Alabama church shooter gets life for killing 3 at potluck

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mugshot of 71-year-old Robert Findlay Smith, who is pleaded guilty in the shooting deaths of three people at a Vestavia Hills church

This booking photo released by the Jefferson County Jail shows Robert Findlay Smith, who was charged with capital murder on June 17, 2022, in a shooting that killed three people at an Vestavia Hills church. On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, Smith was sentenced to life without parole in the shooting deaths.

Jefferson County Jail

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A man on Tuesday was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the killing of three people at an Alabama church dinner in June.

Robert Findlay Smith, 71, pleaded guilty to capital murder and waived his right to appeal.

Smith was indicted in the June 16, 2022, shootings of Walter “Bart” Rainey, 84, of Irondale; Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham; and Jane Pounds, 84, of Hoover. They were killed during a potluck dinner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, a community just southeast of Birmingham.

“I relive the night of June 16 over and over and over, and I probably always will,” said Linda Rainey, whose husband was killed. “My heart tells me the shooter will also relive that night over and over.”

Defense attorney Emory Anthony apologized on behalf of Smith: “We’re so thankful to the families of each one of those victims because they agreed to allow him to plead to life. He could have been facing the death penalty. So they did not just talk about being Christians, they acted as Christians. I know it’s hurtful to each one of the family members, but we say thanks to each one of them.”

Neither Anthony nor the prosecutor’s office said they knew why Smith opened fire that night.

“I believe he’s remorseful,’’ Anthony said.

Police responded to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, one of Alabama’s two most populous cities, on a report of an active shooter. There were about 25 people at the “Boomers Potluck,” including Smith, who had previously attended the church and at least one of the dinners.

Smith was sitting alone, and a longtime church member approached him and invited him to sit at a table, said the Rev. Doug Carpenter, who founded the church in 1973 and retired in 2005. He identified himself to victim Rainey only as “Mr. Smith” and refused to join them.

Smith then pulled a handgun and shot three people, according to authorities. Jim Musgrove, a church member, hit the shooter with a chair and wrestled the gun away from him.

Rainey was pronounced dead at the scene. Yeager and Pounds were taken to a hospital where they later died.

“This type of senseless murder of three innocent people is certainly a case our office would typically try in front of a jury and seek the death penalty, however, that was not the wish of the three families in this case,” District Attorney Danny Carr said. “After much discussion, thought and prayer, the families were unanimous that they would prefer a plea of guilty to capital murder and a life without parole sentence.”

 

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