5 women killed in Sebring bank before gunman called 911, chief says

Affidavit: 4 SunTrust employees, 1 customer shot execution-style

By Erik Avanier - Reporter, Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

SEBRING, Fla. - Four SunTrust Bank employees and one customer -- all women -- died when a 21-year-old Sebring resident entered the Sebring branch Wednesday and opened fire.

Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said Zephen Xaver entered the bank just after noon, pulled a gun and killed everyone inside.

"Zephen Xaver knowingly and intentionally took the lives of five of our community members, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our co-workers," Hoglund said at a Thursday morning news conference.

Hoglund said that in respect of Marsy's Law, a victims' rights amendment to the Florida Constitution approved by voters last fall, the names of those killed will not be released unless their families want their names to be known.

Hoglund identified three victims: customer Cynthia Watson, 65, and two employees: 55-year-old Marisol Lopez and 38-year-old Ana Pinon Willliams, a mother of seven. A fourth victim was identified when her husband spoke with NBC News. Maine Montague said he and his wife, 31-year-old Jessica Montague, had a 3-year-old child.

According to the arrest affidavit, the victims were shot in the head, execution-style and were dead when the Highlands County SWAT team entered the bank two hours later. Police found a 9 mm handgun, shell casings and a bulletproof vest after arresting Xaver.

UNCUT: Authorities detail of execution-style massacre in bank

Investigators said there was no indication Xaver intended to rob the bank or had any connection to the bank or the victims. They still don't know his motivation.

"We believe it is a random act. We don't believe anyone was specifically targeted," Hoglund said. "We (must) attempt to make sense of a senseless act."

Sebring's mayor, John Shoop, said the mass shooting was a shock to his small town.

"Yesterday, our world was rocked by something we couldn’t even fathom here," Shoop said. "Our hearts go out to the families. They are part of our community and we see them on a daily basis, and you can’t imagine the pain and suffering this community is going through."

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered state flags to fly at half-staff until Feb. 1 in honor and remembrance of the victims.

Friends, families remember victims

A friend of Jessica Montague said it was difficult to walk by the bank Thursday. 

“She has five kids and a husband. Now they have no mom. Now he has no wife," Jose Sanchez said of her. "There’s people out there who have no daughter and no sister.”

Sanchez and others are upset, angry and wanting the gunman to pay dearly for taking their loved ones' lives.

“What is your major malfunction to down five people that did nothing to you? Tell me! Really!" Sanchez said. "You’re a scumbag low-life. You’re a disgrace to the community."

Samantha Rodney shot cell phone video of an armored SWAT vehicle ramming into the building, then Xaver being led out of the bank in handcuffs. On Thursday morning, she learned five women were killed in that building.

"One minute they're there. The next minute they’re not, and to hear five women dead," Rodney said. “Not anything like this happens in Highlands County. I never see anything to this magnitude. I never thought it would be our county.”

Sebring is located south of Orlando and has a population of just over 10,000.

"We ask that you please keep them in your prayers, keep them in your thoughts," Hoglund said of the victims. "Help Sebring and our community stay strong."

'I have shot five people'

The incident began with the phone call to authorities from the suspect shortly after 12:30 p.m., officials said.

"I have shot five people," the caller said, according to Sebring police. Initial negotiations to try to get the barricaded suspect to leave the bank were not successful, so a SWAT team forced entry to the bank on U.S. 27, between Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson, police said.

Xaver appeared in a courtroom Thursday, charged with five counts of capital murder. He was ordered held without bond.

RELATED: What we know about Zephen Xaver

Confusion over Marsy's Law

The Sebring Police Department's said its decision to not release the names of Wednesday's shooting victims without permission of their families was to honor Marsy's Law, the common name for Amendment 6, which was approved by 61 percent of Florida voters in November.

The law, named for a California college student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983, went into effect  Jan. 1. The public was outraged because the woman's suspected killer was released on bail without her parents knowing and he confronted them in a grocery store. 

The law passed in California in 2008 and has been spreading across the country. Florida and five other states passed it as Constitutional amendments last fall.

Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Rights Foundations, said there are several gray areas in the law and how police agencies' interpret the law varies.

"Some police departments, I don't know if it's all of them or a handful, but some are applying that prohibition on disclosure automatically, regardless of whether the victim or victims ask for it," Peterson said.

Peterson also said some law enforcement authorities are denying the public access to any information, not only the name, but anything that would identify the victim, including victim's age, the location of the crime and even the cause of death. 

WATCH: Bank shooting victims' IDs withheld under new amendment

Peterson said blanket application of the law would give a woman whose purse was stolen the same protection as a rape victim and lack of disclosure of information makes it harder to hold police departments accountable.

The decision by Sebring police to withhold the names marks the first high-profile use of the victim shielding provision of a law meant to protect the victims and their families from being harassed. Peterson thinks the Florida Legislature needs to sort it all out so the law is applied uniformly across the state.

"There are a lot of problems, some small, some bigger, that I think the Legislature should address," Peterson said.

News4Jax is not aware that Marsy's Law has been applied to any Northeast Florida cases so far.

Copyright 2019 by WJXT andCNN NewSource.