Community continues to heal as suspect prepares for trial 3 years after massacre

Sunday marks three years since the peace and quiet normally found in the city of Sebring was shattered. On January 23, 2019, Zephen Xaver drove into SunTrust Bank along US 27 south of Jackson Lake, opened fire and killed five women inside.

Four of the five victims were working inside the bank when they were shot: Ana Pinon-Williams, Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez and Jessica Montague. The fifth victim was a client named Cynthia Watson.

According to the Sebring Police Department, Xaver called law enforcement shortly after 12:30 p.m. and said he fired inside the bank. The 21-year-old, armed and wearing a bulletproof vest, barricaded himself inside. Deputies and officers returned fire and surrounded the building, guns drawn.

After a two-hour standoff, Highlands County deputies moved in with an armored vehicle and arrested Xaver.

Police said they found no connection between suspect Xaver and the victims. Nor does it appear that there was any attempted robbery of the bank.

“We don’t have any information about what his real motive might have been,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said in a previous interview. “We think it was a random act.”

Sebring shooting victims

Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook and Ana Piñon-Williams were working at the SunTrust branch on US 27 when Xaver opened fire. A customer, Cynthia Watson, was also killed in the attack.

After the shooting, Piñon-Williams’ brother-in-law issued a public statement on behalf of the family. He said the mother of seven was dedicated to her family and her faith, “truly a light in this world”.

“Loving her was easy. Living without her will be difficult. Not only will our family survive, but we will thrive,” said Tim Williams.

Bank employee Marisol Lopez, 55, leaves behind her husband and two children. Her Facebook profile picture shows her smiling with a loved one. That smile is how her longtime neighbor Gil Osborne said he would remember her.

“She had the best personality, always friendly, always smiling and always giving,” Osborne told FOX 13 News in a previous interview.

Officials said there was another employee in the bank at the time of the shooting. Law enforcement did not name the employee, but said the person was in a back room when shots were fired. They were able to escape and call for help.

Who is Zephen Xaver?

Police say the man who shot and killed five people at a SunTrust bank in Sebring, Fla. on Wednesday was described by a woman who knew him as “normal” and “well-behaved.”

Sharon Spillane, a friend of Xaver’s parents, told FOX 13 in 2019 that she hadn’t seen this coming in a million years.

“We cooked together, I was in their house, we watched movies. It’s a very normal family,” Spillane said. “He had a job and he was very calm and very well mannered. Every time I saw him he was very well mannered, always in good posture and well spoken.”

However, Xaver’s ex-girlfriend paints a different picture. In a previous interview with FOX 13, Alex Gerlach said Xaver is obsessed with guns and knives.

“The only thing I remember is that he talked about guns and he wanted guns,” Gerlach said in a 2019 interview. “He wants to physically hurt people.”

According to Gerlach, she met Xaver in a mental hospital in 2013. She said they dated for about two years.

“At one point my mum was terrified because she thought he was going to hurt me physically,” said Gerlach, who described Xaver as a troubled teenager. “For some reason he always hated people and wanted everyone dead.”

Gerlach said Xaver continued to make chilling comments over the years and said a week before the shooting he sent her a photo of himself holding a gun.

“I was scared for years and not everyone I spoke to took it seriously, and it’s very unfortunate it’s come to this,” she said in 2019.

Documents provided by the Bremen Police Department in Indiana State went to Xaver’s high school in 2014, after school officials said he had disturbing thoughts.

The documents indicate that Xaver told school officials that he dreamed of hurting his classmates. According to the police report, Xaver’s mother agreed to take her son to a behavioral health center.

The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed that Xaver was a trainee correctional officer at Avon Park Correctional Facility for approximately two months. He quit two weeks before filming.

What happened to the Sebring SunTrust Bank building?

SunTrust decided not to reopen the bank where the massacre took place and had the building demolished five months later.

“I think that’s a good thing. I couldn’t imagine going into the building myself,” Sebring resident Jake McClelland said in a 2019 interview with FOX 13.

“When you drive past and look that side of the road, you know, it’s always in the back of your mind,” resident Joe Minshew said.

A year after the shooting, a new park, honoring the five lives lost, opened on the grounds where the group once stood.

Reflection Park features a memorial with a pentagon-shaped plaque with sunbursts of the SunTrust bank logo engraved on it. Each face of the plaque represents one of the five lives lost in the massacre. On it, a plaque reads, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out”.

The Sebring Police Department celebrated the third anniversary of the shooting on its Facebook page with photos of lit candles and the caption “Always in our hearts”.

What’s next for Defendant Sebring shooting Suspect Zephen Xaver?

Xaver faces five counts of first-degree murder for the Sebring shooting and could be sentenced to death. A hearing has been set for February 4 and his trial is scheduled for May 2, 2022. He has pleaded not guilty.

About Michael C. Lovelace

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