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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Houston megachurch shooter had AR-15 and brought her 7-year-old son

Victoria Osteen, the wife of Pastor Joel Osteen, preaches at Lakewood Church in Houston on Sunday, March 26, 2006. On Sunday, Feb. 11, two off-duty law enforcement officers working security at the church confronted an armed woman, exchanged fire with her and killed her. The woman’s young son was also struck in the head by gunfire, officials said. (Michael Stravato/The New York Times)

By J. David Goodman, Edgar Sandoval and Ruth Graham

As afternoon services were beginning at Lakewood Church in Houston on Sunday, a woman arrived in a trench coat and carrying a backpack, her 7-year-old son at her side. She brought two rifles and had a piece of yellow rope resembling a detonation cord, law enforcement officials said Monday.

The woman pointed an AR-15 at an unarmed security guard, officials said, and then made her way inside the church, which is led by televangelist Joel Osteen. Almost immediately, she opened fire in a hallway with the assault-style rifle.

As they provided new details of the shooting that rattled Lakewood Church, law enforcement officials said that what might have been a mass shooting inside one of the nation’s largest megachurches had been narrowly averted by a pair of off-duty officers working security at the church, a commonplace feature of worship at large congregations across the United States.

The officers — a Houston police officer and an agent from the state alcoholic beverage commission — confronted the woman, exchanged fire with her and killed her. Her son was also struck in the head by gunfire, officials said. He remained in critical condition Monday. A man in the church was also wounded.

“They were a wall that existed between worshippers and terror, between freedom of religion and murder,” Kevin J. Lilly, the chair of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said at an afternoon news conference, referring to the off-duty officers.

Officials identified the woman as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, who lived in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston, and had a history of previous arrests, including one in 2022 on misdemeanor weapons charges. Chief Troy Finner of the Houston Police Department said that she had “a mental health history that is documented.”

It was not clear what had drawn Moreno to the prominent megachurch, located along a major Houston highway in a former NBA arena. But according to legal filings in her acrimonious divorce fight, her mother had once attended Lakewood.

A representative for the church, Don Iloff, said he did not believe the attacker was known to members or leaders of the church.

Police also discovered “antisemitic writings” made by Moreno, said Christopher Hassig, the commander of the department’s homicide unit. The AR-15 carried a sticker with the word “Palestine” on its stock. He said that the feelings expressed in her writings appeared to stem from disputes with her ex-husband’s family, some of whom are Jewish.

Osteen has hosted evangelistic events in Israel and, like many evangelical leaders, has expressed general solidarity with the country over the years. In 2022, he interviewed the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, calling Netanyahu “a modern-day David” and comparing him to the biblical patriarch.

Finner said during the news conference that the shooting was not at the moment being treated as a hate crime. “I just want us to simply wait on the facts,” he said. “You got mental illness here. Got a lot of things going on.”

Moreno had used male names in the past, which appeared in connection with some of her arrest documents. But officials said that she had always been identified in those documents as a woman.

Before she was shot and killed by the off-duty officers, the attacker at the church stated that she had a bomb, according to a search warrant for Moreno’s Conroe home. The officers said she was carrying a yellow cord that “appeared to be a detonation cord” that was “consistent with the manufacture of explosive devices.” The officers opened fire after she pointed her weapon at them, according to the warrant.

Police searched the shooting suspect’s one-story home Sunday night, according to a person familiar with the search. They were looking for firearms, computers and cellphones, as well as materials used to make explosives or a “hoax bomb,” according to the warrant.

Officials said during an earlier news conference Sunday that despite her statements and the fact that she had sprayed some sort of substance on the ground, the assailant did not have any explosives inside the church.

According to the warrant, the woman shot one man, whom officials have said was a bystander and did not appear to have been targeted. Finner said the police “don’t know” if the boy was shot by the woman, or by the off-duty officers as they confronted her. Officials could not say if she had been using her son to shield herself, or where he had been standing when the gunfire erupted.

Farrah Signorelli, a neighbor of Moreno, said that she and others in the neighborhood had at times been fearful of Moreno.

“She was very mean, very angry,” said Signorelli, who is a life skills teacher at an elementary school in Conroe. She said Moreno had begun antagonizing her after Moreno learned that her son was in Signorelli’s class.

“At first I didn’t have any issues with her, until she realized I was his teacher,” she said.

Since last fall, Signorelli said, Moreno drove by her house on more than one occasion, slowed down and appeared to be taking pictures of it on her cellphone. In another instance, Signorelli said she was walking with her 12-year-old daughter when Moreno stopped her car, rolled her window down and asked the girl repeatedly: “Is that your teacher? Is that your teacher?” She said she had ignored Moreno and had kept walking to avoid a confrontation.

“I was scared — I watched every step I took,” she said.

Officials said Moreno appeared to have purchased the AR-15 in December and that she had taken a .22 caliber rifle in her bag to the church as well but had not used it. It was not immediately clear how or where she had been able to purchase the weapon she used.

At a news conference, a beaming Osteen said he intended to continue his mission of providing hope.

“We don’t understand why these things happen, but we know God’s in control,” said Osteen, who tends to avoid wading into politics. “There are forces of evil, but the forces that are for us, the forces of God, are stronger than that.”

The shooting took place around 2 p.m. Sunday, after an English-language service had ended and as a Spanish-language service was beginning. The church occupies the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team. Services draw tens of thousands in person, and many more watch online and on television.

The attacker drove to the church in a white car and entered the building. She began firing after getting inside, said Hassig, the homicide commander, and almost immediately the two off-duty officers began firing at her.

“Multiple shots are exchanged by all three,” he said. “There’s a few-minute gunbattle.”

She was struck, he said, and fell to the ground, along with the boy. She was pronounced dead at 2:07 p.m., about 12 minutes after she had opened fire.

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