Florida investigators on Thursday were trying to determine why a former prison guard trainee barricaded himself in a bank in Sebring and opened fire before calling 911 and announcing “I have shot five people.”
Police said the carnage ended minutes later when Zephen Xaver, 21, yielded to a SWAT team that swarmed the SunTrust branch building and found five bodies.
Sebring Mayor John Shoop said his close-knit community was rocked by the attack and that “tragedies like this are not supposed to happen here.”
“Acts like this cannot deter us from living our lives freely from fear and deprivation,” the mayor added. “The path turned dark today, but as we move on we will grow stronger.”
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Xaver recently relocated in central Florida from Indiana and had been hired in November to work at the nearby Avon Park Correctional Institution. Spokesman Patrick Manderfield said Xaver resigned two weeks ago without explanation.
Alex Gerlach told WSBT-TV she had an on-and-off relationship with Xaver for two years, and had kept in contact every few months since. She said he often talked about wanting to hurt people – and that he recently showed her a picture of a handgun.
“I never understood where it started,” she told the station. “For some reason (he) always hated people and wanted everyone to die.”
Xaver kept a minor presence on social media with a Facebook page that listed nine friends. The page shows he lived in Sebring and is single. But another Facebook Page, apparently set up when he lived in Plymouth, Indiana, shows an image of the Grim Reaper and a meme that reads, ‘God is busy right now…may I help you?’
Florida shooting suspect: Who is Zephen Xaver, man accused of killing five at SunTrust Bank?
The gunman locked the bank, then forced customers to lie on the floor.
Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund and Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman declined to elaborate on the motive for the shooting, which took place around noon at the SunTrust bank in Sebring, about 100 miles southeast of Tampa.
Police were first alerted to the incident by 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.
The county SWAT team was sent in after the gunman, who had barricaded himself inside, refusing to negotiate with officers, Blackman said. After the SWAT team burst in, the gunman surrendered, he said.
“This individual needs to face very swift and exacting justice,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who joined the Wednesday afternoon news conference.
“Our entire team mourns this terrible loss,” SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers said in a statement.
The incident marks 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 and J.D. Gallop, Florida Today; The Associated Press