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story.lead_photo.caption The Smith County Sheriff's Office investigates a fatal shooting Sunday morning at the Starville Methodist Church near Winona, Texas. A suspect who fled has been arrested, according to the sheriff's office. Photo by Zak Wellerman/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP

WINONA, Texas — A pastor is dead and three people injured after a shooting Sunday at a small East Texas church near Tyler, Texas. The pastor, armed with a gun, confronted a man who hid from police in the church overnight, a local sheriff said.

Authorities used dogs and drones during a two-hour manhunt late Saturday in woods near Winona following a car chase, and the pastor of the nearby Starrville Methodist Church discovered him hiding in a church bathroom Sunday morning, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said at a news conference.

The small community of Starrville is two hours southwest of Texarkana.

Smith said he did not know why the man was initially being pursued but the sheriff said the plates on the Volkswagen Jetta the man was driving were "fictitious — they didn't belong on that vehicle." During the chase, the gunman brandished a shotgun through the sunroof of the Jetta, he said. A state trooper in a patrol car struck the car that the man was driving and the man fled into the woods, Smith said.

Around 9:30 a.m. Sunday — before church services — the pastor, his wife and two others entered the church, unaware that the fugitive was inside, Smith said.

The man, who had been hiding in the restroom, confronted the pastor. The pastor then drew his gun and asked the gunman to leave, the sheriff said.

But as they moved toward the front door, the man lunged at the pastor and grabbed the gun, shooting and killing the pastor.

One other person was shot and was in surgery at UT Health East Texas hospital Sunday afternoon, officials said. That person's condition was unclear. Another person, a woman who was not shot, had non-life-threatening injuries from a fall during the chaos after the shooting. She was in the same hospital in stable condition, a spokesperson for the hospital said.

The man then stole the pastor's vehicle and fled east before being arrested by deputies in nearby Harrison County, Smith said. He said the man was hospitalized Sunday afternoon with gunshot wounds to his hand, but that it's unclear when he was shot.

Smith declined to identify the pastor, the other people injured or the suspect. The sheriff said the shooting suspect will likely face a capital murder charge.

The man appears to have taken shelter in the church out of convenience and there's nothing to indicate the shooting was motivated by religious animus, the sheriff said.

"This is not a church-related, religion-related offense," Smith said.

Gov. Greg Abbott sent his condolences.

"Our hearts are with the victims and the families of those killed or injured in this terrible tragedy," he said in a statement.

Representatives of Starrville Methodist could not be immediately reached for comment. Starrville Methodist was built in 1853, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

 

Other Texas

Church Shootings

The shooting came a little more than a year after a gunman opened fire at a church near Fort Worth, killing two people before he was fatally shot by a congregant.

Texas officials hailed the congregant's quick action, saying it prevented further killing and showed the effectiveness of the state's permissive gun laws, including a 2019 measure that affirmed the right of licensed handgun holders to carry a weapon in places of worship.

That law was passed in response to the 2017 massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where a man fatally shot more than two dozen people at a Sunday service before taking his own life.

Since then, a cottage industry has sprung up in Texas and other states to train and arm civilians to protect their churches using the techniques and equipment of law enforcement.

The Associated Press, New York Times News Service and Gazette staff contributed to this report.

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