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A mother entered Joel Osteen’s megachurch with her son and opened fire. The boy is now fighting for his life

The suspect is now deceased after being confronted by two off-duty police officers  (AP)
The suspect is now deceased after being confronted by two off-duty police officers (AP)

Lakewood Church, home to famed pastor Joel Osteen’s congregation, draws more than 45,000 worshippers through its doors each week.

It’s one of the United States’ largest Christian churches, seating around 16,000 congregants in the vast auditorium at any given time.

Now, it’s also a crime scene after it became the sight of a terrifying shooting over the weekend.

On Sunday 11 February, worshippers were preparing to go into its Spanish-speaking service when a woman with her seven-year-old son entered the church. She was armed with an AR-15 rifle and started shooting.

The following day, police identified the shooter as Genesse Ivonne Moreno – a 36-year-old woman who allegedly carried out the attack using an assault-style rifle with the word “Palestine” across it.

Two off-duty officers confronted Moreno in the hallway just as she entered the church and she was killed in an exchange of gunfire.

The young child, who police have confirmed is the woman’s seven-year-old son, was injured in the melee when he was struck in the head by a bullet. He remains in critical condition in hospital.

A 57-year-old man was also injured when he was shot in the leg, but has since been released from the hospital.

Houston Police officers resopnded to Lakewood Church after a woman opened fire (AP)
Houston Police officers resopnded to Lakewood Church after a woman opened fire (AP)

“It’s unfortunate that on the day we want to attend church and watch America’s number one sports event, we find ourselves gathered here to respond to this tragedy,” Houston Mayor John Whitmire said after the incident.

While officials said the situation could have been a lot worse, the incident has left churchgoers and the community reeling – with many now praying that the young boy pulls through.

As the investigation continues, Houston authorities are trying to uncover what motivated the woman to bring a gun into the place of worship and carry out the attack.

Here’s what we know about the Houston Lakewood Church shooting:

The shooting

Chief Troy Finner with the Houston Police Department told reporters at a news conference on Monday that at around 1.53pm on Sunday, Moreno, armed with a long rifle, got out of her white vehicle and entered the west side of the megachurch.

She was dressed in a trench coat and a backpack and was accompanied by her seven-year-old son.

Police said that she is believed to have pointed her weapon at a security guard to get into the building.

Once inside, she began shooting in the hallway of the church, firing off multiple rounds.

Two off-duty officers, one a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent and the other a Houston police officer, engaged and struck the woman. She was pronounced dead on the scene.

During what Mr Hassig described as the “gun battle”, the boy suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

He was taken to hospital where he is fighting for his life in critical condition. A second victim – a 57-year-old man – was also shot in the leg. He has since been released from hospital.

Police found Moreno was armed with two weapons on the scene – the AR-15 which was used in the shooting and a .22 caliber rifle. The rifle was legally purchased by Moreno back in December.

A woman stands outside Lakewood Church after a  shooting during a Spanish church service (AP)
A woman stands outside Lakewood Church after a shooting during a Spanish church service (AP)

During the incident, police previously said that Moreno had also threatened that she had a bomb. But when police searched her vehicle and backpack, they found no explosives.

Chief Finner said that the woman was also spraying “some type of substance on the ground”. It is not clear what the substance is but officials reassured the public on Monday that tests had been carried out, which confirmed there was no risk of exposure to any chemical.

Alan Guity, a longtime church member, said he was inside the church’s sanctuary before the Spanish service with his mother, who was working as an usher when he heard gunshots.

“Boom, boom, boom, boom and I yelled, ‘Mom,’ ” he told the Associated Press.

Mr Guity and his mother both lay flat and prayed as the gunfire carried on. They remained there for around five minutes until they were told it was safe to evacuate, the outlet said.

“Places of worship. That’s what they are, and that’s what they will remain in our city,” Chief Finner said at the conference.

Authorities said that they believe the shooting was an isolated incident with no further danger to the public. But, there will be increased patrols in and around religious institutions of all faiths in the area over the coming days.

Chief Finner said that when officers are involved in a shooting, investigations are conducted, and so the two officers will be placed on administrative duty.

“I want to commend those officers. She had a long gun, and it could have been a lot worse,” Mr Finner said. “But they stepped up, and they did their job, and I want to thank them for that.”

“It is certainly traumatic for the officers who have had to take a life and we worry about their mental health as well,” Fire Chief Samuel Peña also added.

The victims

The child who was injured in the incident is currently in Texas Children’s Hospital in critical condition.

Police said the boy, who has not been named, is the biological son of Moreno.

But it remains unclear who shot the child.

When asked on Sunday if officers had shot the boy as they returned fire on the shooter, Chief Finner said if they had “that female, that suspect, put that baby in danger. I’m going to put that blame on her.”

Another victim, a 57-year-old man, was also shot in the leg and was also taken to hospital for treatment. He had been released by Monday afternoon.

Officials praised the “valour” and heroism of the two officers who shot the suspect dead, saying that more lives would have been lost if it weren’t for them.

“What happened yesterday was the personification of heroism and valor,” said Kevin Lilly, chairman of TABC, adding that the two off-duty officers “held ground” in the face of a rifle pointing at them at “point blank range”.

Police have not found any explosives after the suspect also threatened that she had a bomb (CBS11)
Police have not found any explosives after the suspect also threatened that she had a bomb (CBS11)

“They were a wall that existed between worshippers and terror. Between freedom of religion and murder,” he said.

The suspect

Genesse Ivonne Moreno was named on Monday as the 36-year-old shooter.

While the motive for the shooting remains unclear, investigators said that Moreno had a sticker which read “Palestine” on the butt of her rifle.

Police have also since recovered some antisemitic writings, they said.

At the time of the shooting, Mr Hassig said that Moreno was in the midst of a familial dispute with her ex-husband and his family, who are Jewish. “We think this is where this stems from,” he said.

However, officials urged against speculation, saying that the investigation is still in the early stages.

“It’s way too early to determine a motive for the shooter’s actions and we’re not in the business of speculating,” said Doug Williams, FBI’s special agent in charge of the Houston field office.

Chief Finney said he ‘blames’ the deceased suspect for putting the child in danger (ABC7)
Chief Finney said he ‘blames’ the deceased suspect for putting the child in danger (ABC7)

Police said that no link had yet been found between the suspect and the megachurch where the shooting took place, but the investigation has so far found that she acted alone.

Moreno used several aliases including both male and female names. However, “all the investigation to this point, she has been identified the entire time as female”, police said.

One such alias is Jeffrey Escalante, NBC News reported. Moreno had a lengthy criminal record with previous arrests including for assault, marijuana possession, forgery, theft, evading and unlawful carrying of a weapon, according to the outlet.

Questions are now being asked as to how she was able to legally purchase a firearm as recently as December, particularly due to her history of mental health concerns.

On Sunday night, officials including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) searched a home connected to Moreno in Conroe, Texas. The home is about 50 minutes north of Lakewood Church. Evidence was collected from the property, CNN reported.

The Texas megachurch

Lakewood Church is situated in the Compaq Centre, a venue so big it used to be the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

More than 45,000 weekly visitors attend the megachurch, which includes a 16,000-seat auditorium and reaches even more worshippers on international broadcasts.

What may entice many worshippers is also pastor Joel Osteen, a successful television producer-turned-religious leader after his father, John Osteen, also a famed pastor, unexpectedly died, leading to Joel taking over as senior pastor at Lakewood Church in 1999.

Sunday, however, brought an unforeseen event that left the congregation devastated; Mr Osteen said that the incident had left him “kind of in a fog” but said his community will “stay strong”.

“We don’t understand why these things happen, but we know God is in control,” Osteen said.

Pastor Joel Osteen speaks to the media after a shooting at Lakewood Church (AP)
Pastor Joel Osteen speaks to the media after a shooting at Lakewood Church (AP)

“We are going to pray for the little five-year-old boy and the lady that was deceased, her family, and the other gentlemen,” he added.

The pastor said that he could have only imagined what would have happened if the incident had happened during the 11am service, as at the time of the shooting, the church was changing over services.

“Our community is devastated by today’s events and grateful for the swift actions of law enforcement. May the healing hands of God touch the lives of everyone involved and provide comfort during this difficult time,” Mr Osteen added in a statement later on.