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Gunman Kills 2 Monks, Self at Abbey

Crime: Two others are gravely injured at the Missouri monastery. The killer's motive is unknown; deputies find no link to the facility.

June 11, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONCEPTION, Mo. — The doors were always open at the Roman Catholic monastery. And the Rev. Philip Schuster was always just inside them, greeting all who entered with his trademark gentle smile.

But the man who walked into Conception Abbey on Monday morning had no answering smile, authorities said. He had a replica AK-47 and a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle.

And he came in shooting.

Within minutes, Schuster was dead. So was Brother Damian Larson. Two other monks were gravely injured. The abbey was in a terrified uproar, monks huddling in closets, staff jumping out windows as the gunman stalked the halls, firing at random.

He squeezed off half a dozen shots with the AK-47. Then he strode into the chapel and put the .22 to his temple. Authorities found him dead, slumped over a pew.

The wounded monks were identified as the Rev. Kenneth Reichert, 68, and the Rev. Norbert Schappler, 73. Reichert was listed in serious condition and Schappler as stable.

By late Monday, the Nodaway County sheriff had identified the gunman as Lloyd Robert Jeffress, a 71-year-old loner living in a retirement community in Kearney, Mo., about a 45-minute drive from the sprawling red-brick monastery.

Yet despite knowing his name, authorities could offer few real answers.

They had not unearthed any ties Jeffress might have had to the monastery and adjacent seminary. They had not found any notes in his apartment or his car. They had not even tracked down any neighbors who knew him beyond a "hello" in the halls. The only relative they were able to contact was a brother, who said he had not seen Jeffress in years.

"My gut feeling is, he came here for a reason," Sheriff Ben Espey said, squinting into a muggy sunset outside the silent abbey. "But I tell you, we're not getting much dug up on this guy."

Jeffress had no criminal record, the sheriff said. At least one gun, the AK-47, was properly registered in his name. Authorities were still tracing the other rifle. A mysterious box, wrapped in duct tape, found in Jeffress' car gave investigators a scare at first--they thought it might contain explosives. It turned out to be full of fishing reels.

"This is going to take time," Espey said with a sigh.

He looked at the crime-scene tape stretched around the abbey parking lot, at the state highway patrolman standing guard. Across the street, TV crews were doing reports from the cemetery. The four dozen monks in residence at Conception Abbey left earlier in the day, to pray in private, away from their bloodstained chapel. They were due back in the evening, hoping to reclaim the monastery as a place of peace.

"The doors were never locked," Espey said. "They will be tonight."

Coming amid the spiraling scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church--a tragedy that police say led one alleged victim in Baltimore to shoot a priest last month--the violence here immediately raised questions about motive.

Another well-known Missouri training ground for priests, St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, was the focus of some of the earliest allegations of predatory priests this spring. Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell of the Palm Beach, Fla. diocese resigned in disgrace in March after acknowledging that he sexually abused two teenage seminary students there years ago.

But the scandal has not touched Conception Abbey. And authorities said there was no sign that the gunman had any connection with the Benedictine campus. Still, some locals acknowledged they were haunted by the possibility that the carnage could have been linked to the sex abuse scandal.

"I'm sure it's on the minds of everybody today," said Matt Chesnut, city manager of nearby Maryville.

The victims, too, were on everybody's minds.

Several hundred shaken, grieving mourners packed the Catholic church in Maryville for a memorial service as dusk settled over the rolling cornfields and cattle pastures of northwestern Missouri.

"How many of you tonight, as you walked in the door, already had tears in your eyes?" Father Chuck Tobin asked, his own voice choking. "How many were ready to hug and console, even when in your heart and your gut, you didn't know what you could possibly say to take the hurt away?"

Brother Larson, 65, was known far beyond the red brick buildings of the monastery because of his passion for meteorology.

A self-taught forecaster who dubbed himself the Weather Monk, he made his predictions public through the abbey's Web site, and also drew weather-related cartoons for local papers.

But he did far more than predict rain and shine. Former seminary students recalled him as always on the go, always fixing and building, He recently built a replica of the Cathedral of Notre Dame out of scrap wood cut from packing crates, just for the fun and challenge of it.

"He was just the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet in the world," said Gregory Eufinger Jr., an attorney who serves on the seminary's alumni board. "He always had a kind word to say."

Father Schuster, 85, also reached out to the community beyond the abbey. He worked for years as a missionary to Native American reservations in South Dakota. Back at the monastery, he devoted himself to teaching visitors about the Benedictine order and guiding them toward spirituality. In addition, he was for years the chaplain at St. Francis Hospital in Maryville.

"He was very revered as a wise, holy fellow," said Father Robert Murphy, a seminary graduate who now leads a parish in Grandview, Mo.

Indeed, though he retired from his chaplain's post several years ago, the hospital staff still remembers Schuster with devotion--and still plays a recording of him reciting the Lord's Prayer over the public-address system every morning.

They played it as usual on Monday at 9 a.m.--even as authorities were responding to the first reports of a shooting in Conception Abbey. They plan to play it again today.

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