SEBRING, Fla. – A former prison guard trainee who recently moved to Florida from Indiana killed five women at a small town bank before calling 911 to report the shooting and eventually surrendering to a SWAT team that stormed the building, police said.
Zephen Xaver, 21, was ordered to be held without bond Thursday morning on five counts of first-degree murder. He was appointed a public defender to represent him.
Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said they have no known motive for the massacre inside the SunTrust Bank branch. Hoglund said that all five victims were women -- four were bank employees and the fifth was a customer.
The chief said Xaver had no apparent connection to the women or the bank.
He said Xaver "overtook the bank by force. He then shot everyone in the bank." And "after shooting them, he called 911" and "told dispatchers that he'd killed everyone in the bank."
Suspect blocked negotiators from entering bank
Xaver barricaded himself inside and would not let authorities into the branch after more than an hour of negotiations.
Hoglund said Thursday that by the time a SWAT team breached the building "unfortunately, all victims had succumbed to their injuries." Hoglund said at the time of the breach, officers hoped the victims were still alive.
The women's bodies were found in the main lobby.
Hoglund said the victims were found lying face down in the bank with gunshots to the backs of their heads. Police said shell casings from the shooter's 9 mm handgun were scattered on the floor.
A bulletproof vest and a 9 mm handgun were found in the office where the suspect was taken into custody, an arrest affidavit said.
Hoglund said some of the families don't want the victims' names released, citing Florida's version of Marsy's Law, but he did identify two of them -- customer Cynthia Watson and bank employee Marisol Lopez.
He said the community is mourning the loss of "our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our co-workers."
According to published reports, at least one employee managed to escape being targeted and survived the attack. He was in a back breakroom when he heard the shots and ran out the back door, then called police, according to WFLA.
The employee's name is not being released.
'Tragic day' at hands 'of a senseless criminal'
Late Wednesday, police investigators still swarmed the bank, which sits between a hotel and a hair salon located in a business district of U.S. 27.
The four-lane highway passes through farming communities and small towns as it connects South Florida and central Florida.
Sebring, with 10,000 residents, is known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance auto race that draws world-class drivers.
"Today's been a tragic day in our community," Hoglund said during a news conference Wednesday. "We've suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime."
Police: Xaver had dreams of hurting students
A northern Indiana police department has released a 2014 incident report in which Xaver, then 16, said he had dreams of hurting other students in a classroom.
The report released Thursday night by the Bremen Police Department says Bremen High School Principal Bruce Jennings contacted police on Feb. 20, 2014, after Xaver, then a student, reported having such a dream a previous night and again during a nap he took at school. The report says Xaver's mother agreed to take him to a behavioral health center, and police took no further action.
Police also released log entries of further incidents involving Xaver, including one in March 2017 in which Michigan State Police advised that a girl was receiving messages from Xaver that he was "possibly thinking of suicide by cop and taking hostages."
Ex-girlfriend: Suspect 'wanted everybody to die'
A woman identifying herself as Xaver's ex-girlfriend said he often thought about hurting people and has long been fascinated with death and guns.
WSBT in South Bend, Indiana, reported that Alex Gerlach said she tried to warn people about Xaver's potential for harm.
Gerlach told the station in a phone interview that for some reason, Xaver "always hated people and wanted everybody to die."
She said "he got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class, and he's been threatening this for so long."
Gerlach said "every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate that it had to come to this."
The Washington Post also interviewed Gerlach, reporting among other things that Xaver told her last week that he had purchased a gun. She told the Post that "no one thought anything of it" because he had always liked guns.
Father: Accused bank gunman has 'been a good kid'
Zaver's father said his son "wasn't raised to be like this."
Josh Xaver told CNN he's "heartbroken for the victims" of his son, Zephen Xaver.
Xaver said his son "wasn't raised to be like this. He's always been a good kid. He's had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone ever before. This is a total shock."
The Associated Press has reached out to both parents of Zephen Xaver requesting interviews, with no immediate response.
Bank killing suspect didn't graduate high school
The superintendent of a northern Indiana school district said Zephen Xaver attended classes there for portions of two school years several years ago.
But Superintendent Jim White of Bremen Public Schools said federal law prevents him from disclosing any details about any former student's school record.
White's statement Thursday said the district offers its "deepest condolences" to "friends, family members, and others impacted" by Wednesday's shooting in Sebring, Florida. He called it "a sobering reminder of how quickly a tragedy can befall upon any community."
White said Xaver attended Bremen High School for a portion of the 2012-13 school year and returned for a "brief period" the next year.
White told The Associated Press that Xaver did not graduate from the school after attending classes there during what would have been his senior year.
Florida Department of Corrections records show that Xaver was hired as a trainee prison guard at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2 and resigned Jan. 9. No disciplinary issues were reported.
Community, state leaders react
Public records and neighbors said Xaver had arrived in Sebring last fall with his mother, living in a non-descript pre-fabricated home about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police finished searching the home. Public records and neighbors say he and his mother moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana, a town south of Notre Dame University.
John Larose, who lives next door, said Xaver kept to himself, but he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.
Xaver briefly was an online student of Salt Lake City-based Stevens-Henager College. A spokeswoman for the college, Sherrie Martin, confirmed that Xaver was enrolled from September 2018 until December, when he withdrew.
SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers released a statement saying the bank was "working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved."
The bank's "entire team mourns this terrible loss," he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis was in the region for an infrastructure tour and traveled to Sebring after the shooting. He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would assist Sebring police and the Highlands County sheriff's office.
"Obviously, this is an individual who needs to face very swift and exacting justice," DeSantis said of the suspect.
Community rocked by violence
Sebring is a small, rural city northwest of Lake Okeechobee. Throughout the town Thursday morning, residents were shaking their heads in disbelief because the area is known as a quiet community with a lot of retirees.
One resident told News4Jax that the area is so tight-knit that those who don't personally know one of the victims at least know someone who did know them well.
Complete strangers brought flowers to honor the women killed inside the bank, as the community was rocked by unexpected violence.
“Not anything like this happens in Highlands County," said Samantha Rodney, who captured cellphone video of the SWAT team breaching the bank and leading Xaver out in handcuffs. "I never saw anything to this magnitude. I never thought it would be our county.”