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Houston police investigating motive of woman killed after opening fire at Joel Osteen’s megachurch

By Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Houston police investigating motive of woman killed after opening fire at Joel Osteen’s megachurch” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Several law enforcement agencies are actively investigating the motives behind a Sunday shooting at pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, which has one of the nation’s largest congregations. The shooter, a woman who police identified as 36-year-old Genesse Ivonne Moreno, was fatally shot by off-duty officers. No one else at the church died.

Moreno entered the church at 1:55 p.m. Sunday wearing a trench coat and a backpack and carrying an AR-15-style rifle, police said. Officers said they are still investigating how Moreno obtained the gun. A 7-year-old child, believed to be Moreno’s biological son, accompanied her into the church.

Moreno fired multiple rounds upon entering a hallway of the megachurch located on Houston’s busy Southwest Freeway. Two off-duty officers shot the shooter, who died on scene, according to authorities. The child was also shot in the head and is in critical condition at Texas Children’s Hospital, but authorities have not said who shot him. Another 57-year-old man — identified in the affidavit as Tom George Thomas — was shot in the leg by Moreno. Officers said on Monday afternoon that he had been released from the hospital.

Moreno threatened that she had a bomb, so officers searched her vehicle and backpack but did not recover any explosives, police said. They continued a search of the church, which seats more than 16,000 people, on Sunday afternoon. Officers also said the shooter was spraying an unidentifiable substance, prompting them to call upon the Houston Fire Department and hazmat units. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said they found “nothing of concern.” He added on Monday that the substances were benign.

Overnight, law enforcement officers from multiple agencies executed a search warrant of Moreno’s residence in Conroe, a city about 40 miles north of Houston. The affidavit requesting the search asked that Montgomery County law enforcement seize any and all ammunition, firearms, explosives, materials used to make explosives, weapons, cellphones and computers. Moreno’s home was described as a single-family dwelling.

Christopher Hassig, commander of HPD’s homicide unit, said officers recovered some “anti-semitic writings” belonging to Moreno. The rifle she used at the church had a sticker that said “Palestine,” police said. Officers believe Moreno was involved in a domestic dispute with with her ex-husband and his family, some of whom are Jewish, Hassig said. Officers also recovered a .22 calibre rifle from Moreno’s backpack that she brought into the church.

Law enforcement said it is too early to identify a potential motive. Moreno has used other aliases, including Jeffrey Escalente, but has always been identified as a female who uses she and her pronouns, officers said. Moreno has a history of mental health issues, and Harris County court records show that she has a criminal history dating back to 2005. It is not clear how she obtained the two guns, but Hassig said the gun she used at the church was legally purchased in December of 2023.

In a Monday statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she asked that the investigation look into whether the incident was a hate crime. The shooter entered the church minutes before the start of the 2 p.m. Spanish-language service.

“It’s unfortunate that on the day we want to attend church and watch America’s No. 1 sports event, we find ourselves gathered here to respond to this tragedy,” Houston Mayor John Whitmire said during the Sunday press conference. “We want Houstonians to know they are being protected by their first responders.”

Whitmire thanked first responders for their collaboration. Officers from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, Houston Fire Department and Houston Police Department were on scene. The two off-duty agents who shot the shooter were from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Houston Police Department.

Lakewood Church is about 6 miles outside of downtown Houston in the former arena for the Houston Rockets. The nondenominational, evangelical Christian church attracts people from across the country both in person and online.

Osteen, known for his best-selling books and as a televangelist, said at the Sunday press conference that he was devastated and “in a fog.” In a Monday email address to the “beloved Lakewood Church and Iglesia Family,” Osteen thanked first responders for their swift action and encouraged the community to hold onto their faith.

“Let us stand firm in our commitment to love and support one another,” Osteen wrote. “In times like these, our faith is not merely tested; it is strengthened.”

Gov. Greg Abbott said he had been in contact with Whitmire and offered state resources, including Department of Public Safety officers and Texas Rangers.

“Our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston,” Abbott said. “Places of worship are sacred.”

Several mass shootings have occurred in U.S. houses of worship in recent years, including the November 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Twenty-six people were killed and 20 others were wounded when a gunman opened fire on parishioners in the rural town east of San Antonio.

In December 2019, a man shot and killed two people during a church service at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, a suburb of Fort Worth. A church member shot and killed him in seconds. A Texas law passed in response to the Sutherland Springs shooting allows licensed handgun owners to carry those weapons in places of worship. The White Settlement church formed a volunteer security team in response to that law.

The Sutherland Springs shooting occurred just months before a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, which prompted Abbott to host a series of discussions to identify solutions to gun violence. Lawmakers heard from statewide leaders, school officers and law enforcement, with some proposing universal background checks and policies to keep guns away from people who “pose an immediate danger.”

But year after year, lawmakers have largely rejected measures that would limit access to guns, instead focusing on enhancing school security and adding more mental health services. Last year, lawmakers filed a slate of gun control bills as they convened for the first time since the Uvalde school shooting in which an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed 19 students and two teachers. The vast majority of those bills stalled, including a measure that would have raised the age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21 that Uvalde families spent months pushing.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/11/shooter-megachurch-joel-osteen-houston/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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