AURORA, Colo. (CBS4/AP) – A man crashed his car outside a Colorado church and opened fire on people who had come to his aid, fatally wounding the mother of the church’s pastor before an off-duty officer attending service shot him dead.
The pastor of Destiny Center Church, De’Lono Straham, said the woman killed Sunday was his mother, Josephine Echols, 67, a nurse from Flint, Mich., who most recently had been working with dialysis patients at a local hospital. She had gone outside to see if anyone needed medical attention.
“She lived her life to help people,” Straham said. “To look over and see her laying down and to run to her and to see a bullet hole in her face, bleeding out of her torso; we were later told that she was shot five times. Why would someone do that to a 67-year-old woman who is not even 5 feet tall?”
Straham said the car crashed as Sunday’s service was winding down at the Destiny Center in Aurora, and a staffer ran out to see if the driver needed help. He said the driver pulled a gun on the worker but it jammed.
“He was shooting at the back of my head as I was running in, but no bullets were coming out,” witness Tarell Martin said.
Straham said the gunman was able to fix it, moved toward the church and shot his mother near the entrance. She died later at a hospital.
“It all happened really fast. We heard gun shots and people hit the floor and I heard people say, ‘Where’s Mamma at?’ ” Echols’ granddaughter said.
“We’re not sure if she diverted his attention and that’s why he shot her,” Straham said Monday at the church.
Straham said the gunman went to another entrance and started to enter the church. The gunman was shot by his cousin, an off-duty Denver police officer. Aurora police spokesman Frank Fania declined to release the off-duty officer’s name. Straham said his cousin normally doesn’t carry his weapon unless he’s on duty but for some reason had it with him on Sunday.
“God knows what would have happened if the guy got in there the way he was just shooting. Lives were saved. But last night when he came home he broke up, he was broken down saying, ‘All the lives I could save and I couldn’t save my own aunt’s.,’ ” Straham said.
Straham said he doesn’t know of any connection between the gunman and the small church, which is tucked away in an office park. The congregation is predominantly African-American, as was the gunman, who appeared to be no older than 25, Straham said. Police said the gunman didn’t appear to be targeting the congregation.
The case has baffled police who used orange spray paint to mark off nearly a quarter mile of tire tracks across a busy roadway and the driveway of an office park in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. The tracks indicate erratic driving as the car went over a sidewalk next to a bus stop and hit a retaining wall made of dirt and rocks, knocking out several rocks and leaving them strewn on the street. The tracks then lead into a driveway in an office park, go over a median and continue for hundreds of feet to the area where the church is located.
Stains on the roadway indicate the vehicle was leaking oily substances.
A building next to the church was hit by bullets.
Friends and family described Echols as the mother of the church who helped keep children in line and offered spiritual support to the adults.
“She is a powerful spiritual woman. She loves everybody, talks to everybody. She has a good word about everybody,” said friend Venita Johnson.
Echol’s daughter, Cynthia Tolbert, said she was always available to volunteer.
Fania said autopsies are scheduled Tuesday, and no other details about the shootings, including names, would be released until then.
The church scheduled a vigil for Echols for Monday evening at the chapel.
– By P. Solomon Banda, AP Writer
– CBS4 staff contributed to this report
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