SEBRING, Fla. — Investigators have found no obvious reason why a man accused of fatally shooting five women picked a small-town bank in Florida as the place to carry out his attack, authorities said Thursday.
Zephen Xaver’s attack did not appear to be part of a robbery, and he had no apparent connection to the SunTrust branch or the four employees and one customer who were killed, police said.
There was also no evidence that Wednesday’s attack was planned, although a former girlfriend said Xaver often talked of killing people.
“We believe it was a random act,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said Thursday at a news conference. “Aside from perhaps driving by and seeing it was a bank, we have no known evidence that he targeted this bank for any particular reason.”
That randomness hit Carol Davis, who manages the hair salon and spa next door, hard. If the gunman had driven 10 seconds farther, just one more driveway, the victims would have been her, her staff and her customers.
“He could have come here. He could have gone anywhere. It could happen anywhere,” she said.
Just months ago, the 21-year-old Xaver moved from northern Indiana to Sebring, about 80 miles southeast of Tampa. He had recently quit his job as a prison guard trainee.
From police and witness accounts, he entered the bank about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday when the five women were alone. The bank sits apart along U.S. 27, a busy four-lane highway that connects south and central Florida, passing mostly through farms and small towns like Sebring, a tourist and retirement city of 10,000 known internationally for an annual endurance auto race that draws some of the world’s top drivers.
The victims were found lying face down, their bodies surrounded by shell casings, according to court documents. Six minutes after the attack began, Xaver called 911 and told dispatchers that he had killed everyone inside, Hoglund said.
Victor Sparks told the Highlands News-Sun he walked up to the bank and found the door locked. He peered inside and saw people lying on the floor while someone walked around and between them. As he turned away, he heard gunfire and called 911.
Davis said she looked out her window and saw police officers everywhere, many carrying rifles. “I have never seen stuff like that except in the movies.”
Xaver refused to surrender and would not allow officers to reach the victims, Hoglund said. After more than an hour of negotiations, the chief ordered a SWAT team in. They used an armoured vehicle to break through the front doors. Xaver was found in a back office.
By then, all the victims were dead, the chief said.
Hoglund identified three victims: customer Cynthia Watson, 65, and two employees: 55-year-old Marisol Lopez and 38-year-old Ana Pinon Willliams, a mother of seven.
Tim Williams said his sister-in-law was a devout Christian “and family to everyone she knew.” She had recently started working at the bank, and she quickly came to love the job and her co-workers, he said.
“We do not know what was going on in the mind of the individual who committed this atrocious act, but we do know he was influenced by the darkness in this world,” Williams said. “We will not try to understand the darkness, but with God’s help we will overcome it.”
Lopez’s family posted a note on their door asking not to be disturbed. The Associated Press could find no contact information for Watson’s family.
In compliance with a newly passed victims’ rights law in Florida, Hoglund withheld the names of the other two victims at their families’ request.
The community is mourning the loss of “our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our co-workers,” Hoglund said. Flags around Sebring were lowered to half-staff Thursday and some electronic signs outside business expressed sympathy for the victims and asked for prayers for the community.
Xaver was arrested in a beige T-shirt depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. On Thursday, he wore a black-and-white striped prison uniform 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 AP sought interviews with both of Xaver’s parents but received no immediate response.
The shootings were not 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 about him seriously. For some reason, he “always hated people and wanted everybody to die,” Gerlach told WSBT-TV in South Bend, Indiana, near his former home in Plymouth, 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 had no apparent criminal record in the areas where he’s lived in Indiana and Florida.
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.
The bank attack was at least the fourth mass shooting in Florida resulting in five or more dead in the past 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.