By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
SEBRING, Fla. (AP) — A former prison guard trainee accused of fatally shooting five people inside a Florida bank branch has long been fascinated with the idea of killing, but people who could have done something about it didn’t take his threats seriously, a woman who identified herself as his former girlfriend told a television station.
Zephen Xaver, 21, “for some reason always hated people and wanted everybody to die,” Alex Gerlach told WSBT-TV in Indiana, shortly after Wednesday’s massacre in Sebring. “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, and he’s been having dreams about it and everything.”
“Every single person I’ve told has not taken it seriously, and it’s very unfortunate that it had to come to this,” Gerlach said.
Gerlach told The Washington Post that Xaver said he purchased a gun last week and “no one thought anything of it” because he had always liked guns. Public records and neighbors say Xaver and his mother moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana, a small city south of South Bend, home of the University of Notre Dame.
Investigators said Xaver called police from inside the SunTrust Bank branch Wednesday, saying “I have shot five people.”
Then he barricaded himself inside and when negotiations failed, the SWAT team burst in, capturing Xaver and discovering the bodies, police said. Investigators did not offer a possible motive, and a police spokesman said he did not know if the attack began as a robbery. The victims were not immediately identified. No one else was inside the bank.
The bank 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,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said during a Wednesday news conference. “We’ve suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime.”
He said more information would be released at a Thursday morning press conference.
Witness Stefan Roehrig told WFLA in St. Petersburg that the SWAT team attached cables to the door handles but ended up pulling the handles off, so they drove the armored vehicle into the bank. They then led Xaver out in handcuffs.
“The suspect, they slammed him pretty good I think and brought him out here,” he told the TV station.
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. Xaver lived in a non-descript pre-fabricated home about 4 miles from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police finished searching the home
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.
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.
This was at least the fourth mass shooting in Florida with five or more dead in the last three years. A gunman killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, five died at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2017 and 17 died in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a Fort Lauderdale suburb.
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.
AP reporter David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.