3 killed in shootings at Jewish centers in Kansas

Posted April 13, 2014, at 5:55 p.m.
Last modified April 13, 2014, at 9:39 p.m.

Three people were killed Sunday when a gunman opened fire at the Jewish community center and a senior living facility in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City.

Police arrested the suspected shooter outside a nearby elementary school. He smiled and reportedly made anti-Semitic statements as he was led away.

The victims were killed in gunfire around 1 p.m. The suspect was arrested around 2:45 p.m..

The suspect, a white male in his 70s, was taken into custody at a nearby elementary school, said Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass. Douglass declined to identify the suspect, but said he was not from Kansas.

Douglass said he could not confirm reports that the suspect had said “Heil Hitler” while in the back of the squad car after being taken into custody.

“The suspect in the back of a car made several statements,” Douglass said. “We are sifting through and vetting those for accuracy, No. 1., and No. 2, we are looking at them for their evidentiary value.”

The gunfire at the west side of the Jewish community center came as hundreds of teenage singers from across the Kansas City metropolitan area were expected to audition for a local singing contest and actors were rehearsing for a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“There were tons of kids because this was about to start at 1 o’clock,” said Ruth Bigus, the publicist for singing contest KC SuperStar.

Parents were gathered at a nearby fast food restaurant waiting for word while the campus was locked down.

Matt Davis was shopping for bar mitzvah suits with his son when he heard about the shooting at the community center, where his daughter was dancing. He headed to the center and saw the suspect, a heavyset man in handcuffs, being arrested at the school nearby. The man was smiling.

“I was wondering why is the guy smiling when he’s being arrested,” Davis said.

Leawood resident Jeff Nessel had just returned to the community center parking lot after dropping off his 10-year-old son, Elijah, at 1 p.m. when an employee told him to get back inside because there had been a shooting.

“It’s surreal,” Nessel said.

With urgency — “Let’s go, let’s go!” — staff hustled about 60 people into a room where they were preparing to hold the SuperStars auditions, Nessel said.

“They did a great job,” he said. “It was not a panic, it was ‘We have a procedure here, let’s follow it,’” he said.

The community center staff kept the group informed as best they could. After about 15 minutes in the room, a worker came in and told them, “There’s been a shooting in the parking lot between here and Sprint. We’ll keep you on lockdown. You’re safe here. The police are on top of the situation,” Nessel said.

“That’s what you want to hear, that we’re safe,” he said.

Later, someone explained to them that the situation had been cleared up but said they had to stay a while longer while investigators combed the area for evidence. In all, they were locked down for about an hour and a half.

Nessel and his son were at the center for a weekly program called Fun and Fitness with Friends, which is designed for children with autism spectrum disorders. About eight children and about six parents were there for the program as well as 10 to 12 volunteers and others from the SuperStars auditions and the play rehearsal.

Nobody in the room panicked, Nessel said, adding that he kept busy occupying his son.

Nessel, 59, had left his cellphone in his car, so he borrowed someone’s to call his wife, Sarah. His biggest concern was that she would hear about the shooting and not know he and Elijah were safe.

His son handled the situation calmly, Nessel said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Reuters writers Carey Gillam and Kevin Murphy contributed to this report.

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