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UPDATE: Man charged in church shooting suffered from Lyme disease

Monday, March 9, 2009 | 1:43 p.m. CDT; updated 5:38 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 9, 2009

MARYVILLE, Ill. — A 27-year-old man charged Monday for gunning down a pastor in a Baptist church then stabbing himself and two parishioners once suffered bouts of erratic behavior his family blamed on Lyme disease — the tick-borne ailment best known for its lingering, flu-like symptoms.

Terry J. Sedlacek, 27, of Troy, Ill., was charged with two counts each of first-degree murder and aggravated battery, said Stephanee Smith, spokeswoman for Madison County State's Attorney William Mudge.

Prosecutors would not comment on a possible motive in the attack, or on Sedlacek's mental state when he allegedly strode into First Baptist Church shortly after 8 a.m. on March 8, exchanged words with the Rev. Fred Winters, then fired a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol four times until it jammed.

Winters, 45, died of a single shot to the heart, the coroner said Monday. Authorities said they didn't know whether the married father of two knew Sedlacek.

"We're still not sure what the reasoning was," Illinois State Police Lt. Scott Compton said.

Sedlacek was ordered held without bond even as he remained hospitalized Monday in serious condition. Authorities said he stabbed himself in the throat while being wrestled to the ground by two parishioners, who also were wounded.

A 39-year-old congregant, Terry Bullard, also remained in serious condition Monday. The third victim, Keith Melton, was treated and released.

Sedlacek was featured last year in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article detailing his battle with Lyme disease. In the article, his mother said the disease left lesions on his brain and that doctors had diagnosed him as mentally ill before discovering the disease.

In the August 2008 article, Ruth Abernathy said her son was taking several medications and had difficulty speaking after contracting the tick-borne illness.

A telephone call to a number listed for Robert and Ruth Abernathy in Troy rang unanswered Monday.

Untreated Lyme disease can spread to the bones, heart and nervous system. It can cause brain inflammation and in rare cases, problems with concentration and short-term memory, and sleep disturbances, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site.

Other rare nervous-system symptoms include severe headaches and neck stiffness, which can be treated with antibiotics, said Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a Lyme disease expert at Yale University.

There are also isolated reports of hallucinations and psychotic illness blamed on Lyme disease. But these are controversial and some experts, including Shapiro, believe affected people likely had pre-existing mental problems or were misdiagnosed and never had Lyme disease.

Shapiro said blaming the tick-borne illness for violent behavior is a stretch.

"Lyme disease doesn't cause people to shoot people," Shapiro said.

Several visitors stopped by the church Monday — one with tear-reddened eyes who dropped off a card. All declined to comment, as did a church receptionist.

None of the 150 worshippers attending the Sunday service seemed to recognize Sedlacek, and investigators did not know details of Winters' conversation with him, Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent said, but they planned to review an audio recording of the service.

Winters deflected the first of the gunman's four rounds with a Bible, sending a confetti-like spray of paper into the air in a horrifying scene worshippers initially thought was a skit, police said.

"We just sat there waiting for what comes next not realizing that he had wounded the pastor," said Linda Cunningham, whose husband is a minister of adult education at the church.

Winters had stood on an elevated platform to deliver his sermon about finding happiness in the workplace — titled "Come On, Get Happy" — and managed to run halfway down the sanctuary's side aisle before collapsing after the attack, Cunningham said.

Autopsy results showed Winters was hit with one bullet that went straight through his heart, Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn said Monday. Nonn would not comment on the distance between the gunman and the pastor.

First Baptist had an average attendance of 32 people when Winters became senior pastor in 1987; it now has about 1,200 members and three Sunday services, according to the church's Web site.

Winters was former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to the site.

He hosted Pizza with the Pastor dinners in his home, and the church organized bowling parties for fathers and daughters, karate classes and a golf league.

The church sits along a busy two-lane highway on the east side of Maryville, Ill., a fast-growing village of more than 7,000 about 20 miles northeast of St. Louis. A farm sits directly across from the church, but subdivisions of newer homes can been easily seen from every side.

"Things like this just don't happen in Maryville," Mayor Larry Gulledge said. "We've lost one of the pillars of our community, one of our leaders."

 


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