SELMA, Ala. (AP) — The Sunday service at Oasis Tabernacle Church had started like any other: A prayer was recited over the small 25-member congregation and the co-pastor was about to begin the day's Bible lesson. Before he could start, however, authorities say a young man sitting in the front pew next to his estranged girlfriend and their infant son jumped to his feet and opened fire.
James Junior Minter, 26, shot the baby in the hand and hit the woman in the chin before he was tackled by the woman's father, the Alabama church's pastor and other parishioners, all of whom were hailed as heroes for preventing even more possible bloodshed, District Attorney Michael Jackson said.
Witnesses say the entire sequence of events unfolded in less than 10 minutes. Pastor Bob Carswell said it started when Minter, appearing fidgety, entered the church Sunday morning and sat down beside his estranged girlfriend in the front row. The young woman's mother had pulled Carswell aside earlier and whispered that she feared he might have a gun, the pastor said.
"When he sat down, he didn't have time to get the bench warm and then he jumped up and turned the gun straight at her and started shooting at her head," Carswell said of Minter's ex-girlfriend, whose name has not been released.
WSFA-TV identified the woman as Sharnika Brown. In an interview posted on the station's website late Monday, Brown told the television station Minter walked into the church, sat between her and their newborn son, and said, "I got to kill you."
Brown's father told WSFA that Minter had accused the family earlier of trying to keep him from seeing his baby and then followed them to church.
Carswell said Minter shot directly at the woman at least three times and then pointed the gun down at her after she fell on the ground.
The woman's father and another parishioner grabbed Minter from behind while Carswell grabbed him from the front and grabbed the gun, he said. He said other parishioners joined in during the struggle.
"Her Daddy grabbed him and went back with him to get him back from over his daughter. I ran down, grabbed him, and grabbed the gun. It took some doing, but we finally got it away from him," Carswell said.
Minter broke free but was arrested about a mile from the church.
The woman survived but was hospitalized. Carswell was shot twice in the leg and he said Minter bit him during the struggle. The 4-week-old baby survived but had at least three fingers shot off, Carswell and Jackson said. WSFA reported that doctors used pins to reattach the fingers.
Minter faces three counts of attempted murder, Jackson said. A judge Monday set bond at $3 million for Minter, $1 million for each attempted murder charge.
The tiny white church, where the sign out front reads, "God Said I Can Do All Things" is nestled in a low-income area about a mile from downtown Selma and the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge that was visited by President Barack Obama this year for its significance in the civil rights struggle.
Jackson said the pastor and church members prevented bloodshed that could have been far worse.
"If not for the quick thinking and intervention of the pastor and the other members of the congregation it could have been a massacre in the church," he said. "He was trying to kill her and the baby," Jackson said.
The woman had attended church there for about year with her family, but had expressed concern about her boyfriend while she was pregnant, Carswell said.
"She was trying to get away from him," he said.
Minter was arrested at least once before. Court records show he was charged with misdemeanor menacing after he was accused as part of a group of three men who stopped James Campbell, 19, while he walked through a neighborhood in Selma on Oct. 15, 2010.
Campbell said in a statement to police that one man held a gun on him and punched him in the face while Minter and another man also held guns on him. No charges were filed until Campbell told police about the incident seven months later, and the case was dismissed without prosecution on June 30, 2011.
Court records do not indicate why prosecutors threw out the case.
Rutha Minter stood beside her son during his brief court appearance Monday.
Outside court, the woman said the shooting was out of character for her son.
"He's a good boy. He works very hard," she said.
However, Carswell said he has no doubt what had happened if he and parishioners hadn't tackled the gunman.
Sharnika Brown "would have been dead," he said.
"I'll tell you the truth: I forgive him," Carswell replied when asked what he thought should happen to Minter. "But he doesn't need to be out on the street."