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Man commits suicide at Crystal Cathedral

Steve Smick, a former Whittier resident who police say was homeless, shoots himself at the foot of a cross while a volunteer is conducting a tour.

February 19, 2009|Tony Barboza

A man walked into the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove on Wednesday, knelt down at the foot of a cross and fatally shot himself in the head.

The man entered the sanctuary about 9:40 a.m. and gave a handwritten note to a church volunteer. He then walked to the front of the pews, knelt before the cross and removed a semiautomatic handgun from his backpack.

He put the weapon to his head and pulled the trigger, Garden Grove Police Lt. Dennis Ellsworth said.

Authorities identified the man as Steve Smick, 48.

Although Smick's last known address was in Whittier, he was homeless and had been living out of his pickup, according to Garden Grove police, who believe that he stole the handgun used in the shooting from a friend a couple of weeks ago.

"That suggests to us he had some type of plan," Capt. Mike Handfield said. "But we haven't talked to anyone who heard he was going to kill himself."

A friend told police that Smick had attended a Bible study in Temecula several weeks before his death.

"He was spiritual, but we don't have any record of him being a member at the church," Handfield said.

Betty Spicer, a volunteer greeter at the cathedral, said that when the man walked in, the sanctuary was nearly empty except for a group of Canadian tourists.

"I said, 'Good morning, welcome to the Crystal Cathedral.' " She asked the man, "Where are you from?" He replied, "Oh, from around here." He handed Spicer a folded note written with a felt-tip pen. Tucked into the middle of the note was his driver's license and what appeared to be a business card. As Smick was walking down the aisle, she began reading the note, which referred to a truck in the parking lot and a gun.

"The next minute, there was a pop," Spicer said. "I thought he was praying. I didn't realize he had shot himself."

Yvette Manson, another volunteer, said she was talking to the tourists when she heard a sound that she likened to the noise from a firecracker. "I had just been telling them about the suicide prevention ministry we have."

Pastor Juan Carlos Ortiz said the shooting was tragic, but may have revealed something about Smick's faith.

"This must be a person who believes in God because he went to the foot of the cross," Ortiz said.

Michael Nason, a spokesman for the Crystal Cathedral, said Smick was not a member, employee or former staff member.

"It's very tragic. He must have felt that he needed comfort," Nason said. "And he chose the church for that comfort. Unfortunately, it didn't end well."

The Garden Grove cathedral, started by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, has more than 8,000 members. The sanctuary, known for its towering glass architecture, is home to the "Hour of Power" television program.

It can hold about 3,000 people and hosts hundreds of visitors a day.

The last shooting at the cathedral was also a suicide. Johnnie Carl, 57, the church's acclaimed composer who had struggled with mental illness, barricaded himself in his basement office the night of Dec. 17, 2004, and shot himself.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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