By Steve Ranson, Lahontan Valley News
A Fallon man was charged Monday with one count of murder and one count of battery with substantial harm after killing a fellow church member Sunday during a sacrament meeting at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on East Richards Street in Fallon.
Fallon Police Chief Kevin Gehman and Mayor Ken Tedford conducted Monday their third news conference in two days to discuss the shooting. Gehman had identified the victim on Sunday as 61-year-old Charles E. “Bert” Miller and the alleged shooter as John K. O’Connor, 48, who lives at 901 Mackay Court.
According to a Churchill County Sheriff’s Office Declaration of Probable Cause and Detention, “the defendant produced a 9 mm handgun and shot two congregation members which was witnessed by other congregation members in attendance.”
Gehman said Monday the recovered handgun is similar to the weapon described by witnesses. He said shell casings of the same caliber handgun also were found and secured at the scene.
O’Connor is being held in the Churchill County Detention Facility on $1,050,000 bail awaiting arraignment later this week before the New Township Justice of the Peace. Gehman said officers wrapped up their work at O’Connor’s house, and detectives worked with the Churchill County District Attorney’s Office to obtain the necessary search warrants.
Gehman said the name of the other man who was wounded and released from Banner Churchill Community Hospital will not be released in respect to his privacy.
“This is an ongoing police investigation, so there are some things that cannot be released,” Gehman said.
According to Gehman, a 911 call came in at 12:58 p.m. Sunday afternoon reporting a shooting at the church. He said approximately 20 officers, many of them from the joint SWAT team of the police department and Churchill County Sherriff’s Office, responded. He said O’Connor, who apparently was attending the sacrament meeting in the chapel prior to the shooting, left the building on foot and returned to his home. Gehman said officers and deputies surrounded O’Connor’s home, which is a block from the church, and after a hostage negotiator placed several phone calls to O’Connor, the suspect agreed to leave the house.
The Nevada Highway Patrol set up a perimeter in the area and began blocking off several roads in the immediate area.
“We heard reports of shots being fired at the local LDS church, and we had two vehicles in the immediate area,” said Sgt. Brian Cavanaugh of the NHP’s Fallon office. “We began attempting to find the suspect.”
Once O’Connor was located at his house, Cavanaugh said the NHP assisted FPD and the CCSO with perimeter control.
“This was a great effort of all three agencies coming together in such a small town in this time of crisis,” Cavanaugh said.
Tedford said the gunman entered from the back of the church and shot the two in front of congregation members.
“Our hearts go out to the family members of those who lost someone and for those who were in the church when this tragedy occurred,” he said.
Tedford said the city has reached out to the church to help. The mayor praised Miller for his community service having served for 35 years in the Fallon Churchill Volunteer Fire Department. He said Miller is survived by his wife, three adult children and several grandchildren.
Gehman said it’s too early to understand the motive, but he added it does not appear to be an attack on the church but on one individual. During Sunday afternoon, Gehman said officers interviewed at least 50 witnesses. He said additional follow up interviews will be conducted this week.
When he first arrived at the scene, Gehman said he was surprised by the strength of the church members.
“Just a feeling in the room, but they were all shook up but it was clear they were there for each other,” Gehman said.
County Commissioner Bus Scharmann was in the chapel at the time of the shooting and attended Sunday night’s briefing. Scharmann filled out a police report and talked to officers.
“I was sitting with my family three rows in front of Bert Miller and his family,” Scharmann said. “After sacrament, the first speaker was ready to speak and a minute, maybe two minutes, into her talk, I heard a loud gunshot. I turned around and saw the shooter was at point-blank range.”
Scharmann said he heard at least two shots and when he looked back, he saw the gunman aiming his handgun at another person.
“I covered my kids and grandkids and we got under the bench in front of us. Once he finished firing, he left.”
Scharmann said law enforcement personnel stayed for several hours.
“They were extremely professional and extremely courteous,” Scharmann said.
Scharmann said the law enforcement personnel did a masterful job in teaming up to do a great job.
Don Dike-Anukam, who lives in Reno but works in Fallon, was attending a service at St. Patrick’s Church, two blocks southwest of the LDS church. He remembers seeing an officer with a semi-automatic weapon west of the church. Much of the police presence was near O’Connor’s house, which faces the Catholic Church.
“I was trying to calm the folks down,” he said. “There was lots of confusion and worry.”
Gehman, who has been Fallon’s police chief for more than 10 years, said this is the first incident of this type in Fallon. He also said law enforcement officials were not aware of any problems between the church and O’Connor. Gehman said the police department is familiar with O’Connor. Two charges of domestic violence were filed in the early 1990s, but both charges were dismissed.
O’Connor is a longtime resident of Fallon and attended Churchill County schools. He also was a candidate for the Assembly 38 seat in 2010 but lost to Pete Goicoechea in the general election. He ran as a Libertarian in 2014 for the same office but finished third behind the winner, Robin Titus, R-Smith Valley, and Tim Fasano, IAP-Fernley.
In 2012 O’Connor appealed a district court’s denial of his petition to set aside the election of the Churchill County District Attorney Art Mallory to his fourth consecutive term. O’Connor argued Mallory’s election unconstitutionally violated term limits for state officers.
The Nevada Supreme Court of Nevada affirmed the district court’s judgment that found Mallory’s 2012 election valid because district attorneys are “county officers” and therefore are not subject to term limits under the “state office” portion of Article 15, Section 3(2) of the Nevada Constitution that limits term limits of state officers to no more than 12 years in office.
Tedford thanked officials throughout the state who contacted him and expressed their condolences and to offer words of encouragement. Additionally, Churchill County School District made counselors available for children on Monday, and Sharla Hales, public affairs specialist for the Reno Coordinating Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who attended Monday’s news conference, is working with the family.
Commission Chairman Pete Olsen sent his condolences to both the Miller family and church family.
“This is a horrible thing to happen,” he said. I am stunned. Bert was the kind of person you’d love to have in your community … husband, father, fireman. This is a terrible, senseless thing.”
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., sent a tweet of condolence, acknowledging he’s in contact with officials investigating the shooting: “Deeply saddened by the act of senseless violence in Fallon today at the LDS church. My family and I are praying for all loved ones, churchgoers, and community members impacted by this tragedy.”
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., also expressed condolences to those affected by the shooting.
“Places of worship should be a safe haven,” she tweeted. “The gun violence across this country must end.”
LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins released this statement Sunday afternoon:
“We have recently learned of a shooting in Fallon, Nevada, during a church service. Details are still developing, and inquiries should be directed to local law enforcement personnel. We express our love to those in this congregation and our prayers for the victims and their families. Local leaders are ministering to them at this time.”