Sebring bank shooting: Community continues to heal as suspect prepares for trial 3 years after massacre
SEBRING, Fla. - Sunday marks three years since the peace and quiet normally found in the town of Sebring was shattered. On Jan. 23, 2019, Zephen Xaver walked into the SunTrust Bank along U.S. 27, south of Lake Jackson, opened fire, and killed five women inside.
Four of the five victims were working inside the bank when they were shot: Ana Pinon-Williams, Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez, and Jessica Montague. The fifth victim was a customer named Cynthia Watson.
According to the Sebring Police Department, Xaver called law enforcement shortly after 12:30 p.m. and said he fired shots inside the bank. The then-21-year-old who was armed and wearing a bullet-proof vest barricaded himself inside. Deputies and officers responded and surrounded the building, with guns drawn.
After a two-hour standoff, Highlands County deputies moved in with an armored vehicle and took Xaver into custody.
Police said they haven't found any connection between suspect Xaver and the victims. It also did not appear that there had been any attempt to rob the bank.
"We have no information as to what his true motive may have been," Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said during a previous interview. "We believe it was a random act."
Sebring shooting victims
Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook and Ana Piñon-Williams were working at the SunTrust branch on U.S. 27 when Xaver opened fire. A customer, Cynthia Watson, was also killed in the attack.
Following the shooting, Piñon-Williams' brother-in-law made a public statement on behalf of the family. He said the mother of seven was devoted to her family and her faith, "truly a light in this world."
"Loving her was easy. Living without her will be hard. Our family will not only survive, but we will thrive," Tim Williams said.
Bank employee Marisol Lopez, 55, leaves behind her husband and two children. Her Facebook profile picture shows her smiling with a loved one. That smile is how longtime neighbor Gil Osborne said he will remember her.
"She had the best personality, always friendly, always smiling and always generous," Osborne told FOX 13 News in an earlier interview.
Officials said there was another employee in the bank at the time of the shooting. Law enforcement did not name the employee, but said the person was in a back room when shots were fired. They were able to escape and call for help.
Who is Zephen Xaver?
The man police say shot and killed five people in a Sebring, Florida SunTrust bank Wednesday was described by a woman who knew him as "normal" and "well-mannered."
Sharon Spillane, a friend of Xaver’s parents told FOX 13 in 2019 that she never in a million years saw this coming.
"We’ve cooked together, I’ve been in their house, we’ve watched movies. They’re a very normal family," Spillane said. "He had a job and he was very quiet and very well-mannered. Anytime that I saw him, he was very well-mannered, always good posture and well-spoken."
However, Xaver’s ex-girlfriend paints a different picture. In a previous interview with FOX 13, Alex Gerlach said Xaver was obsessed with guns and knives.
"The only thing I can remember is him talking about guns and wanting guns," Gerlach said in a 2019 interview. "He wants to hurt people physically."
According to Gerlach, she met Xaver in a psychiatric hospital in 2013. She said they dated off and on for about two years.
"At one point my mother was terrified because she thought he was going to physically harm me," explained Gerlach, who described Xaver as a troubled teen. "For some reason, he always hated people and wanted everybody to die."
Gerlach said Xaver continued to make chilling comments over the years and said one week before the shooting he sent her a picture of him holding a gun.
"I've been scared for years and every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate it had to come to this," she said in 2019.
Documents provided by the Bremen Police Department in Indiana state officers went to Xaver's high school in 2014, after school officials said he was having disturbing thoughts.
The documents state Xaver told school officials he had dreams of hurting his classmates. According to the police report, Xaver's mother agreed to take her son to a behavioral health center.
The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Xaver was a correctional officer trainee with Avon Park Correctional Institution for about two months. He resigned two weeks before the shooting.
What happened to the Sebring SunTrust Bank building?
SunTrust decided not to reopen the bank where the massacre took place and had the building torn down five months later.
"I think it’s a good thing. I couldn’t imagine walking into the building myself," Sebring resident Jake McClelland said in an interview with FOX 13 in 2019.
"When you drive by and you happen to look on that side of the road, you know, it’s always in the back of your mind," said resident Joe Minshew.
One year after the shooting, a new park, honoring the five lives lost, was dedicated on the land where the band once stood.
Reflection Park features a memorial with a pentagon-shaped plaque with sunbeams from the SunTrust bank logo emblazoned on it. Each side of the plaque represents one of the five lives lost during the massacre. On it, a plaque reads, "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it."
The Sebring Police Department marked the third anniversary of the shooting on its Facebook page with photos of lit candles and the caption, "Always in our Hearts."
What's next for accused Sebring shooting suspect Zephen Xaver?
Xaver is facing five counts of first-degree murder for the Sebring shooting and could be sentenced to death. A hearing has been set for Feb. 4 and his trial is scheduled for May 2, 2022. He has pleaded not guilty.