By Jessica Easthope and Melissa Enaje
A gunman was fatally shot by police on the front steps of St. John the Divine Cathedral in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, Dec. 13, after the 52-year-old man began firing two semi-automatic handguns just before 4 p.m., at the end of the Episcopal church’s public outdoor Christmas Choir concert scheduled that afternoon.
A chilling image shows that the gunman was carrying a backpack that contained a full can of gasoline, a Bible, wire, duct tape, knives, and several spools of rope. NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea spoke at a press briefing on Sunday.
“I think we can all surmise the ill intentions of the proceeds of this bag,” he said. “It is by the grace of God today,” he said, that no one besides the gunman was struck.
The gunman shot into the church doors as the church finished its planned 45-minute event “Carols for the Community” on the steps of the cathedral, during the third Sunday of Advent.
Our Carols for the Community event this afternoon was interrupted by an armed individual, who set off a round of gunfire into the air from our front steps. Thankfully, no injuries were reported among the attendees and the suspect is in custody.
— Cathedral of St. John the Divine (@StJohnDivineNYC) December 13, 2020
According to Commissioner Shea, a detective, sergeant, and police officer who were at the event fired 15 rounds at the gunman, fatally shooting him in the head. The two on-duty officers at the scene were Detective Jason Harper, a 22-year veteran of the force, and Police Officer Daurys Gutierrez, a nine-year veteran. Sgt. Kensington Cunningham was working as a paid security guard at the time.
“You see three officers acting heroically,” the commissioner said, “engaging an armed perpetrator, putting themselves in harm’s way to pull people that are literally hiding in these poles behind me caught in the crossfire.”
Witnesses told police the man was yelling, “kill me,” as he fired his weapon.
Steven Wilson, who attended the Christmas concert with his family, ran and hid after they heard the gunshots.
“We all just got behind the car,” Wilson said. “To see it right up front really makes you appreciate that police officers are putting their lives on the line.”
Rev. Patrick Malloy from St. John the Divine Cathedral said he took people into the church for safety.
“A sense of responsibility took over,” Rev. Malloy said, “and I realized I simply had to take care of the people who were gathered around me and I took them into that building and locked us in.”
The suspect was taken to Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital and pronounced dead. He was identified as Luis Vasquez, from the Bronx. Reports said he had a “lengthy criminal history” including an attempted murder charge.
Former NYPD Chief of Department and the former Commissioner of New York City Emergency Management Joe Esposito says churches and all houses of worship should be on guard especially during the holiday season.
“You always have to be on guard,” Esposito said. “Everyone’s excited about the holiday … you got a season that’s more attracted to those emotionally disturbed or have an agenda or is a terrorist because it’s such a high profile time.”
Esposito said that increased church security is already taking place around the Diocese of Brooklyn and that the parties responsible for overseeing security within the diocese already spoke after yesterday’s church shooting in Manhattan.
“It’s important that the houses of worship do security analysis, especially in this time of the season,” he said. “Some churches have added extra ushers to be the extra eyes and ears. It’s an important time of the year to be on guard.”