The Living Church of God, a relatively new organization born of a contentious split over religious doctrine, is small but spreads its word through weekly telecasts on 150 stations in several countries.
While there was no known motive for Saturday's slayings at a Brookfield hotel, the man believed responsible had been upset about a taped sermon by the church's spiritual leader, Roderick C. Meredith, according to a fellow congregation member who survived the attack. She reported that the sermon by Meredith, who is seen on many of those broadcasts, dealt with a coming "spiritual war."
The shootings brought the relatively obscure church, its members and its teachings into the spotlight in a tragic way.
The slayings came on Saturday, the church's day of worship as practiced in the time of the Old Testament. Members, who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, were gathering as they do throughout the country in small groups at rented halls, hotels and other locations.
Members believe that the "Great Tribulation" - war and famine as prophesied in the Bible - is nearing and that Christ will return as "King of kings."Meredith, the church's presiding evangelist, warned in a February sermon of the urgent need to prepare physically and spiritually for the "end time," according to a text of the sermon on the church's Web site. He talked of a pending financial collapse that could devastate the United States, and he encouraged church members to prepare by paying off debts and gathering savings to guard against job loss and bank failures.
"We are not talking about decades in the future," Meredith wrote. "We are talking about Bible prophecies that will intensify in the next five to 15 years of your life."
In a recent telecast, he warned that a mysterious spirit war in the next several years will change the world and alter lives.
The non-denominational church dates only to the 1990s, a spiritual descendant of the Worldwide Church of God, which was established by the late Herbert W. Armstrong. In 2003, when it moved its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., from San Diego, it listed 6,300 members at some 200 congregations in 40 countries. Many of its members are from the Southern United States.
The church produces a TV program, "Tomorrow's World," that is seen around the world. The "Tomorrow's World" Web site lists Wausau as the only Wisconsin city receiving the broadcast. The show airs on WGN television from Chicago early on Sunday mornings. Recent episodes have included "A Nation of Adulterers?" and "Prophetic Milestones Ahead."
The church's beliefs are rooted in the Bible. It cites its mission as preaching the true gospel of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.
According to an article by Meredith that is posted online, the Living Church of God is where "the full truth of the Bible is taught and practiced."
The Worldwide Church of God splintered over disagreements on doctrine and church governance, according to information on Web sites maintained by that church. The Living Church of God is the second largest group that formed from that split, said Jim King, a longtime member in Omaha, Neb., who is active in choir direction. He said the United Church of God was the largest new religious organization to form from the break up.
Church leaders and members from around the country struggled to take in the stunning news Saturday.
"This is pretty shocking," King said. He said he worried that the public would jump to unfair conclusions about the church.
"We're still trying to put it all together. This is such a shock," said Charles E. Bryce, director of administration for the church at its North Carolina headquarters. Bryce said he would fly to Milwaukee today to learn more about the violence.
One of those killed in Saturday's shootings in Brookfield was Randy L. Gregory, a 50-year-old Gurnee, Ill., resident who church members say had served as a regional pastor for Living Church of God congregations for many years.
"He is a very fine man," said King, who said he met and worked alongside Gregory last fall in Missouri at the church's Feast of Tabernacles, a holy week for the church. "He's very committed and dedicated to his work."
Bryce, a close friend of Gregory's, described the congregation that meets at the Sheraton hotel in Brookfield as "a wonderful group" led by Gregory.
Gregory, a veteran pastor in the church, traveled in the Midwest serving various congregations. His wife, Marjean, accompanied him to the Feast of Tabernacles, according to King.
Gregory lived with his family off a quiet cul-de-sac in Gurnee in a modest, two-story home with basketball hoop. Neighbors said he, his wife and two sons were friendly but reserved.
"He was very quiet, almost overly so," said a friend and neighbor, Toni D'Amore, a dental hygienist.
D'Amore said the family had moved to Gurnee from Texas approximately five years ago and chose the city because it was the midway point between Milwaukee and Chicago, where Randy Gregory also had a congregation.
The couple's younger son, James, was one of those killed Saturday. He was a junior at Warren Township High School, she said. Jonathan, the elder of the two sons, had recently completed studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
The split in the Worldwide Church of God has had serious side effects, with lingering disputes over doctrine and finger-pointing between people who used to worship together but are now apart, King noted.
According to its Web site, the Worldwide Church of God is a Christian denomination with about 64,000 members worshipping in 860 congregations in about 90 nations. It is based in Pasadena, Calif. That church is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.
A new leader of the Worldwide Church of God in the late 1980s tried to bring that church's teachings into closer alignment with traditional Evangelical beliefs. That caused turmoil and led to the splintering of the denomination and the eventual formation of the Living Church of God.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Graeme Zielinski in Gurnee, Ill., and Marie Rohde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
A man neighbors described as quiet and devout opened fire Saturday on a group of men, women and children attending a weekly church service at a Brookfield hotel, killing eight people - including himself - and seriously wounding four others.
"He planned to shoot us all," said Chandra Frazier, a 31-year-old woman attending the Living Church of God gathering.
Frazier said some 80 members of the church, which has been holding services at the Sheraton Hotel, 375 S. Moorland Road, for years, came from Illinois and Wisconsin. They were planning to hold a fashion show and a pot luck dinner Saturday and were in high spirits.
Although there was no known motive, Frazier said the man believed responsible for the shootings, Terry Ratzmann, 44, of New Berlin, was suffering from depression and was upset about a taped sermon he had heard a couple of weeks before by one the church's chief evangelists, Roderick C. Meredith.
"He was always a peculiar guy," she said. "But I never pegged him for a murderer."
Frazier had arrived at the service about eight minutes late. She took a seat in the third row from the back and was looking through her Bible and at some notes when she heard a series of loud pops.
"I jumped out of my seat, and I was like, 'Oh, Lord!' "
Frazier's 61-year-old mother, Ella Frazier, said the shots came from the back of the room.
"It sounded like an echo, like an explosion," Ella Frazier said.
"Someone said, 'It's for real.' We hit the floor and we kept hearing shots."
Some people sought cover, others attempted to protect loved ones. One man, Chandra Frazier said, yelled "Terry, stop! Think about what you're doing!"
Ratzmann, armed with a handgun, paused at least once to reload. Chandra Frazier said she dove beneath the chair of a man who was then shot.
"There were so many shots," she said. "Everybody was screaming. It was mayhem."
Then, the shooting came to an abrupt ending.
"I just remember silence after that," she said. "After that last bullet, it was dead silence."
Besides Ratzmann, four of the victims died at the hotel. According to several church members, they were:
· James Gregory, 17, of Gurnee, Ill., son of the church's pastor.
· Harold Diekmeier, 74, of Delafield.
· Gloria Critari, 55, of Cudahy.
· Bart Oliver, 15, of Waukesha.
Three others died at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital.
According to church members, those victims were:
· Randy L. Gregory, 50, of Gurnee, Ill., the regional pastor of the Living Church of God.
· Richard Reeves, 58, of Cudahy.
· A 44-year-old man from Hartford.
Three survivors are females, ages 10, 20 and 52. The fourth is a 20-year-old-man.
A Froedtert spokeswoman said late Saturday that two victims were in satisfactory condition, one in critical. Another victim was taken to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, police said, though a hospital spokeswoman would not confirm that any of the victims were there. It is one of the worst mass murders in state history, and the second fatal hotel shooting in less than a year. Two guests were killed at an Oak Creek hotel in November.
"It's heartbreaking, it's overwhelming. It's human carnage," Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher said after visiting the scene late Saturday afternoon.
Police said the gunman acted alone.
"There is nobody else being sought at this time as a suspect," said Daniel Tushaus, chief of the Brookfield Police Department.
Ratzmann, 44, lived with his mother and sister in New Berlin. Neighbors said Ratzmann was a devoted member of the church.
Ratzmann's silver pickup truck was towed away from the hotel hours after the shooting. New Berlin police closed down Ratzmann's neighborhood while investigators searched his house.
New Berlin mayor Ted Wysocki said officers from his city had been called in to help after the shooting.
"We're doing an investigation at the behest of the Brookfield Police Department," Wysocki said. "They told us that there is potential of a suspect in New Berlin."
Neighbors in the wooded subdivision said that they hadn't seen much of Ratzmann.
Joe Blasczyk, 30, who grew up in neighborhood, said Ratzmann "was the loner type. He just kind of gave you a weird gaze."
Neighbor Victor Seidl, who has lived near Ratzmann for almost 30 years, said Ratzmann "kind of kept to himself."
"They did their thing and we did our thing," Seidl said
Brookfield police received reports of shots fired at the hotel at 12:51 p.m., Tushaus said. A stream of ambulances from several agencies raced to the hotel and removed victims.
Froedtert physician Charles Cady, who treated three of the victims, said that six of them arrived at the hospital within a span of minutes. About 25 physicians, nurses and others were on hand to provide care.
"This did test our system and take us, I think, close to our limits," he said.
The hotel took on a surreal quality in the shooting's aftermath.
Families with young hockey players, in town for a tournament, milled about in the lobby. Many of the kids ran and splashed at the swimming pool. The Catholic Knights held their regional conference, capped with a Mass in one of the conference rooms, and a lunch. Down the hall, cordoned off, were the bodies of the slain.
Shoppers and other curious people filled the parking lot for a view of the crime scene. Some stopped by to drop off flowers. One woman arrived with sandwiches and hot drinks for those keeping watch.
Bridget Healy, 7, from Chicago, had just left her hotel room with her brother, Liam, 9, when they heard a woman scream to call 911. The girl said she ran and told her mother.
"She was pretty shaken up," said Bridget's mother, Janet.
Carol Schuster, an employee of Catholic Knights, said the organization was in the middle of its lunch when hotel employees came in to tell them what had happened. After a moment of silence, the meeting continued.
Police originally roped off the hotel, not allowing anyone but police officials to come and go from the building. But, after about an hour, the ropes were removed from all but the back of the hotel, and people began coming and going freely. One man, presumably unaware of the drama inside, approached the desk clerk and asked if they had any weekend specials available.
Some guests remained locked in their rooms after police surrounded the building and would not allow anyone to enter or leave.
Karen Suick, 48, said she arrived at the hotel Friday night with 15 players and parents for a hockey tournament.
"One of our hockey dad's two daughters are still in there," she said. "They called his cell phone. They were OK, but they were told to go back to their room. So that's what they did."
Some family members held nervous vigil in their cars in the hours after the shooting. Two sisters, one from Okauchee and the other from Racine, waited patiently for their family members. The Okauchee woman had a 14-year-old daughter inside. The Racine woman was waiting for her husband and father-in-law.
They said they had just dropped off their family members and had gone shopping at nearby Brookfield Square when they got a cell phone call from the Racine woman's husband saying that there had been a shooting. By late afternoon, passersby had begun a memorial next to the hotel. Flowers, a foam plastic cross and some stuffed animals were placed on a snowbank near a tree.
Around 6 p.m. many of the church members present at the shooting were being allowed to leave after being interviewed by investigators. One group, who declined to speak to reporters, included a young girl, about 7 years old, wearing white high-heeled shoes, an older woman with a walker, and man who looked to be about 70 years old.
During his afternoon news conference, Tushaus said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this crime."
Six hours later, the police tape came down, but the prayers continued.
Journal Sentinel reporters Meg Kissinger, Lisa Sink, Rick Romell, Graeme Zielinski, Marie Rohde, Dave Umhoefer, David Doege, Reid J. Epstein, Scott Williams, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, Nahal Toosi, Kelly Wells and Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.