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Panola County sheriff: Hearts 'heavy' after deputy killed

CARTHAGE — Sheriff Kevin Lake at a late morning news conference Tuesday released the name of a man who was in custody in Shreveport after being suspected of killing a Panola County deputy during a traffic stop.

Lake said Gregory Wayne Newson of Shreveport was apprehended by Shreveport police.

Deputy Chris Dickerson, 28, a 2009 graduate of Carthage High School, died early Tuesday morning after he had initiated a traffic stop on FM 10 near FM 2260 in Panola County.

During the stop, the driver exited the vehicle and fired his weapon numerous times.

Dickerson fired back. Nearby residents then found the deputy in front of his patrol unit, Lake said. The residents helped Dickerson and notified authorities about what had happened.

Dickerson was taken to UT Health Carthage, where he died an hour later, the department said.

RSHV News 1 in Shreveport reports Newson was taken into custody after a high-speed chase in the city that lasted about an hour.

The Texas Rangers are investigating the fatal shooting.

Lake said during the news conference that he could not take questions related to the investigation, but he did comment on how those in the department are doing after the fatal shooting.

“We have heavy hearts,” he said.

The sheriff also commented on Dickerson, calling him “as dedicated as they come.”

At a meeting of the Panola County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning, officials expressed their sadness over the deputy’s death and offered condolences to his family, who included a wife and two daughters.

“The court, and I think I speak for everybody, we know to a point what him and all the others put on the line every day,” Pct. 1 Commissioner Ronnie LaGrone said. “You never think of this happening in Panola County. ... This was a cold-blooded ... attack on a peace officer who just got out of his car to go walk up to another car, and he was ambushed.”

LaGrone said the entire court has always and will continue to support the sheriff’s office with whatever they need to do their jobs safely.

“We want them to know that we’re behind them always,” LaGrone said. “Sheriff Lake, Chief Deputy (John) DePresca, all the rest of the officers over there know that if they need it, come to us, and if it’s in our power to do it, we will for them. We want the family, his direct family, to know that we’re here for them, we’re praying for them and that God will be with them.”

mshamburger / Meredith Shamburger/Panola Watchman Photo 

Panola County commissioners, led by Commissioner Ronnie LaGrone, at a meeting Tuesday morning pray for the family of Deputy Chris Dickerson, who was killed earlier that day.

News of the shooting has elicited calls for prayers for the Panola County Sheriff’s Office by other area agencies.

In Rusk County, the office posted on its Facebook page, “Our thoughts and prayers are going out to neighbors and friends at Panola County Texas Sheriff’s office, as well as the families that have been touched by this horrific act of violence.

The Harrison County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook a Texas flag with a blue line through the middle with the phrase, “Prayers for Panola County.”

State lawmakers also offered prayers for the deputy’s family and the sheriff’s office.

A statement issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday said, “My thoughts and prayers are with the family of the deputy killed in the line of duty and with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office as they deal with the aftermath of this unimaginable tragedy. We must never forget the solemn oath our law enforcement officers take to protect and keep our communities safe. We must also ensure that the perpetrator faces swift justice.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick posted on Twitter about the fatal shooting.

“Sad to hear that a brave law enforcement officer in East Texas was killed this morning. Please keep the Panola County Sheriff’s Dept. in your prayers and always,” he wrote.

Texas law protecting armed churchgoers draws national attention after White Settlement shooting

Top Texas officials Monday cited the actions of several armed churchgoers who subdued a gunman in their sanctuary this weekend as a model of how Americans should protect themselves from potential mass shooters.

The attack, after which two church members and the gunman were dead, came two years after the Texas legislature passed a law that authorized anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring their weapon into houses of worship. That law was a response to the 2017 attack on a church in Sutherland Springs that left 26 people dead before a local resident shot the gunman outside the building and forced him to flee.

The shooter who attacked West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, a suburb of Fort Worth, on Sunday was killed by a single shot from church member Jack Wilson, a former reserve sheriff’s deputy and Army veteran. Wilson, who owns a shooting range in nearby Granbury, said he started training fellow members to be a part of the church’s volunteer security team when it launched after the Texas law passed.

“If there is any church in this state, in America, that was prepared for this, it was this church,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said at a news conference Monday. “They had done their training. And I think that you could see it in the results.”

He credited the new law with making the armed congregants’ quick responses possible, calling it a “model of what other churches and other places of business need to focus on.”

President Donald Trump weighed in Monday evening, tweeting that the attack “was over in 6 seconds thanks to the brave parishioners who acted to protect 242 fellow worshippers. Lives were saved by these heroes, and Texas laws allowing them to carry arms!”

But other state leaders took issue with Trump and Paxton’s interpretation of the incident. Former Texas congressman and onetime presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said the shooting was a reflection of the state’s lax gun-control measures.

“Our representatives in Texas have left us open to these kinds of attacks,” he tweeted. “Time to change our representatives.”

Gun-control activists called out the rate of firearm-related homicides and suicides in the Texas, which ranks in the middle of the pack nationally for gun deaths, according to federal data.

“If more guns and fewer gun laws made Texas safer, it would be the safest state in the US,” tweeted Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. “Instead, it has high rates of gun suicide and homicide, and is home to 4 of the 10 deadliest mass shootings.”

The shooter, whom authorities identified as 43-year-old Keith Thomas Kinnunen, fatally shot two members of the church’s volunteer security team, both men in their 60s, during the Sunday service before Wilson fired back at him, officials said.

During a vigil Monday evening, senior minister Britt Farmer said he had encountered Kinnunen at the church before.

“I had seen him. I had visited with him. I had given him food. I had offered him food at other occasions he had been to our building,” he said.

A video of the attack, captured by the church’s live-stream camera, shows the gunman sitting in a pew during the service before the shooting. He stands up and paces briefly before he speaks to another churchgoer and pulls a large gun from his coat at about 10:50 a.m. He then fires toward the man he spoke to, striking him and another man standing nearby, as other congregants scream and dive beneath the pews.

The video then shows a fourth man, apparently Wilson, shoot the gunman. At least four congregants with weapons raised rush toward the attacker, who had fallen to the ground.

The two victims were taken to a hospital but soon died of their injuries. The Texas Department of Public Safety identified the men as Anton Wallace, 64, of Fort Worth and Richard White, 67, of River Oaks.

“We have lost some great men. But so many other lives could have been lost,” Farmer said at the vigil Monday. “I love this community, I love this church, I love this state and I love our country and I love our freedoms. And I’m not going to let evil take that away.”

Footage of the shooting has been removed from church YouTube page, though it continues to circulate through social media platforms.

The FBI is working with local and state authorities to investigate the shooting. Paxton said investigators are uncertain of the gunman’s motive and are searching for people who knew the shooter.

Kinnunen, who had previous arrests for alleged assault, theft and possession of an illegal weapon, appeared to be “more of a loner.”

It is “probably going to be very difficult to determine what his motivations were, other than maybe mental illness,” Paxton said.

Authorities said Kinnunen may have been transient and might have visited the church several times.

“Unfortunately, this country has seen so many of these that we’ve actually gotten used to it at this point,” Jeoff Williams, the regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters Monday. “It’s tragic, and it’s a terrible situation, especially during the holiday season.”

A spokesperson for the West Freeway Church of Christ and Farmer’s family declined Monday to address the church’s security practices. It is unclear whether the church screens people who carry guns into the building.

Farmer recently self-published a work of fiction, set in Texas Hill Country, about an attack on the United States by Muslim terrorists — an event, he writes in the book’s introduction, that he hopes “never comes to pass, but, there is always that possibility.”

As the story begins, a group of Texas ranchers worry forebodingly about the presence of terrorists in the United States. Later, as an Islamic State flag is hoisted atop the Empire State Building, they are glad to have stockpiled guns and ammunition.

“‘Guns needed now,” the main character thinks as the crisis gets underway.

Before the new law, gun owners in Texas could not carry weapons into a house of worship without specific authorization from church leadership. The Sutherland Springs attack spurred Texas lawmakers in a Republican-controlled legislature to loosen the state’s gun laws so that they could do so more easily.

While there is no specific law that allows armed volunteers in places of worship, members of a congregation can use their concealed-carry license to protect their religious community, said South Texas College of Law Houston professor Josh Blackman.

Houses of worship and other businesses in Texas are still legally authorized to ban firearms on their premises. But in September, another law went into effect requiring a house of worship to post a sign stating it is opting out before it can prohibit licensed individuals from carrying weapons inside.

Conservative politicians and gun rights advocates credited the looser gun laws with saving lives.

“The brave officers from the White Settlement Police Department were on the scene in less than two minutes, but these men who had volunteered for the church security team had already secured their church,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said in a statement.

The National Rifle Association renewed its “good guy with a gun” defense of looser firearms restrictions in a Sunday tweet praising the armed churchgoer’s actions — a defense that gun-control group Newtown Action Alliance called a “myth,” noting that Wilson was “highly trained.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, praised the armed response.

Paxton added Monday: “We can’t prevent every incident, we can’t prevent mental illness from occurring, and we can’t prevent every crazy person from pulling a gun. But you can be prepared like this church was.”

Minister: Texas gunman grew angry in past over cash requests

DALLAS — The congregation at a Texas church where two people were fatally shot had repeatedly given food to the gunman, according to the pastor, but had declined to give money to him, angering a man who court records show was deemed mentally incompetent for trial in 2012.

It’s unclear whether Keith Thomas Kinnunen’s extensive criminal record and psychological history would have barred him from legally buying the shotgun he used during Sunday’s attack at the West Freeway Church of Christ in the Fort Worth-area town of White Settlement.

Kinnunen, 43, shot worshippers Richard White and Anton “Tony” Wallace in the sanctuary before a member of the church’s volunteer security team shot and killed him, according to police and witnesses.

Minister Britt Farmer, a Longview native and Spring Hill High School graduate, told The Christian Chronicle that he recognized Kinnunen after seeing a photo of him without the fake beard, wig, hat and long coat he wore as a disguise to the service.

Kinnunen visited the congregation several other times this year and was given food but denied money, the minister said.

“We’ve helped him on several occasions with food,” Farmer said in the interview. “He gets mad when we won’t give him cash.”

Farmer declined to speak to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Authorities have said Kinnunen’s motive remains under investigation and they declined to comment on how he obtained the gun he used, though a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokeswoman said it had successfully traced the weapon.

Court records portray Kinnunen as being deeply troubled long before Sunday’s attack.

In 2012, a district judge in Oklahoma ruled him mentally incompetent to stand trial and ordered him committed to a psychiatric facility for treatment.

Kinnunen was charged with felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after he attacked the owner of a Chickasha, Oklahoma, doughnut shop in 2011, court records state. He was separately charged with arson that year after allegedly starting a fire in a cotton field by tying tampons soaked in lamp oil to the crop.

Earlier on the day of that fire, Kinnunen soaked a football in the accelerant, lit it on fire and threw it back and forth with his son, who was a minor, according to the arrest affidavit. The boy told police he was afraid his father would get mad if he asked to stop.

A forensic psychologist who examined Kinnunen in 2012 for both cases wrote that “Kinnunen currently evidences signs that are consistent with a substantial mental illness and that meet the inpatient criteria of a ‘person requiring treatment.’”

Records show that Kinnunen was found competent to stand trial in February 2013. However, both criminal cases were ultimately reduced to misdemeanors, to which he pleaded guilty.

One of Kinnunen’s ex-wives, Cynthia L. Glasgow-Voegle, also filed for a protective order against him in 2012, Oklahoma records show.

“Keith is a violent, paranoid person with a long line of assault and battery w/ and without firearms,” Glasgow-Voegle said in the petition. She also wrote that Kinnunen was prone to religious fanaticism and “says he’s battling a demon.”

Kinnunen got “more and more” into drugs and “it messed with his head” during their marriage, Angela Holloway, whose divorce from him was finalized in 2011, told the AP.

Holloway, a 44-year-old Fort Worth resident, said she hadn’t spoken to Kinnunen in years and learned from news reports that he was the church attacker.

She said she and Kinnunen used to attend church together and that there were times he appeared to be off drugs, but that he was frightening by the end of their six-year marriage.

“He was really disturbed,” Holloway said.

She said that she doesn’t know whether Kinnunen was ever diagnosed with a mental illness and that she wasn’t sure whether he could legally have guns, but that he consistently did.

“I don’t know how he got them; I just know that he did have them,” she said.

In 2016, Kinnunen was arrested in New Jersey and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. He eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of criminal trespass, court records show. In Texas, he was charged with aggravated assault in 2008 but pleaded down to misdemeanor deadly conduct.

Federal law defines nine categories that would prohibit someone from being legally allowed to own or possess a firearm. They include being convicted of any felony charge or misdemeanor domestic violence, being subject to a restraining order or active warrants, being addicted to drugs, and being involuntarily committed to a mental health institution or being found by a court to be “a mental defective.” However, it remained unclear whether Kinnunen qualified under any of the categories.

Despite a judge’s initial finding that Kinnunen was mentally incompetent to stand trial in Oklahoma, that wouldn’t necessarily have prevented him from legally purchasing a firearm, said Edwin Walker, a Houston-based attorney for U.S. & Texas Law Shield, a company that provides legal protection to gun owners.

“If he had only misdemeanors and none of those were for domestic violence, and his competency had been restored by judicial decree, then yes, he would have been able to purchase a firearm,” Walker said.

Seconds after Kinnunen opened fire in the church, Jack Wilson, a 71-year-old firearms instructor, shot him once in the head.

The actions of Wilson and other armed churchgoers drew praise from some Texas lawmakers and gun-rights advocates. Texas officials hailed the state’s gun laws, including a measure enacted in 2019 that affirmed the right of licensed handgun holders to carry a weapon inside places of worship unless a facility bans them.

“We can’t prevent every incident, we can’t prevent mental illness from occurring, and we can’t prevent every crazy person from pulling a gun, but we can be prepared like this church was,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told reporters Monday.

President Donald Trump tweeted Monday night and Tuesday morning about the attack, both times highlighting the role of armed citizens in stopping the shooter. “If it were not for the fact that there were people inside of the church that were both armed, and highly proficient in using their weapon, the end result would have been catastrophic. A big THANK YOU to them!” Trump tweeted.

But other Texas lawmakers, while praising the churchgoers’ actions, called for a special legislative session to address gun violence after a devastating year that included mass shootings in El Paso and the West Texas cities of Odessa and Midland.

“We must respect the Second Amendment while also working together to keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm to Texans worshiping in a church, attending school or shopping for their children,” state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement.

Sheriff says slain Panola County deputy 'gave life doing what he was put on Earth to do'

CARTHAGE — A Panola County Sheriff’s Office deputy who was shot and killed early Tuesday morning had been with the department for eight years and had been recognized as a hero in 2017 for helping to save a woman from a burning home.

Chris Dickerson, 28, was a 2009 graduate of Carthage High School. He also was a graduate of the Kilgore Police Academy and began work as a detention officer eight years ago with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office. He had served as a volunteer firefighter with the Carthage Fire Department for six years.

Dickerson was married and had two children.

Panola County Sheriff Kevin Lake said Tuesday that “our hearts are hurting.”

“We ask the community to keep all of our deputies and the family of our fallen officer in your thoughts and prayers,” Lake said.

Lake described Dickerson as someone who was valuable to the department, “as dedicated as they come.”

“This young man gave his life doing what he was put on this Earth to do,” Lake said.

In 2017, Dickerson was recognized for his efforts along with fellow deputies Travis Curry and Calahan Malone in saving the life of a Panola County woman from a burning home in Fairplay on Dec. 11.

Dickerson and Curry climbed through a broken window and heavy smoke to find the woman lying unconscious on the floor. They passed the woman through the window to Malone. The family dog also was found unconscious in the bedroom and was saved.

Dickerson and his colleagues were named the 2017 Employees of the Year by the Panola County Chamber of Commerce. They also were honored with the East Texas Council of Governments’ Regional First Responder Award in 2018.

Chief Deputy John DePresca of the Panola County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that the entire department was saddened by Dickerson’s death.

“Obviously, it’s a sad day for every member of the department when you lose a family member,” DePresca said. “And that’s what we did: we lost a family member.”

Developer: Alton Plaza construction could be finished in January

Construction of apartment homes inside Alton Plaza at the Petroleum Building could be completed by the end of the month, a developer said.

Lisa Stephens with Saigebrook Development applied to the city of Longview for a certificate of occupancy Dec. 10, according to municipal records.

She already has received a partial certificate of occupancy for the 61,000-square-foot facility, she said, and about 60% of the 48 housing units inside Alton Plaza have been preleased.

“I think we’re going to be finished by the end of January,” Stephens said Tuesday. “We’re excited about it.”

For nearly 14 months, a contractor has rehabbed and renovated the 66-year-old Petroleum Building in downtown Longview into apartment homes under a $9.962 million project that included state tax credits and a $600,000 loan from the city of Longview.

The apartments will serve residents and families who earn about 50% to 60% of the area’s median income, which is just below $60,000. Four apartments are set aside for residents at 30% of the area median income, and another 15 units will be leased at market rate.

Stephens said anyone interested in applying for residency at Alton Plaza should call (903) 236-5022 or email leasing@altonplazaapts.com .

The Petroleum Building is one of two historic downtown Longview properties undergoing a residential transformation.

Work continues at the 84-year-old Heritage Tower, formerly known as the Weaver Building, at 208 N. Green St. The building formerly used for commerce is being transformed into a housing development for renters ages 55 and older.