What started as a peaceful Christmas concert on the steps of a historic New York City church erupted into chaos late Sunday after a lone gunman opened fire outside the cathedral, in an episode being investigated as a possible "suicide by cop."
Police say gunshots were first reported around 3:45 p.m. Sunday on the front steps of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine immediately following the annual concert program. The gunman, who police said was heavily armed, was seen firing an unknown number of shots outside of the Manhattan church as people outside scattered to take cover.
When police arrived, officers shot and killed the suspect, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said.
Two senior officials identified the gunman to News 4 as Luis Vazquez, a native of the Dominican Republic with an extensive criminal record. He was already wanted for an incident of menacing with a gun from this past summer. Prior to that, though, Vazquez had a record of assault, attempted murder, fraud and drug crimes going back more than 30 years. His lengthy history with law enforcement included six arrests, being convicted of attempted murder in 1989 for shooting at police, for which he served time in prison.
The NYPD was at Vazquez's apartment Monday morning, preparing to search it. Photos from the scene showed a copy of the Ten Commandments posted on the 52-year-old's front door in Spanish. A look inside a bag believed to have belonged to Vasquez indicates how deadly a situation the shooting could've been, with a a can of gasoline, rope, wire, tape and knives being found inside, along with a Bible.
A neighbor of Vasquez said that he lived in the Bronx apartment with his mother, keeping to himself — not particularly friendly but never a problem.
Investigators are pursuing "suicide by cop" as a leading theory for what happened, the officials said. Multiple witnesses of the shooting say they heard the man yelling at police to shoot him.
"The shooter said, 'just shoot me! Shoot me! Kill me! Kill me!' He kept daring the police officer to do so," witness Judy Romer said. "I ran as fast as I could but only after the other people ran. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it."
Shea said the exact number of rounds fired by the suspect was not yet known.
A police officer and community affairs detective already at the scene, aided by a nearby sergeant, quickly engaged the gunman, Shea said at a press conference several hours later. Between the three officers, 15 rounds were fired, he said. The gunman was struck in the head and taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.
“It is horrible that our choir’s gift to New York City, a much-needed afternoon of song and unity, was cut short by this shocking act of violence," cathedral spokeswoman Iva Benson said by email.
The cathedral is one of the world’s largest. Construction began in 1892 and is still incomplete. The church has been connected to many New York luminaries and notable events over its long history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a trustee. It hosted the memorial services for puppeteer Jim Henson and choreographer Alvin Ailey, and speakers over the years including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.