The body fails. Even with pharmaceutical help – and Lloyd Robert Jeffress had plenty of that – the breakdown continues. This deteriorating march of time found Mr. Jeffress starting from a bad place. He suffered from polio in his youth, and his gait in the 71st year of his life included a limp from a left leg an inch and a half shorter than his right. He tried to restore the symmetry with a heel lift duct-taped inside his left shoe, but the hitch in his movement remained.
A general weakness settled on him. Atherosclerotic plaque blocked at least 90 percent of two arteries and 80 percent of another. An occlusion also worked to close blood vessels at the base of his brain.
Mr. Jeffress organized the glut of medicines in a blue folder he left on the kitchen counter of his Kearney, Mo., apartment. His Social Security income, $19,000 the previous year, bore the weight of 13 prescriptions filled in the last 95 days: Zestril for blood pressure, Lipitor for cholesterol, Flomax for a troublesome prostate. Just five days earlier, he paid $82.69 in cash at a Liberty Osco store for Proscar tablets, a urologist’s new course of treatment.
And there were other drugs for his less physical maladies, including Lorazepam and Buspirone for anxiety and Fluoxetine, a generic version of Prozac.
For all his health problems, the short, slight man summoned energy for the day’s endeavor. Mr. Jeffress stepped from his 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier into a warm Northwest Missouri morning, one of the first muggy days to portend the summer ahead. He unloaded a couple of long boxes and began to carry them up steps toward the twin-towered front of the imposing basilica at Conception Abbey.
As he entered, a Kansas City Royals cap covering a receding hairline, he passed below a stained-glass crest. It read “PAX,” Latin for “peace.”
In a short time, an ailing Lloyd Jeffress would be dead. But in the next eight minutes, on June 10, 2002, he would change the 129- year-old abbey forever.
Abbot Gregory Polan nourished mind and body most mornings, mixing the structured abbey routine with his own. The Benedictine order’s motto is Ora et Labora, or “pray and work.” The abbot supplemented it with a jog.
He rose at 5 a.m. for an hour of quiet reflection before the first of five daily sessions of common prayer, called Vigils, in the abbey church. The monks scattered again for individual spiritual reading, lectio divina, then returned for a second canonical session, called Lauds, at 7:15.
As most of his brothers went to breakfast in the first-floor refectory, about 7:45, the abbot suited up for a run. A resident since 1970 and the ninth abbot in the abbey’s history, he loved this rural setting for the head-clearing morning exercise, and he finished in time for a quick shower before his workday began.
Most times, he can slip down to the dining hall for some fruit or a bowl of cereal. But it was Monday, he remembered, and his secretary, the Rev. Regis Probstfield, had a 10 a.m. doctor’s appointment. He wanted to get a few things done before the Rev. Probstfield left, so the abbot reached into a small refrigerator in his room for a cup of yogurt.
The long, flat cardboard boxes Lloyd Jeffress carried into the vestibule contained rifles, both legally purchased. He bought the Ruger .22-caliber at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Kansas City in 1992. Two years later, he bought the semi-automatic MAK-90 Sporter at Fred’s Guns in North Kansas City.
The firearms transaction form he filled out when he bought the Chinese-made MAK raised no red flags. The 5-foot-7-inch, 140-pound Mr. Jeffress had no criminal record.
He unpacked the boxes and left them on a table that held information brochures about the abbey, then went through the door into the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. A grand church in the Romanesque style, it was dedicated in 1891 and still glowed from a $9 million facelift that was completed in 1999.
Mr. Jeffress found no one in the ornate sanctuary, though nearly all monastery residents had been there just 50 minutes earlier.
He walked along the right side of the pews, passing under the church’s original sanctuary lamp, a candle hanging from above and meant to represent Christ’s presence in the church.
Just past the choir and organ chamber, a door marked “Private” leads to the cloistered area of the monastery, to which only residents and invited guests may go. Mr. Jeffress pushed the door open and entered.
Still groggy, the Rev. Patrick Caveglia rose before 5 a.m. Morning prayer beckoned, alone and with his monastery brothers. Then breakfast around 7:45.
For the past 30 years, the Rev. Caveglia has followed this same routine. He could almost accomplish it in his sleep. This morning he probably felt like he did.
He had returned to the abbey late Sunday evening after being on special assignment in eastern Missouri over the weekend.
Still, the Rev. Caveglia navigated the morning quite well on little sleep.
In the dining hall, he slowly ate his cereal and drank juice before going to his first-floor office. He had a few magazines there that he wanted to take to the library. A teacher of moral theology and Christian ethics, he subscribed to some journals on the subjects and passed those along when he finished them.
The abbey’s business manager, the Rev. Caveglia loitered for a time with the latest copy of The New Yorker magazine, enjoying the idiosyncratic wit of its cartoons. The business of the day could wait a few minutes.
Brother Damian Larson had become one of the better known members of the Conception community. He was, in parlance he embraced, the Weather Monk.
His interest in meteorology came from a childhood experience in his native Kansas, trapped in a storm cellar with a tornado raging overhead. For more than 30 years, he kept official records for the National Weather Service. Along the way, he wrote weather columns for local newspapers and gave reports on radio stations.
A comic strip he penned for the seminary bulletin board featured Weather Rooster, his sidekick Humpty the Weather Egg and assorted weather villains.
But the 62-year-old’s interests ran to other things, too. He excelled at building architectural models, and his small-scale haunted houses were always the hit of seminary Halloween parties.
Equally endearing to his brother monks was his love for outdoor cooking. Brother Damian oversaw the construction of an outdoor grill wagon, which he christened “Holy Smoker.”
After breakfast that morning, Brother Michael Marcotte complimented Brother Damian on hamburgers cooked on the grill the previous evening. The chef told his friend he had experimented with a new way of applying cheese.
Brother Michael then left for his job at the abbey’s superb Printery House, across the west parking lot. As he walked the short distance, he waved in welcome to a man driving into the lot in a green Cavalier.
Wearing a white T-shirt and bib overalls, black sneakers and an AC Delco ballcap, Brother Damian went to work in the Cloister, the courtyard surrounded by the quadrangular monastery building. A man of the earth, he nurtured the abbey grounds, having planted many trees on the property since entering the novitiate in 1969.
Lloyd Jeffress could see into the Cloister as he walked along the Glass Hallway, the red-bricked eastern corridor of the first floor that passed by the church’s sacristy and a chapter room.
Brother Damian entered the building and walked up a half-flight of stairs to the south hallway. Mr. Jeffress met him there and fired a round into his overalls, wounding him in the left lower abdomen.
Some time passed and Mr. Jeffress stood over Brother Damian, on his back and imploring the gunman not to shoot again. But the stranger aimed the MAK at the monk’s chest and squeezed the trigger.
Abbot Gregory’s corner office, on the monastery’s second floor, offers views of the abbey grounds to the west and south. More than 12,000 people visit the abbey each year, testament to the Benedictines’ welcoming ways that go back 15 centuries. Many come for spiritual retreats, and on the campus June 10, 2002, were dozens of visitors, some from as far away as Santa Fe, N.M.
From his office, the abbot could see the west parking lot in front of the basilica, but he paid no attention to the green Cavalier parked there.
In a place uniformly without clamor, the first sound proved startling, absorbed somewhat by the halls and walls but still loud and definitely from within the building. Abbot Gregory identified, then denied, the noise as gunfire. He called to the Rev. Probstfield, in the adjoining office, “Could a window have fallen out?”
Seconds passed, and the noise repeated itself. The abbot headed out his office door to investigate. Brother Blaise Bonderer, the assistant business manager, bounded breathlessly up the stairs, a look on his face like the abbot had never seen.
“There’s a gunman downstairs,” the bearded monk said, “and he just shot Brother Damian at point-blank range.”
No sooner had this registered than another shot sounded.
“Go to your rooms,” Abbot Gregory told those around him, “lock the door and call 911.”
The Rev. Kenneth Reichert had mastered the art of the bulletin board. As the abbey’s prior, the monk responsible for the day-to-day assignments that make the monastery go, his work showed up frequently on the corkboard in the first-floor coffee room.
Halfway down the south hallway, the coffee room is an airy, comfortable space, with four tables meant for casual gatherings and neat cubicles aligned on one wall for residents’ mail and on another wall for their coffee mugs. A door on the eastern wall leads to a small space called the elevator room and beyond that to the refectory.
The Rev. Reichert, who makes assignments ranging from table waiters to prayer leaders, was hanging a note on the bulletin board when he heard what sounded like a small explosion in the hallway outside. The noise so out of place, he listened quietly for a moment and then, from the hallway, heard the words, “No, don’t.”
The Rev. Norbert Schappler, who had been cleaning up the breakfast area, came in from the elevator room. “What was that?” he said.
There was a second shot. The two priests went to the door, opened it and came face to face with Lloyd Jeffress.
Their meeting lasted no longer than five seconds. The Rev. Reichert had time to note an older stranger in a ballcap. The man’s face betrayed nothing, no anger, no fright, just a blank stare. He said nothing.
“What’s going on out here?” the Rev. Schappler demanded.
With that, Mr. Jeffress raised the MAK-90 and, shooting from the hip, fired at the priests, hitting the Rev. Schappler first with a single shot in the groin area and the Rev. Reichert with two shots, to the upper right leg and the right side of his stomach. One of the shots also took off a part of his right middle finger.
Both men fell back into the coffee room. The Rev. Reichert felt a burning sensation but surprisingly little pain. He did not feel panicked, but he could not move. He became aware, pressing on his stomach wound, that his intestines were threatening to seep out.
He began to pray, but a thought consumed him: “I’m dying.”
The Rev. Albert Bruecken did his best to clear away the books, golf clubs, magazines and other items scattered about his tiny office. The abbey’s vocation director, with a toothy smile and linebacker’s body, tried to make room for abbey carpenter Norbert Schieber to repair his computer desk. A loud noise coming from the hallway put a halt to their work.
“What could that be?” the Rev. Bruecken wondered to himself, figuring the noise for an electrical problem.
But Mr. Scheiber knew what a gunshot sounded like.
He beat the Rev. Bruecken to the door and looked east in the hallway. He could barely make out the shadowy figure standing in the dark corridor. He saw enough to know that the figure held a gun in his hand and was standing over a body on the floor. He yelled at the hazy figure – “Hey” – and the gunman looked his way. He quickly closed the door and turned the lock.
The carpenter turned to the Rev. Bruecken and said, “There’s a guy out there with a gun.”
That someone would be in the abbey shooting a gun still didn’t register with the priest. It sank in when Mr. Schieber told him to call the police.
What he heard was, “Go call 911.” The Rev. Bruecken jolted himself, like he was telling his feet, “OK, move.”
Mr. Schieber stood to the side and braced a foot against the door while the Rev. Bruecken nervously dialed. As the carpenter held the door, someone jiggled the doorknob.
A large man, Mr. Schieber figured if the gunman entered, he could surprise him, grab the gun and turn the struggle into a fistfight. But no one entered.
The Rev. Bruecken was glad for the carpenter’s quick thinking. Alone, he reckoned, he might have wandered into the hall and certain peril.
Around 8:40, the Rev. Caveglia finished reading his New Yorker and headed back to his office. He cut through the basilica and took the Glass Hallway into the cloistered area.
The priest looked through the windows to see if he could spot Brother Damian working outside in the courtyard.
He was not there.
The Rev. Caveglia found Brother Damian as he turned down the south hallway of the building. He was sprawled on his back, blood covering his blue and white overalls.
Baffled and without reason to suspect violence, he dashed for the nearest phone, on the wall in the elevator room.
But as he turned into the doorway of the coffee room, just steps up the hall, the Rev. Caveglia discovered The Rev. Schappler and the Rev. Reichert on the floor. Both men seemed as if they too had been doused with blood. But they were alive.
He had never seen anyone who had been shot, and he never expected to see anyone shot in the monastery.
The unimaginable became all too real for the priest. A killer was loose in the abbey.
The Benedictine tradition, dating back 1,500 years, holds that the abbot should put a man at the front door of an abbey who is wise, elderly and knows how to receive guests as Christ.
The Rev. Philip Schuster, age 84 and a priest 54 years, easily fit this role of porter. He manned the area just to the side of the monastery entry, with a door opening into the west hallway.
Visitors to the abbey got a warm and gracious greeting from the priest. His fellow monks considered him a man of unambiguous honesty and deep faith, and he served many of them as a spiritual adviser.
His reflective bearing was not without a playful side. On the 50th anniversary of his monastic profession nine years earlier, fellow monks remembered him saying, “If you’ve never been confused, then you were not paying attention.”
On hearing the gunshots, the Rev. Schuster rose from his desk, where he was writing out a card, and walked to the west hallway. As Mr. Jeffress rounded the corner, near the entrance to the business office, he saw the elderly priest down the way and shot him in the lower left chest.
The Rev. Schuster, his clerical smock growing bloody, made his way toward the gunman but fell face first on the oak floor near the stairwell. With the priest motionless before him, Mr. Jeffress put the MAK against the back of the wounded man’s head and pulled the trigger.
The Rev. Reichert wouldn’t look down, afraid to see the extent of his wounds. A bullet had broken bones in his right leg, and he couldn’t move. On the floor of the coffee room, he wondered if the man in the hall would come in with more gunfire.
The door into the hall had an automatic closer, and it eased shut after the men collapsed inside. But the door didn’t lock. The priests remained vulnerable with an armed and violent stranger outside.
But Mr. Jeffress never tried to enter.
To his right, the Rev. Schappler tried to right himself but managed only to crawl toward the elevator room. A trail of blood marked his path. In that room, on the wall alongside the dumbwaiter, was a phone, his destination.
He got there and summoned strength enough to grab the handset, then make another couple of lunges upward to tap out 911.
But the Nodaway County emergency line was already fielding calls from the location. A call had gone out from the vocation office down the hall, where the Rev. Bruecken remained locked in with Norbert Schieber. Noticing the open transom above the door, he tried to whisper into the phone, hoping not to attract the attention of the gunman outside.
“Did you hear that?” he asked the dispatcher, as another shot sounded in the hallway.
Upstairs, Abbot Polan talked on his office phone to the communication center. He would remain on the line for the next 45 minutes.
It occurred to him that had he stopped by the refectory that morning instead of eating the yogurt in his room, he might have been in the middle of the gunplay.
Lloyd Jeffress found life among others trying. He divorced his wife, Della, in 1959. She complained of abuse. Their daughter, Cindy, was estranged from Mr. Jeffress most of her life but took the initiative in contacting him in the mid-1990s. No relationship developed, and the two had not spoken in years.
Though Mr. Jeffress lived within 30 miles of his brother, Marshall, 19 months his elder, the two men had not seen one another since 1987.
At the Kearney Senior Citizen Housing Complex, where Mr. Jeffress lived in H-1, the northwest apartment of a fourplex unit, he kept his distance from other residents. Neighbors speculated that Mr. Jeffress might have kept to himself because he was hard of hearing and talked with a stutter. Four days earlier, he had told the apartment secretary, Ana Jane Watson, that the ladies of the complex were gossiping about him. She and others had noted that he often carried with him a purple bag, though no one knew about or inquired of its contents.
Mr. Jeffress could not have understood what motivates men to a monastic lifestyle, what calling puts them in a community of faith for the rest of their lives.
He stepped past the body of the Rev. Schuster and the spreading pool of blood and made his way along the west hallway. No one else appeared in front of him. He walked past a shell casing and a bullet fragment and beyond a staircase that would have taken him to the second floor.
At the end of the hall, he pulled open a door that took him back into the basilica, near the vestibule where he had entered the building less than 10 minutes before. It was less than 30 feet to the back row of pews.
He seated himself there, hard against a pillar in the southwest corner of the sanctuary. He set down the MAK next to him, along with a clip of ammunition, and pulled out the .22-caliber rifle with its stock removed.
Sick and alone, 90 miles from home, evil in his last moments and a mystery for the ages, Lloyd Jeffress stuck the gun in his mouth and ended his life.
Details for this narrative came from interviews, reports from law- enforcement agencies and the
Jackson County Medical Examiner and observations and documents from Conception Abbey.
8 minutes: In that time, an ailing loner named Lloyd Jeffress turned Conception Abbey into a killing ground
St. Joseph News-Press
June 8, 2003
Ken Newton and Alonzo Weston