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Utah man shot in church upgraded to fair condition

Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 11:22 a.m. CDT

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OGDEN, Utah (AP) — A Utah man shot in the head during a Father’s Day Mass was upgraded to fair condition Tuesday — just a few hours after his son-in-law was charged with attempted homicide in the shooting.

On his 66th birthday, James Evans was moved out of the intensive care unit at McDay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, another step in what doctors expect to be a full recovery. The bullet police say was fired at point-blank range by his son-in-law, Charles “Ricky” Jennings Jr., remarkably missed his brain, entering near his ear and exiting out his cheek.

Evans’ wife, Tara, who was standing beside him, said if her husband hadn’t turned his head when he did, he would have been killed.

Doctors said Evans will need reconstructive surgery and rehab to learn to swallow and speak again. He has been awake, nodding yes and no, writing and using hand signals to communicate.

Jennings, 35, is in jail on $105,000 cash-only bail. He made a brief court Tuesday appearance by video. He was charged Tuesday in Weber County with attempted murder, two counts each of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery, and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

His next court hearing has been set for Thursday afternoon. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Jennings’ attorney were not immediately successful. He has not yet entered a plea.

The shooting occurred during a quiet part of the Father’s Day Mass as about 300 people stood up in preparation for communion. Police say Jennings pulled a gun from his waistband and fired a single shot at the back of Evans’ head, nearly killing him.

“It was echoing in my head so loud,” said Rebecca Ory Hernandez of the gunshot that rang out only feet from where she was with her 5-year-old son. She grabbed the boy, threw him under the pew and got on top of him. She said she heard the pastor blurt out an expletive into his microphone. “I was waiting for another gunman,” she said.

The shooter ran from the church, the pastor and a half dozen other men close on his heels. Ory Hernandez and other parishioners went to James Evans. They used scarves and a shirt to help soak up the blood, and she cradled his head. His wife, Tara, who had been standing next to him, and others prayed.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Evans kept saying, as blood spilled from his mouth.

Meanwhile, Jennings stole a truck from a nearby neighbor at gunpoint and led police on a highway chase, police said. He was caught hours later on foot after the truck ran out of gas.

Police are still trying to determine why Jennings shot his father-in-law, said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle on Tuesday. They think he may have been drinking or on drugs, and detectives know the couple had a history of domestic disputes that may have triggered Sunday’s shooting, she said. But, she said Jennings has not revealed a motive.

The full scope of Evans’ relationship with his son-in-law is not yet clear, but court records show Jennings has a criminal record going back to 1996. Over the years, he’s pleaded no contest to felony charges of receiving a stolen vehicle, criminal trespassing and pleaded guilty to theft charges and a felony charge of attempting to tamper with a witness or juror.

Lt. Croyle said Jennings’ wife, Cheryl, stayed inside the church after her husband fled. There is no indication she knew what her husband was going to do, and authorities don’t expect to file any charges against her, Croyle said.

After paramedics rushed James Evans to the hospital, the Rev. Erik Richtsteig returned to the brick church that sits on the east side of Ogden at the foot of a steep rock mountain called Jumpoff Canyon.

As doctors operated on Evans, who had recently accompanied the priest on a trip to the Holy Land in Jerusalem, Richtsteig told his congregation who the shooter was, and asked them to pray for the couple and their 3-year-old son.

Then, for those who stayed, he finished the Mass, explaining his reasons matter-of-factly, Ory Hernandez said.

“Evil will not prevail,” Richtsteig said.

The congregation is shaken, Richtsteig said Monday: “They were a mess — they were worshipping God and this man came in and did an act of violence.”

The church plans to have a special ceremony Thursday evening to cleanse the building of the evil that occurred. Ory Hernandez says she has cried, enraged that violence came to the house of worship, and was at a loss for words when her son told her, “I didn’t know there were any bad guys in this town, mommy.”

But it won’t stop her from coming back to church.

“The bad guy doesn’t get to win this time,” she said.

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