health center after a judge declared him unfit for trial.
“We don’t understand the circumstances why Pastor Fred was taken from us. We may never,” said Rosanna Kosek, another congregant at that time. “The church has moved on, and Pastor Fred would have wanted that.”
Cunningham and Kosek may have tried to forget about Sedlacek, but prosecutors haven’t. They’re preparing for a new court hearing this month that will revive questions about whether Sedlacek should face a jury after all.
Seven months after the shooting, Madison County Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli declared Sedlacek mentally unfit for trial. But in May last year, the judge ordered him to undergo new psychiatric testing to assess his competency, this time by a Chicago-area doctor enlisted by prosecutors.
Tognarelli granted a request on Sedlacek’s behalf that such testing be electronically recorded. Prosecutors objected to that, and on Jan. 31 they will ask Tognarelli to reconsider, worried that suspects may turn uncooperative or exaggerate their symptoms when confronted by recording devices.
Sedlacek’s public defender, John Rekowski, notes that doctors treating Sedlacek at an Alton mental-health center repeatedly have concluded in recent months he remains unfit for trial — and that the situation is unlikely to change. He wants Tognarelli to end the case with a discharge hearing that could result in Sedlacek being set free, being ordered to stay in mental-health confinement or even prison time.
“I don’t think (the case) will ever go to trial in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean justice won’t be done,” Rekowski said.
A not guilty plea was entered on Sedlacek’s behalf after he tried during an early court appearance to plead guilty to the first-degree murder and aggravated battery charges. Rekowski has said his client would pursue a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity.
The Madison County state’s attorney, Tom Gibbons, isn’t ready to agree there’ll never be a trial, pending the independent examination of Sedlacek.
“We have every intent of proceeding with the prosecution,” Gibbons said.
He finds it frustrating the case lingers so long after authorities say Sedlacek drove his Jeep to the 1,500-member church from his home in nearby Troy, about 25 miles northeast of St. Louis, bringing with him a .45-caliber handgun and enough bullets to kill 30 people.
Witnesses said Sedlacek’s eyes were fixed on the 45-year-old preacher as he calmly walked down the center aisle toward the altar. The confetti that rained from the pastor’s Bible after the first shot made some of the 150 onlookers think at first it was a skit. Authorities say Sedlacek fired three more times, with one bullet going through the pastor’s heart as the married father of two daughters tried to run.
After Sedlacek’s gun jammed, police say, he pulled out a knife but was wrestled down by two congregants. All three were wounded.
“You would never think it would happen at this place in the middle of these cornfields,” Cunningham said. “I guess we always felt like we were pretty remote.”
Sedlacek had no known connection to the church or Winters, and an investigator said Winters hadn’t received any previous threats.
“Police have turned the world upside down looking for reasons for the shooting,” said Rekowski, the public defender. “It appears to be a random act of crazy.”
Police searched Sedlacek’s bedroom and say they found two 12-gauge shotguns, a rifle and a box of 550 .22-caliber bullets, along with an index card marked “Last Day Will.” A previous public defender said a day planner found on Sedlacek’s dresser referred to the day of the shooting as “death day,” suggesting Sedlacek planned the attack.
Sedlacek has suffered bouts of erratic behavior his family has attributed to tick-borne Lyme disease.
Since the killing, the church has picked itself up, most noticeably by continuing with a planned expansion that increased classroom space and children’s ministries while adding a 300-seat chapel and the indoor playground.
Congregants also welcomed Tom Hufty, a new minister who Cunningham said gives compelling sermons, using props such as a replica of a fruit stand to get his point across, “and people just fell in love with that.” Maybe more importantly, she notes, he’s restored stability after the church’s scarring bout with violence.
“Our people are very forgiving and focused. They realize we have been marked by a terrible tragedy but they refused to be defined by it,” he said. “They are determined that evil will not win and they continue to reach out and serve the community.”
Cunningham wouldn’t mind if there is no trial for Sedlacek, but would be concerned if he was set free. Kosek, who left the congregation in 2010 for an unrelated family reason, said she has forgiven him.
“Forgiveness is the best way to bring closure,” Hufty stated. “That being said, we trust our judicial system to do what is right in this case.”
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