New York City police said Sunday they shot a man dead after he opened fire at Manhattan’s St. John the Divine Cathedral, the largest cathedral in North America.
Officers struck the suspect at least once in the head and killed him after he fired multiple shots, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a press conference. The man was then transported to nearby hospital Mount Sinai Morningside. There were no injuries to police or attendees.
The church on Sunday hosted its annual Christmas concert event called “Carols for the Community.” Shea said the event was smaller than previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though City Councilman Mark Levine tweeted that approximately 400 people attended. The event featured masked members of the church choir standing socially distanced on the front steps.
The commissioner said that caroling ended at around 3:45 p.m. ET, at which point shots rang out from the suspect at the top of the church’s steps. The gunfire sent attendees, who were starting to walk away, running down the street screaming and dropping to the sidewalk.
“It was just beautiful, and then at the end, this person started shooting. Everybody is in shock,” cathedral spokeswoman Lisa Schubert told The New York Times. “The shooter could have killed a lot of people. There were hundreds of people here and he shot at least 20 times.”
Body camera footage showed that “these steps were almost empty,” Shea said. “The music had stopped playing, no one was playing instruments, but there were people in the immediate area lingering around. What we’re getting preliminarily is not known to the individuals that were playing the instruments.”
“He made his way up,” he continued. “People were invited into the church after the music ended, and that’s when he sort of appeared.”
A photo taken by Reuters shows the suspect was wearing a white hat and a protective mask printed with what appeared to be the Dominican Republic flag. The man was also holding a gun in each of his hands, as shown in the photo.
Police won’t yet say in what direction the suspect was firing bullets, but the church said in a statement that the man “set off a round of gunfire into the air from our front steps.”
Police also said that while the motive is not yet known, multiple witnesses told them that the shooter was yelling for officers to kill him. Levine also alleged on Twitter that the suspect “began shooting indiscriminately in the air” and “yelling that he wanted to be killed.”
“Painful reminder of the challenges we face in dealing with mental health and easy gun access in our city,” Levine tweeted.
The commissioner said that one police officer and one detective both were serving as security for the event at the time of the shooting, and immediately “engaged” the suspect. A sergeant who was at Mount Sinai Morningside also immediately responded. All three members of law enforcement fired a total of 15 shots.
“It is by the grace of God today that we don’t have anyone struck,” Shea said.
Police said they recovered two semiautomatic firearms from the scene. They also recovered what they believe to be the suspect’s bag, which had a full can of gasoline, rope, wire, multiple knives, a bible and tape.
Officers have “a tentative idea” of who the suspect is, with Shea saying they “have a name, that person has a lengthy criminal history, but until we have it verified by fingerprints we’re not gonna release anything.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said two of her aides were at the Christmas concert when the shooting occurred but were not hurt.
“We don’t have a lot of information but our gratitude goes out to first responders,” Brewer tweeted.
The church released a statement also expressing gratitude to first responders, “and our prayers are with all those afflicted by this event.”
“It is horrible that our choir’s gift to New York City, a much-needed afternoon of song and unity, was cut short by this shocking act of violence,” the church said. “We will remain strong, together, and serve as a safe space for prayer, meditation and celebration during the upcoming holiday season.”
Nina Golgowski contributed reporting.