Remembering the West Freeway Church of Christ Shooting – Fort Worth Magazine

remembering-the-west-freeway-church-of-christ-shooting-–-fort-worth-magazine

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Three shots rang out midway through communion prayer at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement. It was the first service after Christmas in 2019. A collective gasp and faint screams filled the air as nearly 250 panic-stricken parishioners, clad in sweaters and jackets over their Sunday best, frantically ducked behind the pews. For six seconds, hell had broken loose.

The shots occurred in quick succession — each almost exactly two seconds apart. The first two came from Keith Thomas Kinnunen’s shotgun and killed Anton “Tony” Wallace and Richard White, two parishioners. The third shot came from a volunteer security guard and struck the active shooter, Kinnunen, in the head.

The church regularly livestreams its services, so footage of the tragedy quickly made the media rounds — uploaded to almost every major news site. Following the trio of gunshots, the video shows the security guard, Jack Wilson, slowly pacing the back of the sanctuary with his finger still on the trigger of his pistol pointed toward the body of Kinnunen.

Several other armed churchgoers simultaneously drew their weapons and creeped down the aisles, inching closer to Kinnunen until they could confirm there was no longer an imminent threat. One crouched on the floor and peeked his head over the front-row pew that he used to prop his hand on for an easy position to shoot.

Wilson quickly kicked the short-barreled shotgun away from Kinnunen’s bleeding body — Kinnunen still having 10 rounds on his presence.

Church leaders and Wilson were familiar with the perpetrator, who had frequently sought assistance from the church. They had always obliged by giving him food, but Wilson says he was upset because they would never give him money. 

Though Kinnunen had been to the church several times and there were no prior issues, Wilson’s gut sunk of unease when he saw an unrecognizable Kinnunen walk through the front doors in his attention-grabbing garb — he was clad in an oversized trench coat and masked by a wig and fake beard.

“You know, where you can feel intuition — that gut feeling or whatever — it didn’t seem right,” Wilson says.

But the security team was hesitant to approach Kinnunen because, at the time, they didn’t recognize him and believed he may have been concealing flaws he was embarrassed of, such as severe burns or hair loss from chemotherapy treatments.

Still, they determined they should keep a close eye on him, and Wilson advised the church staff to fixate the security cameras on him until the service concluded. 

When facing the front podium, Kinnunen sat on the left side of the room, a few pews in from the back wall. 

Sitting in the pew directly in front of him was church member Isabel Arreola, 38, who told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a day after the shooting that she felt uncomfortable around him. She also knew the security team was suspicious because Wilson had propped himself against the back wall to watch him. And White — who was carrying a concealed firearm — sat a couple pews directly behind him.

But before the scene began to unravel, she and her husband had already moved to the opposite side of the sanctuary with their then-7-year-old daughter.

“I should have listened to my gut,” Arreola told the Star-Telegram. “While he was there, I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t pray. There was just something not right about him. But at the same time, I thought maybe I was being too hard.”

Kinnunen sat quietly and paid attention during most of the church service, only speaking at one point to ask directions to the restroom. After returning, he approached Wallace, who stood in the back corner after administering communion to the congregation. The two briefly spoke, and Kinnunen returned to his seat again. Wilson says, to this day, no one knows the conversation they had.

Moments later, Kinnunen rose from his seat, leaned into Wallace with a couple feet between them and said, “Drop it!” The subject he referenced is not clear, but Wallace was still holding his communion tray.

As Kinnunen pulled the shotgun from beneath his coat, White carefully pulled his own weapon from his holster. Kinnunen appeared to have caught White’s movement and immediately fired at him before turning his arms toward Wallace and shooting him from only a few feet away.

Wallace was not immediately killed and, in the video, can be seen stumbling into a chair while holding part of his stomach. His daughter, Tiffany Wallace, saw him from across the room and ran quickly, leaping around others, to care for him.

The remainder of the crowd immediately dove downward, seeking protection in the cushions of the church pews and floor. 

The man reciting the communion prayer when the initial shots were fired slowly crawled down the small steps of the carpeted stage. A wooden altar behind him had engraved lettering which read: “This Do in Remembrance of Me.”

Wilson fired at Kinnunen from about a 15-yard distance, the only available target being his head. 

A licensed firearms instructor, Wilson later told me he teaches his students to avoid head shots unless it’s all you have. With several people moving between them and no time to spare, a head shot was all he had. And, with one shot, Wilson had killed Kinnunen.

When I asked Wilson if he thinks about the tragedy daily, he responded, “Only because of Tony and Richard.” 

“I don’t feel like I killed a human,” Wilson says. “I killed an evil. That’s how I coped with the situation even that night.” 

At some point in the interview, he showed me that he still carries the gun he used to stop Kinnunen.

Wilson speaks with confidence about everything: his family, political views, guns, and the tragedy that took place that morning. As expected of any humble protagonist, he has always denied any labels praising him as a hero. 

He instead attributes his on-the-spot-thinking and quick maneuvers to decades of training. To Wilson, shooting a firearm is second nature. 

Above all, Wilson gives credit to the presence of God.

“Yeah, I practice and train, but I also know God’s hand was on mine when I pulled the trigger,” he says. 

Although he made steady eye contact while speaking, Wilson appeared to still have a slight detachment from the conversation, as if he was reciting his side of the story from memory after telling it over and over again.

He has a stern disposition, although if you can get him to smile, you’ll notice its authenticity with the shift of his eyes.

Wilson — along with his wife, Jayma, and their three daughters, Jennifer, Jaynette, and Julie — attended the small Church of Christ for about 55 years. During the morning of the shooting, he could count 16 relatives and dozens of close friends sitting around the sanctuary, including Wallace and White, with whom he shared decades-long friendships.

But shortly after the tragedy occurred, the couple moved to a church closer to their home in Hood County, where Wilson began to serve as county commissioner, a position voters elected him to serve in November 2020.

Still today, Wilson says he doesn’t see himself as much more than your regular man.

He lives in the small town of Acton with his high school sweetheart, Jayma — the couple met at Brewer High School, where Wilson won the state competition in the band drumline and graduated in 1967. 

In addition to their three daughters, the couple shares 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren together. The newest was fresh from the hospital, only a week old, at the time of this interview. 

“I’ve pretty much always seen myself as a protector because of my family,” Wilson says.

Growing up, he lived in the small Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, at one time a favorite stop on the popular and now-decommissioned Route 66, before moving to White Settlement as a preteen — a move required of his military family, whose ringleader, his father, served in the Texas Army National Guard for 38 years.

He hasn’t spent much time away from his comfort zone inside the North-Central Texas region, except for a short period of time when his family lived in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and when he lived through his own brief stint with the National Guard in South Carolina for about a year.

His quaint farm is home to many animals, including a donkey, lamb, and some chickens — which came with the property purchase several years ago — and a couple heifers they brought in later. 

His commissioner office — cold from the air conditioning — had a medal he received from the governor for his heroism, a couple of flags, and some framed maps of the county on display. The large waiting area was bare, with the exception of a few chairs. 

Wilson firmly believes he’s just an ordinary man who was in the right spot at the right time with the right training.

He’s spent most of his life around firearms, preparing for such a scarring event that he had hoped he would never actually face. His first memory of holding a gun is from nearly 70 years ago. 

While still living in the Panhandle, Wilson recalls hiding under burlap beanbags with his dad and brother during bird hunting season. They laid with their rifles in the wheat stubble fields, waiting to shoot anything that flew in the sky above them. 

Then, when he was a preteen, he purchased a firearm to call his own.

Now decades later, his entire work life has revolved around guns as a former service member in the National Guard and Hood County’s former reserve deputy sheriff. 

He also became a licensed firearms instructor shortly after he obtained his concealed handgun license in 1995. 

He owned his own gun range and training facility and estimates that he trained thousands of locals before his retirement a few years ago.

It’s not far-fetched to say that Wilson had been training for this moment his entire life. He was put in a situation he was uniquely qualified to handle. This expertise is likely what has created his indifference to the adulation he’s received. Despite this humility, his gallantry elicited high praise from celebrities and national leaders alike, including then-President Donald Trump.

“It was over in six seconds,” Trump said, “thanks to the brave parishioners who acted to protect 242 fellow worshippers.”

The admiration continued weeks later when Texas Governor Greg Abbott bestowed the first-ever Governor’s Medal of Courage. 

Described by his office as the highest honor given to civilians by the governor, Abbott created the award for Texas citizens “who display great acts of heroism by risking their own safety to save another’s life.” His office didn’t clarify when the award was invented, but many believe it was due to the church tragedy.

“Only God knows who is alive today because of Jack Wilson,” Abbott said during the award ceremony. “What we do know is that so many lives were saved because of Jack Wilson’s quick action, his calmness under pressure, and above all else, his courage and his willingness to risk his own life to save the lives of others.”

One team of Oklahoma-based bull riders — Gene Owen and Bill Henson — gave their high-performing bull Wilson’s namesake as a gift of gratitude. Like Wilson, the bull — previously known as The Punisher — could make sure-fire moves at a moment’s notice with an average buck-off time of 3.24 seconds.

“I thought Jack Wilson is the coolest guy walking right now,” Owen told the New York Post when they made the name change. “He took out an evil man with one shot, and within six seconds, the whole deal was done.”

A day after the shooting, dozens of congregants and community members gathered on the grass outside of the church for a candlelight vigil. They held hands and hugged. They took turns sharing their favorite stories of their friends.

Many who knew the two fallen men told stories of the illuminating kindness displayed by the “Godly men.” 

White served on the church’s security team and attempted to stop the perpetrator when he noticed he was armed. His family published a statement on Facebook after the shooting, labeling him a hero when he died.

At the time of his death, he was a sales manager at Tankheads, Inc., where he worked for more than 20 years. He was also a husband and father to five children, as well as a grandfather to 11. 

His family also described him as an avid outdoorsman who loved to be outside. 

“Richard constantly put others first and was always willing to help with a smile on his face,” they wrote.

Born in West Texas, White always sported jeans and boots, according to his obituary, so his family jokingly called him “John Wayne” for his signature Western wardrobe.

“His presence on this earth will be missed by all who knew him,” his obituary reads.

It concludes with a Biblical passage from John 13: 15: “Greater love has no man than this ... that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Wallace was a 64-year-old nurse manager of the hemodialysis unit at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in downtown Fort Worth. He was also a church deacon, welcoming all who entered their doors, including Kinnunen that midmorning.

He was born into a military family of 10 — made up of his parents, four daughters and four sons, including himself — and moved around the world until they finally settled in Mineral Wells, where he graduated from the local high school.

“Tony’s love for people and his commitment to providing the best and most compassionate medical care is what made him the exceptional nurse that he was,” his obituary states. “Tony had three loves in his life: God, family, and nursing. He was a faithful servant of God, serving through the years at his home church — Sixth Avenue Church of Christ [in] Mineral Wells, and more recently, at West Freeway Church of Christ. 

“Anyone that knew Tony, knew of his strong faith and knew that he not only talked the talk, but walked the walk every day,” the obituary continues.

He was a husband and father to two daughters and a grandfather to four.

Just two years prior, a similar scene unfolded in a small church of an unincorporated town in Central Texas called Sutherland Springs. A gunman had killed 26 congregants and wounded 20 others in the middle of a church service.

State leaders lifted restrictions on carrying guns in religious spaces, and the 2017 tragedy and a new state law allowed all churches to have armed volunteer security forces and required all places of worship to give advanced notice of any bans on firearms in their facilities.

When Wilson heard the news of the Sutherland Springs shooting — and took into consideration the West Freeway Church of Christ’s new location at Las Vegas Trail, a street known in the Fort Worth suburbs for its high crime — he felt an urge to create a safer environment inside the building.

He says he trained church security guards, who attended nearly 300 hours of firearms classes and practiced on multiple moving targets.

“There are no safe havens left, whether it be schools, whether it be churches,” Wilson said upon receiving the governor’s Medal of Courage. “You have to be prepared for what will come out in front of you at any time.”

The church also purchased a security system, surveillance cameras, and other technologies for the facility. Church secretary Darla Gladden, who trained with Wilson and was also present during the shooting, says Wilson was a great mentor.

The two practiced shooting from every angle, including while sitting in a chair because Wilson wanted to ensure Gladden was trained to protect herself at any given time.

“He thought of so many aspects and was so caring,” Gladden says. “With me being the secretary, he wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and capable if I needed to be.”

Both Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick credited the lives saved by Wilson to the team’s diligence in preparing for such a tragedy. 

“The heroism today is unparalleled,” Patrick said in a news conference. “This team responded quickly, and within seconds, the shooting was over.”

Many other state officials and gun rights advocates used the shooting to leverage their stance on accessible guns.

“One shot, 15 yards, to the head, less than three seconds in response,” Lieutenant Colonel Allen West wrote in a Facebook post when he and Wilson met at the Texas State Rifle Association about two months after the tragedy. “That’s what a well-trained, law-abiding, legal gun owner calls gun control.”

But on the other side of the political pendulum, gun reformists, including a journalist at the Arizon Republica, pushed back against the loose regulations they believed were the cause of the tragedy.

An opinion piece by Elvia Diaz — which received backlash from many — criticized gun advocates for using Wilson’s “split-second heroism” as, what she described, a “PR tool.”

“The reality of Wilson’s heroism is a lot more complex,” she wrote. “He wasn’t just an ordinary parishioner, as gun advocates may want you to believe. The church’s volunteer security team member is a firearms instructor, gun range owner, and former reserve deputy with a local sheriff’s department. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of man you want around with a firearm. But we know nothing about the at least six other parishioners who also appeared to draw their handguns at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas.

“And that’s terrifying,” she continued.

Other anti-gun advocates spoke against the fact that Kinnunen — who had a history of drug abuse and mental illness — could so easily obtain the firearm in the first place. 

Court documents show Kinnunen had a lengthy history of run-ins with law enforcement. He was arrested, years prior in 2012, in Oklahoma, where he was accused of setting a cotton field on fire by soaking tampons in lamp oil and lighting them. During that same year, his former wife, Cindy Glasgow-Voegle, sought a protective order against him. 

Court documents state that she told state officials Kinnunen had shown up with no money or car but wanted to see their son, whom she alleged was terrified of his father. She reported him to have been violent and “paranoid.” He even went on a hunger strike because he thought he was being poisoned and attacked fellow inmates while in custody.

Kinnunen’s troubling history, with a criminal record in several states, indicates that it was illegal for him to own — or even possess — a firearm.

“No one should have to worry about gun violence, in church least of all — but thanks to our weak gun laws, we have to,” says Kathryn Vargas, volunteer with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action.

Wilson shared, during his interview, a conversation he had with law enforcement the day of the shooting. He says they pondered on how Kinnunen obtained a gun so easily given his past record.

“I told them, ‘Well, let me explain something to you, sir. I can walk out the front door, go down Las Vegas Trail under I-30, and I’ll be back in an hour with at least one gun,’” Wilson recalls of the conversation. “And I said, ‘There’s no gun shops over there. But if I wanted to get a gun, I can get it. There’s always gun issues over there.’”

The closest gun shop — at the time called Elk Castle but now Intrepid Shooting Sports — is less than half a mile from the church on the I-30 service road. 

But state gun laws have continued to become even less restricting since the tragedy. 

During the most recent legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed several open carry and permitless carry laws.

“Regardless of the dangerous permitless carry bill that our lawmakers recklessly passed this past session, it’s still on every responsible gun owner to make sure that they’re properly trained, because more guns in less-trained hands puts us all in danger,” gun reform advocate Vargas says.

A lot has happened in the two years since the shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ. 

Just a couple months after the incident — while the church, friends, and family members were still mourning the loss of Wallace and White — COVID-19 would make its way stateside. Racial unrest would ensue months later, and economic turmoil has seemed ever-present. 

If ever there was a test of faith, members of the West Freeway Church of Christ have undoubtedly been administered it. 

Despite a series of troubling circumstances, many would return after a months-long separation and find their memory-filled sanctuary anew late last summer. 

Fresh carpet laid across the stage that became a familiar image around the nation. New blue-cushioned pews replaced those tainted by tragedy. Reconfigured walls and lowered ceilings concealed the deep hurt felt by the entire community.

Congregants would see the sanctuary they once associated with evil now adorned with strength. 

They would embrace the words of an old hymnal they sang in unison as they held hands during the candlelight vigil early in their mourning.

And they would remember the message uttered by their minister, Britt Farmer, just hours after tragedy struck: “Sometimes evil overcomes good, but we’re not going to let evil win.”  

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