Stopping a bad guy: John Bohstedt remembers

Betty BeanWest Knoxville

When people talk about ways stop a bad guy with a gun – a discussion that’s happening with sickening regularity nowadays – a friend of John Bohstedt has an easy answer:

Get a 64-year-old retired history professor.

He’s only half joking.

On July 27, 2008, shortly after 10 a.m. on a fine Sunday morning, a guy with a guitar case tried to get in a back door at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The church’s children were putting on the musical “Annie Jr.” and the play’s assistant director, a tiny woman named Ann Barber, told him he’d have to go around to the main entrance.

So, Jim David Adkisson, who had left a letter in his car explaining why he intended to spend his last minutes of life killing as many liberals as he could before the police killed him, walked around to the front side of the church, up the sidewalk, into the lobby and around to one of the two doors at the rear of the sanctuary, where usher Greg McKendry was stationed.

Bohstedt was decked out in a fancy suit with a gold watch and chain and a tall bowler hat, and was sitting next to the other door helping McKendry with ushering duties while awaiting his cue to step into the role of Daddy Warbucks. His granddaughter was already onstage with the other kids and he was concentrating on his role because his dress rehearsal performance hadn’t been what he wanted it to be.

He was excited to be part of this inspiring story of hope and love and redemption. There were about 200 people in the audience.

The guy with the guitar case walked into the lobby. Bohstedt noticed him immediately. He looked odd – guitar music was not part of the show. The guy also had a bag; Bohstedt thought maybe he was a photographer. He set the guitar case on the floor, opened it, took out a shotgun and took about three steps into the sanctuary. Was this a late addition to the show? Bohstedt went inside, too, and was about 25 feet away when the man pointed the gun barrel down a row of pews to his right and fired. Then fired again. The sound filled the room. Deafening. Terrifying.

Who expects to hear a gunshot in church?

By the second shot, Bohstedt, who played in an adult soccer league for a couple of decades, was on the move.

“In a play you have a sense of suspended reality. We were in the scene when Annie escaped the orphanage. It’s dark, and Miss Hannigan comes out with a flashlight looking for her. At the second shot, that sense of suspended reality crashed to the ground like broken glass. This is for real! I just rushed at him,” he said.

The shooter was holding the gun in a “present arms” stance when Bohstedt hit him a sideways blow. He never felt himself in danger. He wrestled for the gun and pointed it at the ceiling. He doesn’t remember a third shot. He does remember being surprised at the feel of the stock. Plastic. He expected wood.

One witness said it was a “flying tackle.”

A split second after he made contact, four other men – Terry Uselton, Robert Birdwell, Arthur Bolds and Jamie Parkey – gang tackled the shooter and put him on the ground. Seventy heavy-duty cartridges rolled out of the bag. He intended to shoot until the cops shot him.

Some witnesses say he’d stopped to reload. Bohstedt says he and the others who brought Adkisson down do not believe that was the case. He doesn’t like to think about what would have happened if the shooter had had a semi-automatic rifle.

“Reloading was not a factor in our action. We were in motion after the second shot. Other witnesses say he stopped to reload, but that could be folks trying to make sense of an unprecedented situation,” he said. “He did fire a third shot, but we did not hear it. We were focused on getting that SOB.”

Everyone does agree that things happened fast. Someone twisted Adkisson’s arm behind his back and Bohstedt ran into the cloakroom and grabbed a thin nylon cord to secure the shooter’s feet.

Someone else picked up the shotgun and put it in the office. Adkisson complained that they were hurting his arm.

Bohstedt then turned his attention to his friend, Greg McKendry, who lay bleeding and motionless on the floor.

“He was a big, generous guy, and I was trying to keep him alive – whispering in his ear, rubbing his wrist, telling him we needed him, and that he was a hero.”

Meanwhile, Brian Griffin, the church’s director of religious education, gathered the children and led them up the hill to Second Presbyterian Church. Bohstedt deems him a hero, too.

McKendry died, and a few hours later, so did Linda Kraeger, a member of Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Farragut who was there that day to see a friend’s children in the play. Six others were wounded, several of them grievously.

Bohstedt has written an essay about the experience entitled “Why I am not a hero.” He doesn’t choose to make it public, but in it, he explains that he acted reflexively, perhaps because of his many years as part of a church family. He minimizes his role, saying that there were many heroes that day, foremost among them Greg McKendry, who stepped in front of the barrel of a shotgun to protect his friends. He praises the way the Knoxville Police Department handled the case, and particularly the job that investigator Steve Still did to pull the case together while respecting the fragile condition of many of the witnesses (the first “active shooter” call went in at 10:18; cruisers started rolling in at 10:21).

Investigators searched Adkisson’s car and found the four-page, hand-written manifesto/suicide letter. He claimed that his fifth ex-wife was a Unitarian who attended that church and whose friends had looked down their noses at him. He expressed racist and homophobic views and hatred for liberals and Democrats. In one Charles Manson-esque passage, he said he hoped his final act to inspire others to follow his lead. Investigators found books by right-wing pundits Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity in Adkisson’s home.

He didn’t get his death wish, and is doing life without parole in the Northwest Regional Correctional Complex in Tiptonville.

Bohstedt doesn’t call Adkisson by name, and refers to him only as the shooter. He said he is sometimes asked if he has forgiven him. The answer is no.

“I’m not going to invest the energy. I don’t hate him – that takes too much energy, too. He was evil personified. He came in and did something evil and we stopped him.”

He prefers to focus on the outpouring of love his church family was showered with that day and in the days that followed.

And finally, what’s this Harvard-educated historian’s opinion of the solution to this epidemic of mass shootings?

For starters, he doesn’t like the media coverage of such events:

“The media treat it like a murder mystery. There is a solution, there is a plot line, there is an actor. There is an explanation that you trace from point A to point B to point C. People don’t include the unknown and the ambiguous in their explanations.

“We need to understand these shootings as matters of probability. I think when somebody says we can prevent this kind of thing, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Unless you have the Secret Service – and even then, they shot Kennedy. And they shot Reagan.

“Maybe they’re going to protect us with thoughts and prayers.”

Bohstedt does believe that having armed and trained security/resource officers should help reduce the likelihood of school shootings.

“But as we have seen recently, it does not guarantee prevention.”

The lesson, he said, is: “It ain’t one factor, but a combination. If you have 300 million guns in a population of 330 million, you’re going to have a lot of gun deaths. We shouldn’t talk about preventing such things. We should talk about reducing them. That we can do.”

(Note: Thanks to the quick work of Bohstedt and his church friends, Adkisson’s act doesn’t qualify as a mass shooting, which the FBI defined at the time as the killing of four or more in one location.)

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