The quiet of a landmark abbey in rural northwestern Missouri was shattered Monday morning when a 71-year-old man walked into the monastery and shot four monks with an assault rifle, killing two of them, before taking his own life.
Authorities were attempting to determine why Lloyd Robert Jeffress drove 70 miles from his home in Kearney, a suburb of Kansas City, to the Conception Abbey. Jeffress had no criminal history and no apparent link to the abbey, officials said.
His motivation for the attack remained unclear, police said after their initial contacts with Jeffress’ family.
“My gut feeling is he came here for a reason,” said Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey, standing outside the relatively isolated basilica.
“You don’t randomly drive from where he came from to go shoot a group of priests.”
Officials declined to speculate on whether the abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church could have played a role in the shootings.
Conception Abbey was founded in 1873 and contains a seminary, monastery, twin-bell tower basilica and a publishing operation.
Investigators said Jeffress parked his Chevy Cavalier in a gravel lot near the entrance to the abbey’s basilica Monday morning and walked calmly inside, holding two long boxes hiding his weapons.
Jeffress placed his boxes on a table just inside the door, police said, removed his rifles and began silently walking down an office hallway looking for victims.
He first encountered Brother Damian Larson, 64, known as “the weather monk” for his interest in meteorology. Jeffress shot Larson twice with a weapon described as a Chinese copy of an AK-47, killing him.
The sound of gunfire drew office workers to their doors, police said, including Rev. Kenneth Reichert, 68, an assistant to the abbot, and Rev. Norbert Schapper, 73. Both were seriously wounded, but authorities said one crawled back into his office and called 911.
After failing to enter another office, police said that Jeffress next came upon the Rev. Philip Schuster, an 85-year-old monk, in the corridor. Schuster was shot and killed.
Jeffress then walked into the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, police said, sat in a pew and shot himself with a Ruger rifle. He left no note, Espey said, and witnesses said he remained quiet during his rampage.
Authorities said 50 people, most of them priests, were in the basilica complex during the attack. No one associated with the abbey has been able to identify Jeffress in a photo, investigators said.
“We may never know why this happened, why he came here,” said Lance Richey, who has taught philosophy at the abbey’s seminary for three years.
He said the victims were men of strong faith.
“If you wanted to find the most prayerful people in the place, he picked them well.”
Gunman opens fire in abbey
2 monks killed, 2 others injured
June 11, 2002
By Jeff Coen, Tribune staff reporter.