A woman, armed with a rifle and accompanied by a young child, walked into celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s megachurch in Houston on Sunday afternoon and opened fire, sending worshippers running for cover.
The shooting sent two people to the hospital: the young child with the shooter was critically injured and a man in his 50s was shot in the leg. The incident ended with the woman being struck and killed in a shootout with two off-duty police officers who happened to be working security at the church that day. She died at the scene.
Police initially had few details to share about the confrontation but new information was released during a Monday afternoon news conference.
Chris Hassig, commander of the Houston Police Department’s homicide division, identified the shooter as 36-year-old Genesse Moreno, based on the driver’s licence that was found on the suspect’s body. Officials stressed that the investigation is still in its early days and the motive behind the shooting is still unknown.
Hassig states that Moreno pulled up to Lakewood Church in a white vehicle at 1:53 p.m. before exiting the car and pulling a seven-year-old child out of the backseat, as well as a backpack.
They walked up to the church and Moreno allegedly confronted a security guard who let her into the building.
“She immediately starts firing inside of the hallway on the west side of Lakewood Church,” Hassig said.
She was then confronted by two off-duty officers who were working as security guards at the church.
“Multiple shots are exchanged by all three,” Hassig stated. “She eventually falls to the ground. The seven year old child falls to the ground, as well, from gunfire.”
The child sustained a gunshot wound to the head and is still in critical condition as of Monday afternoon. At 2:07 p.m., personnel from the Houston Fire Department pronounced the shooter dead.
It’s still unknown who fired the shots that struck the young child and the man in his 50s.
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said later in the press conference that police believe Moreno is the biological mother of the seven-year-old who was injured.
Hassig notes that a sticker with the word “Palestine” was found on the butt stock of the AR-15 that Moreno allegedly used in the shooting. She also had a 22-calibre rifle in the backpack she was carrying, though this weapon was not fired.
“We do have some antisemitic writings that we have uncovered during this process,” Hassig reports. “We do believe that there was a familial dispute that has taken place between her ex-husband and her ex-husband’s family, and some of those individuals are Jewish. So we believe that that might possibly be where all of this stems from.“
“But like I said, we are 24 hours into (the investigation),” Hassig notes. “It is very new. We are getting new information as the hours change, and so we are not going to be delving into that more.”
Hassig stressed that police believe Moreno acted alone and there is no further public safety risks.
“We do believe this was what we term a lone wolf, lone suspect situation. We do not believe this is part of a larger nexus. She is not part of a larger group or set of individuals,” he said.
An arrest summary for Moreno, published by Fox26, shows that the suspect has been convicted of numerous misdemeanour charges and one felony assault charge since 2005. Her latest conviction was in 2022 for the unlawful carrying of a weapon.
Hassig notes that Moreno has a “mental health history, that is documented through us and through interviews with family members.”
Police also heard reports that Moreno “used multiple aliases, including Jeffrey Escalante,” but interviews and documents indicate that Moreno identifies as female.
In an earlier press conference on Sunday, Chief Finner told reporters that the shooter entered the Lakewood Church just before the 2 p.m. Spanish service was set to begin.
After the woman was shot by police, she told them she was armed with a bomb. The Houston police bomb squad responded to the scene and authorities searched her vehicle and backpack, but no explosive device was found, Finner said.
“She was also spraying some type of substance on the ground,” Finner added, without providing any further details.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña gave an update during Monday’s news conference to report that there is “no risk of exposure to any chemical or product that may have been present.”
He added that the chemicals appear to be “common products that we would see in other applications,” and there is “no danger to our community.”
Officials heaped praise on the quick actions of the two off-duty police officers that shot the suspect. Both have been placed on administrative duty, however, as is protocol in officer-involved shootings, pending an investigation.
One of the officers works for the Houston Police Department, while the other is an agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Kevin Lilly, chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said Monday that the pair of officers exemplified heroism and valour in their actions yesterday.
“They held their ground in the face of rifle fire at point blank range, and they continued to fire until the the perpetrator was neutralized and they did not yield,” Lilly said.
The enormous Lakewood Church — which was previously an arena for the NBA’s Houston Rockets — can seat 16,000 people and is regularly attended by 45,000 people every week, making it the third-largest megachurch in the U.S., according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thankfully, the shooting occurred between services.
Osteen, the celebrity televangelist and businessman who leads the church, spoke at Sunday’s news conference and said the violence could have been much worse if it had happened during the earlier, larger 11 a.m. service.
Osteen added that his congregation is “devastated” and that he would pray for the victims, their families and the shooter. It was not clear where he was at the time of the shooting.
“We’re going to stay strong and we’re going to continue to move forward,” he said during the news conference with police. “There are forces of evil, but the forces that are for us — the forces of God — are stronger than that. So we’re going to keep going strong and just, you know, doing what God’s called us to do: lift people up and give hope to the world.”
In a statement posted to social media, Osteen wrote that people may not “always understand why things like this happen, but we know that God is in control.”
Witnesses of the shooting told reporters they heard dozens of gunshots during the ordeal. Christina Rodriguez, who was inside the church, told Houston television station KTRK that she “started screaming, ‘There’s a shooter, there’s a shooter,'” and then she and others ran to the backside of a library inside the building, then stood in a stairway before they were told it was safe to leave.
Longtime church member Alan Guity, whose family is from Honduras, said he was resting inside the church’s sanctuary before the Spanish service as his mother was working as an usher when he heard gunshots.
The 35-year-old ran to his mother and they both lay flat on the floor and prayed as the gunfire continued. They remained there for about five minutes until someone told them it was safe to evacuate.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement saying “our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston. Places of worship are sacred.”
The Lakewood Church has grown tremendously over the past 25 years since Osteen took over after his father’s death in 1999 and introduced an upbeat style of Christian televangelism that has captured a following of millions. His televised sermons reach about 100 countries. The elder Osteen founded the church in a converted feed store in 1959.
— with files from The Associated Press