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Alabama churchgoer in his 70s hailed as a hero for bludgeoning, apprehending gunman in deadly church shooting

There was a deadly shooting at an Alabama church on Thursday, but it could have been even more bloody if it was not for the heroics of an elder churchgoer.

A man attended a “Boomers Potluck” dinner gathering at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills around 6 p.m. on Thursday, according to police. The man – who had attended services at the church in the past – allegedly introduced himself to other churchgoers as “Mr. Smith.”

The man sat at a table by himself, according to Rev. Doug Carpenter – who was a pastor at St. Stephen’s for 30 years before retiring in 2005. Church members reportedly invited the man to sit at their table and offered him a plate of food, but he declined.

Soon after, the man pulled out a handgun and opened fire.

During the church shooting, the gunman killed 84-year-old Walter Rainey, 75-year-old Sarah Yeager, and an unnamed 84-year-old woman, according to a statement issued by the Vestavia Hills Police Department on Friday.

However, the carnage could have been far worse if not for the bravery of one parishioner. An unidentified churchgoer in his 70s at the potluck dinner purportedly incapacitated the church shooter by bludgeoning him and then apprehending the armed man.

“He hit him with a folding chair, wrestling him to the ground, took the gun from him and hit him in the head with his own gun,” Carpenter said, according to Fox News.

The churchgoer held the shooter down until law enforcement arrived at the crime scene.

Capt. Shane Ware of the Vestavia Hills Police Department said the brave churchgoer was “extremely critical in saving lives.”

“The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero,” Ware proclaimed.

District Attorney Danny Carr later identified the suspect as Robert Findlay Smith, CBS News reported. Smith, 70, was arrested and charged with capital murder, according to the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office.

Smith’s mugshot released by the Jefferson County Jail shows the suspect with a large black eye, as well as injuries to his nose and forehead.

Smith’s motivation for the church shooting is unclear at this time.

Carpenter said the shooting “doesn’t make sense,” and asked, “Why would a guy who’s been around for a while suddenly decide he would go to a supper and kill somebody?”

Carpenter said of Smith, “He was kind of distant and very much a loner.”

The Rev. Rebecca Bridges – the associate rector at St. Stephen’s – held an online prayer service on the church’s Facebook page on Friday morning. Bridges prayed for the victims, the church members, and the shooter.

“We pray that you will work in that person’s heart,” Bridges said. “And we pray that you will help us to forgive.”