HOUSTON (AP) — The shooter at a Texas megachurch had a history of mental illness and brought their young son to the attack that was carried out using an AR-style rifle and ended in an exchange of gunfire with two off-duty officers, authorities said Monday.
Houston police identified the shooter as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who they say wore a trenchcoat and carried a backpack Sunday upon entering Lakewood Church, which is led by the pastor Joel Osteen. Moreno used both male and female aliases, but investigators who looked at past police reports found that Moreno identified as female, Houston Police Commander Chris Hassig said.
The attack happened between services at the Houston megachurch — in a former NBA arena — and sent worshippers scrambling for safety.
During the shooting, Moreno's 7-year-old son was shot in the head and remained in critical condition Monday, authorities said. Moreno, who was killed by the officers, was not a known member of Osteen's congregation, said church spokesman Don Iloff.
Police and FBI investigators said they had not established a motive for the shooting but were looking into a dispute involving Moreno and the family of Moreno’s ex-husband. Hassig and others said Moreno had a history of mental illness, including being placed under emergency detention in 2016, but provided no additional details.
Investigators found antisemitic writings by the shooter, Hassig said, noting Moreno’s former in-laws are Jewish. The rifle also had a “Palestine” sticker on the buttstock. Hassig described Moreno as a “lone wolf” who acted alone.
Police searched Moreno’s residence in Conroe, a city more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the church. Court records show that Moreno had prior arrests and was involved in a divorce and child custody battle in 2022, in which Moreno's ex-mother-in-law indicated she had sought advice from pastoral staff at Lakewood.
The court documents do not indicate which staff the woman contacted. Iloff said he had not found anyone familiar with the contact described in the legal filings.
Moreno appeared to have legally purchased the rifle used in the attack in December, and investigators were looking into how Moreno obtained it, officials said. Moreno also carried a .22 caliber rifle into the church, police said.
Investigators said Moreno and the boy entered the church building shortly before the 2 p.m. Spanish service after Moreno pointed a gun at an unarmed security guard.
Moreno began firing once inside, and the guards inside the building — off-duty Houston police officer Christopher Moreno and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Agent Adrian Herrera — returned fire and killed the shooter, investigators said. Christopher Moreno is not related to Genesse Moreno, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said.
All the gunfire took place in a church hallway, and none of the violence spilled into the main sanctuary, Hassig said, describing the confrontation as a “gun battle" that lasted several minutes.
“They held their ground in the face of rifle fire at point blank range,” Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Chairman Kevin Lilly said of the security guards. “They were a wall that existed between worshippers and terror.”
Both officers fired their weapons, but investigators do not yet know if Moreno's son was accidentally shot by one of them, Finner said. Police said a 57-year-old man who was shot in the hip was discharged from the hospital.
Finner said the shooter told officers after being shot that there was a bomb, but a search found no explosives.
Records in Harris County, where Houston is located, showed that Moreno, under the names Jeffery Escalante-Moreno or Jeffery Escalante, was charged in six criminal cases from 2005 to 2011.
The charges ranged from forging a $100 bill, to stealing socks, hats and makeup, to assault for kicking a detention officer. The August 2009 assault conviction sent Moreno to jail for 180 days.
In a rambling 2022 application for a protective order against Moreno's ex-mother-in-law that Moreno wrote without help from an attorney, Moreno complained of being threatened and followed and claimed to have had received text messages from FBI Director Christopher Wray.
In a separate court filing seeking to be named conservator of Moreno's son, the ex-mother-in-law alleged that Moreno was mentally ill and that the child was being neglected and abused.
Telephone messages seeking comment from members of Moreno’s family were not returned Monday.
Lakewood is regularly attended by 45,000 people weekly, making it the third-largest megachurch in the U.S., according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Osteen said the violence could have been worse if the shooting had happened during the earlier and larger late Sunday morning service. Iloff said Osteen was inside the church but was on the first floor during the shooting, which happened on the second floor.
The gunfire terrified worshippers.
Alan Guity has been a member of the church since 1998. He said he heard gunshots while resting inside the church’s sanctuary as his mother was working as an usher.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom. And I yelled, ‘Mom!’” he said. Guity, 35, said he ran to his mother and they both laid flat on the floor as the gunfire continued.
Osteen, 60, took the helm of Lakewood Church after John Osteen — his father and the church’s founding pastor — passed away in 1999. The church has grown dramatically under his leadership.
Osteen is a leading promoter of what is known as the prosperity gospel, a belief that God wants his followers to be wealthy and healthy. He is the author of several best-selling books, including “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.”
His televised services reach about 100 countries, and renovating his church’s arena cost nearly $100 million.
This story corrects the spelling of Genesse Ivonne Moreno’s middle name. The shooter’s middle name is spelled Ivonne, not Ivonna.