OGDEN, Utah — It was a quiet part of the Father’s Day Mass as about 300 people stood up in preparation for communion. A parishioner, known by many at the church as Ricky Jennings, entered through the glass doors in back, holding his wife Cheryl’s hand.
Seconds later, police say Jennings fired a single shot at the back of Cheryl’s father’s head, nearly killing him. The loud bang pierced the silence, sending people diving for cover beneath pews and the priest behind the altar.
“It was echoing in my head so loud,” said Rebecca Ory Hernandez, who was only a few feet away from the Evans with her 5-year-old son. She grabbed her son, threw him under the pew and got on top of him. She heard the pastor blurt out an expletive into his microphone. “I was waiting for another gunman,” she said.
The shooter ran from the church, the pastor and a half dozen other men close on his heels. Ory Hernandez and other parishioners went to James Evans. They used scarves and a shirt to help soak up the blood, and she cradled his head. His wife, Tara, who had been standing next to him, and others prayed.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Evans kept saying, as blood spilled from his mouth.
Meanwhile, Charles Richard Jennings Jr., 35, stole a truck from a nearby neighbor at gunpoint and led police on a highway chase, police said. He was caught hours later on foot after the truck ran out of gas.
As police try to determine why Jennings shot his father-in-law — police think he may have been drinking or on drugs and say the couple had a history of domestic disputes — the family is grateful for a small miracle.
Evans, who turns 66 on Tuesday, was struck at the side of his head, the bullet going through near his ear and out his cheek and missing his brain, said Dr. Barbara Kerwin, the director of the intensive care unit at McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden.
“He turned his head just at the right time,” his wife said Monday, crying at a hospital news conference. “If didn’t turn his head, he would have been hit in the back of the head and he would have been dead.”
He was in critical condition Monday but doctors say he’s expected to live, although he’ll need reconstructive surgery and rehab to learn to swallow and speak again, Kerwin said. He was awake on Monday, nodding yes and no, writing and using hand signals to communicate.
Jennings was booked on suspicion of attempted aggravated criminal homicide, aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted user. Charges are expected to be filed Tuesday, and Jennings will appear by video for arraignment in Ogden, said Weber County deputy county attorney Dean Saunders.
Court records show Jennings has a criminal record going back to 1996, when he pleaded no contest to several traffic-related misdemeanors. Over the years, he’s pleaded no contest to felony charges of failing to yield to police and attempting to receive a stolen vehicle, and misdemeanor charges for traffic violations, criminal trespassing and theft. He’s also pleaded guilty to theft charges and a felony charge of attempting to tamper with a witness or juror.
Authorities don’t expect to file any charges against Jennings’ wife. She was not at Monday’s news conference with her mother and another sister at the McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. It’s not clear whether she knew her husband had the gun, or what she did after he shot her father on Sunday.
After paramedics rushed James Evans to the hospital, the Rev. Erik Richtsteig returned to the brick church that sits on the east side of Ogden at the foot of a steep rock mountain called Jumpoff Canyon, surrounded by middle-class houses with manicured lawns and rose bushes.
As doctors operated on James Evans, who had recently accompanied the priest on a trip to the Holy Land in Jerusalem, Richtsteig told his congregation who the shooter was, and asked them to pray for the couple and their 3-year-old son.
Then, for those who stayed, he finished the Mass, explaining his reasons matter-of-factly, Ory Hernandez said.
“Evil will not prevail,” Richtsteig said.
The congregation is shaken, Richtsteig said Monday: “They were a mess — they were worshipping God and this man came in and did an act of violence.”
Ory Hernandez says she has cried, enraged that violence came to the house of worship, and was at a loss for words when her son told her, “I didn’t know there were any bad guys in this town, mommy.”
But it won’t stop her from coming back to church.
“The bad guy doesn’t get to win this time,” she said.
Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs.