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Police: Gunman stormed Sebring bank, executed five women

The shooter recently moved to Florida from Indiana. A woman who said she dated the gunman said he was fascinated by death.
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Published Jan. 24, 2019

SEBRING — The 21-year-old gunman who stormed a SunTrust Bank branch forced five women inside to lay down on the floor and then executed all of them with a 9mm handgun, authorities said Thursday.

But investigators don't know why he did it.

Sebring police Chief Karl Hoglund said in a news conference broadcast by WFLA-Ch. 8 that there's no indication Zephen Xaver that intended to rob the bank. Nor does the alleged gunman appear to know or have any connection to the victims: four bank employees and one customer.

Police said they have not yet discerned a motive for Wednesday's mass shooting. They don't even know why he picked the bank branch at 1901 U.S. 27 S.

"We have no known motive that he targeted this particular bank for any known reasons," the chief said.

Hoglund also said there was "no known connection" between Xaver and the victims. Investigators believe it was a "random" shooting and not a "planned attack."

Xaver now faces five counts of first-degree murder. He appeared in court Thursday morning, dressed in a black-and-white striped jail suit. He sat by himself, head bowed. A judge ordered him held without bond and appointed a public defender to represent him.

The 21-year-old lived in Indiana before moving to Florida, where he briefly trained to be a prison guard for the Department of Corrections. He started at the Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2, resigned Jan. 9 and had no disciplinary issues, according to the Associated Press.

Three of the victims have been identified. Hoglund said customer Cynthia Watson, 65, and bank employee Marisol Lopez, 55, were named at the request of their families. A third victim was identified by her brother-in-law as Ana Piñon-Williams, a 38-year-old mother of seven, according to the Washington Post.

But the chief said the families of the remaining victims, ages 54 and 31, asked that their names not be made public under Marsy's Law, a Florida amendment intended to protect the rights of crime victims that voters passed in November and went into effect this month.

Police also said one employee managed to escape. They were inside the break room when the shooting started and ran out a back door.

The Sebring police chief also released more details about Wednesday's mass shooting:

Xaver entered the bank at 1901 U.S. 27 S about 12:30 p.m., police said, and rounded up the five victims. He then shot each in the back or the back of the head. He called 911 about six minutes later.

"I have shot five people," Xaver told dispatchers, the chief said. Xaver also told them that he was armed and wearing a bullet resistant vest, according to an arrest report cited by news reports. Dispatchers kept him on the phone as law enforcement swarmed around the bank.

But the chief said Xaver would not allow anyone inside the bank to check on the shooting victims or provide medical aid.

"He was not willing to afford us that opportunity," Hoglund said, adding: "We hoped the victims were alive."

So at 1:54 p.m. he asked the Highlands County Sheriff's Office SWAT team to enter the building. The SWAT team used an armored vehicle to bust through the entrance. By 2:28 p.m., Xaver was taken into custody without incident.

The Sheriff's Office released a photo of Xaver wearing a beige T-shirt depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, according to the Associated Press. His father said he's "heartbroken for the victims" but that his son "wasn't raised to be like this."

"He's always been a good kid," Josh Xaver told CNN. "He's had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone ever before. This is a total shock."

However, the mass shooting was not a shock to an Indiana woman who identified herself as Alex Gerlach and said she was Xaver's former girlfriend. She said he was fascinated with the idea of murder, but no one heeded her warnings about him. She said he "always hated people and wanted everybody to die," Gerlach told WSBT-TV in South Bend, Ind.

"He got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class, and he's been threatening this for so long, and he's been having dreams about it and everything," she told the TV station. "Every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate that it had to come to this."

Gerlach told the Washington Post that Xaver said he purchased a gun last week and "no one thought anything of it" because of his affinity for firearms.

Xaver does not appear to have criminal records in Florida or Indiana. His schooling is more uncertain. Two school districts in northern Indiana said he attended for several years but did not graduate. Xaver also briefly studied online with Stevens-Henager College in Salt Lake City, said college spokeswoman Sherrie Martin. He was briefly enrolled from September to December, then withdrew.

Public records and neighbors say Xaver and his mother had moved to Sebring in the fall from the Indiana town of Plymouth, which is near South Bend. Police searched the home Wednesday night.

Neighbor John Larose told reporters that Xaver kept to himself, though he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.

This was at least the fourth mass shooting in Florida with five or more dead in the past three years. A gunman killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, five died at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2017, and 17 died in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Information from the Associated Press, CNN, the Washington Post and other news organizations was used in this report.