Five people were “senselessly murdered” Wednesday after a gunman took hostages in a Florida bank, forced them to the floor and began shooting, authorities said.
Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund and Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman briefed reporters but declined to elaborate on the motive for the shooting, which took place around noon at the SunTrust bank in Sebring, about 94 miles southeast of Tampa.
The suspect was identified by Hoglund as Zephen Xaver, 21, a Sebring resident. A photo published by the Highlands News-Sun shows police taking a handcuffed white male, wearing a T-shirt and khaki shorts, from the scene.
“It’s been a tragic day in our community,” Hoglund said. “We have suffered a significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime.”
He said “at least” five people were “senselessly murdered” in the ordeal. It wasn’t clear whether the victims were bank employees or customers.
The gunman apparently entered and locked the bank, then forced customers to lie on the floor.
A man called police dispatch Wednesday afternoon and reported that he had fired shots inside the bank, Hoglund said. The county SWAT team was sent in after the gunman, who had barricaded himself inside, refused to negotiate with officers.
After the SWAT team burst inside, the gunman finally surrendered, according to Blackman.
Police were alerted to the incident by a man identified as Victor Sparks who found the bank locked when he tried to go in to make a deposit. Peering inside, Sparks told the Highlands News-Sun, he saw people on the floor and someone walking among them. He told the newspaper he heard a big bang as he dashed off to call 911.
Hoglund said authorities were still working to identify the dead and notify the next of kin.
“This individual needs to face very swift and exacting justice,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who joined the afternoon news conference.
The situation was confined to the bank and there was no danger to the surrounding area, police said. Aerial footage streamed by WFLA showed the front of the bank badly damaged.
SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers released a statement saying the bank was saddened by the incident. “Our entire team mourns this terrible loss,” he said.
The incident would mark the 19th mass shooting in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit organization that provides online public access to information about gun-related violence. The numbers include incidents in which four or more people were shot or killed, not including the shooters, according to the archive.
Contributing: Mary Helen Moore, Florida Today; the Associated Press