A woman in a trenchcoat walked into the Houston megachurch of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen and opened fire, sending worshippers scrambling before two off-duty officers shot and killed her.
Authorities said the female shooter, believed to be between the ages of 30 and 35, entered Lakewood Church at about 12:53 p.m. CT during Sunday service wearing a backpack and holding a long rifle. A young child who police said was approximately 4 to 5 years old accompanied her. The child was later wounded in the shootout with police and is hospitalized in critical condition.
A 57-year-old man was also wounded in the shooting. He was being treated for a hip injury and is in stable condition.
It wasn’t immediately clear what may have motivated the unidentified woman to attack the church. It’s also unknown what relationship, if any, the woman had to the child.
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner told reporters during a news conference outside the church that officers were unclear about how the child was injured.
“I will say this,” Finner said. “That female, that suspect, put that baby in danger. I’m going to put that blame on her.”
Witnesses reported the suspect claimed to have a bomb in her backpack and was spraying an unknown substance on the church’s ground. Officers searched her backpack and vehicle, but did not find any explosives, police said. First responders continued to search the megachurch, a building with a16,000-person capacity that is attended by 45,000 people every week, for hours afterwards.
A heavy law enforcement presence responded to the shooting at Lakewood Church in Houston on Feb. 11, 2024. (KPRC)
The violence erupted just before the Spanish-language church service was scheduled to start. Osteen said the violence could have been much worse if it had happened during the earlier, larger 11 a.m. service.
Investigators believe the attack was an isolated incident.
Witnesses told reporters that they heard multiple gunshots. Christina Rodriguez, who was inside the church, told Houston television station KTRK that she “started screaming, ‘There’s a shooter, there’s a shooter,’ ”and then she and others ran to the backside of a library inside the building, then stood in a stairway before they were told it was safe to leave.
Longtime church member Alan Guity, whose family is from Honduras, said he was resting inside the church’s sanctuary before the Spanish service as his mother was working as an usher when he heard gunshots.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom and I yelled, ‘Mom,’ ” he told The Associated Press.
The 35-year-old ran to his mother and they both laid flat on the floor and prayed as the gunfire continued. They remained there for about five minutes until someone told them it was safe to evacuate. Outside, Guity said, he and his mother tried to calm people down by worshiping and singing in Spanish, “Move in me, move in me. Touch my mind and my heart. Move within me Holy Spirit.”
Despite the chaos, Finner said the tragedy “could have been a lot worse” if the two officers had not “engaged” the woman when she opened fire. They had been working security at the church on Sunday, and Finner praised them for their quick actions.
The officers work for the Houston Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, respectively. Both have been placed on protocol-mandated administrative duty.
HPD is responding to reports of a shooting at 3700 Southwest Freeway. This is an on-going, active scene. Please avoid the area. Additional information will be provided as it is available. #HouNews— Houston Police (@houstonpolice) February 11, 2024
Osteen said Sunday that his congregation is “devastated.” He added that he would pray for the victims and for the woman who did the shooting and their families. It was not clear where he was at the time of the shooting.
“We’re going to stay strong and we’re going to continue to, to move forward,” he said during the news conference with police. “There are forces of evil, but the forces that are for us — the forces of God — are stronger than that. So we’re going to keep going strong and just, you know, doing what God’s called us to do: lift people up and give hope to the world.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement saying “our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston. Places of worship are sacred.”
Lakewood Church, founded by Joel and Delores Osteen, is among the largest congregations in the country, averaging about 45,000 attendees per week, according to its website.