BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — As Florida officials searched Friday for a suspect in the killing of his wife, a pastor and a neighbor, church members reflected on what happened.
They said pastor James "Tripp" Battle's last Sunday sermon was prophetic. It came four days before authorities said he was shot to death in the church courtyard in a face-to-face confrontation with Andres "Andy" Avalos.
"It was about how we had to have an armor and be prepared for anything," said Judy Smith, who sat in a pew Sunday at Bayshore Baptist Church.
Authorities aren't sure of the motive for the slayings.
The killing spree started Thursday afternoon when authorities said Avalos killed his 33-year-old wife, who was a Sunday school aide, and a neighbor before he went to the church and gunned down the pastor.
The vehicle Avalos was last seen driving was found at a Walmart on Friday morning, but there was no sign of him.
Avalos has a criminal record, including DUI arrests, traffic offenses and a fight during which he was shot in the arm. Criminal records also show that he was arrested on a weapon possession charge but was not prosecuted.
Church members said the pastor's wife was at the church at time of the shooting, and she told police about the other two victims. It wasn't clear how she knew Amber Avalos, 33, and Denise Potter, 45, had been slain at the Avaloses' home in Bradenton about 10 miles from the church.
"We don't know exactly what transpired," sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow said.
The Avaloses have six children, ages 3 to 14. They were at school when officers found out about the shootings and the schools were put on lockdown for fear that Avalos would attempt to pick them up. Deputies said the children were now in the custody of a relative.
"Those children. That's the tragedy," said Elwin "Karp" Carpenter, a 77-year-old church deacon.
The Battles have two children, ages 3 and 5. Potter, who lived down the street from the Avaloses, had two children.
The church, with its large, blue, diamond-shaped sign, sits on a busy main road in Bradenton, nestled in between strip malls and car lots. The Avaloses' quiet neighborhood is not too far away along the Manatee River.
On Friday morning, Carpenter and a handful of other church members gathered in a parish hall to talk about the 31-year-old Battle and how he increased attendance at the church to more than 120 members in the year and a half he was there. Carpenter said he was at the church about a half-hour prior to the shooting, decorating the sanctuary for Christmas.
"He was a big man, and his heart almost encompassed his entire body," said Carpenter, adding that one of Battle's favorite Bible passages was from Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God."
Amber Avalos was a quiet woman who helped coordinate the Sunday children's programs.
Said Smith: "Amber and Tripp were two precious people who loved the Lord and served the Lord. There was nothing dark about them."