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Monastery Mourns Gunman's Victims; Questions Persist

Aftermath: Inquiries reveal no clue to why the gunman shot four monks, killing two.

June 12, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONCEPTION, Mo. — A monk in black robes tolled the chapel bell 51 times Tuesday morning. There was a pause. Conception Abbey was quiet under thick thunderclouds. The monk resumed pulling. The bell tolled 32. It began to rain.

Workers scrubbed bloodstains from the polished wooden floor.

A day after an elderly loner walked through the Roman Catholic monastery shooting a replica AK-47, there was ritual, there was mourning, there was prayer.

But there were very few answers.

As the bells tolled in memory of two slain monks, investigators could come up with only sparse clues about the gunman. Lloyd Jeffress, 71, had also wounded two other monks with the assault rifle before turning a second gun on himself.

Authorities knew from his estranged daughter, who had seen him just once in the last 40 years, that Jeffress was a devout Catholic as a boy. They knew he had attended several Methodist services in the last year while living in a senior citizen complex in Kearney, Mo., an hour's drive away.

They found a card in Jeffress' wallet detailing years of Army service, including his bronze star earned in Korea. They tracked down his employment history: a steel factory, a post office. In his austere, barely decorated apartment, they found medication for depression. And the deed to a prepaid burial, purchased in 2001.

The picture that emerged was suggestive but patchy. Too patchy to satisfy a community in shock.

"Everybody's asking the same thing: Why did he do it?" said Sgt. Sheldon Lyon of the Missouri Highway Patrol. "It would be easy to answer that, normally. But this guy was so private."

Checking Jeffress' name against a database of 20,000 people linked to the monastery--including donors, pilgrims, employees, and seminary students and their relatives--Abbey staff could find no connection between the gunman and the Benedictine community he targeted.

They were still scouring old visitor logs to see whether Jeffress might have made a private pilgrimage to the abbey without being noted in the computerized database. But those familiar with the records said that seemed unlikely.

"We have absolutely no connection with this man," said Abbot Gregory Polan.

"It's a complete mystery," added Dan Madden, the monastery's communication director.

Polan said it was possible the gunman might have lashed out against the monastery in outrage at the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church. But Jeffress left no note suggesting such a motive. And witnesses said he made no statements as he stalked the abbey.

The only words anyone in the monastery heard as the horrible minutes ticked by came from Brother Damian Larson, who groaned "no, no" as he lay bleeding on the floor. Jeffress returned and shot him twice more. He then shot Father Philip Schuster in the head.

Funerals for both monks are scheduled for Friday.

"We keep thinking there will be answers," Madden said. "We'd like to know so we can put some sense to it."

Through the fog of uncertainty and the fatigue of grief, the 30 monks living at Conception Abbey tried their best to return to routine.

There was some good news to buoy them: The two monks gravely wounded in the rampage, Fathers Kenneth Reichert and Norbert Schappler, had pulled through surgeries and were listed in stable condition.

And there was routine to comfort them: They were able to ring the chapel bell at 8:35 a.m., exactly 24 hours after the violence shattered their peace.

The bell normally tolls within minutes of a monk's death. But in the chaos of the carnage Monday, that was impossible. So Abbot Polan ordered the bell rung a day late.

The first set of peals honored Schuster's 51 years of service with the Benedictine community. The second set memorialized Larson's 32 years at the abbey.

As the last echo died, Abbot Polan put his hand to his heart.

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