In Collierville, getting through the “most horrific event” in the suburban community’s history is a work in progress, with multiple examples of residents and supporters calling for – and relying upon – the renewing power of prayer.
Routine was shattered shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Shelby County city located 30 miles east of Memphis. A gunman’s attack inside a Kroger grocery store left one victim dead, at least 15 others wounded and ended with the gunman found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot at the store, authorities said.
On Friday, UK Thang was identified as the gunman, with Collierville police saying he was a third-party vendor.
A prayer vigil was quickly planned on Thursday for Collierville United Methodist Church to help residents try to make sense of the unthinkable happening in their upscale community.
“In times like this, no one should be alone,” said Dr. Deborah Suddarth, senior pastor of Collierville United Methodist Church. “My message is one of comfort and hope. …We are all still reeling from what happened … but there is hope … that is the message…”
Collierville Police, who quickly responded to the scene, found terrorized employees and customers – some hiding in freezers and locked offices. Multiple other law enforcement agencies backed up the local police response.
During the assault, Olivia King was struck directly in the chest by gunfire from the still unidentified shooter, who entered the store located at 240 New Byhalia Rd. Heroic efforts by EMTs to successfully perform CPR on King could not save her life. The other victims – in varying conditions – were taken to Memphis-area hospitals.
“We had a church member who was in the store,” said Suddarth. “We are still grieving the loss of our senior pastor in April to COVID. This came at a time when many of us have been grieving because of the pandemic. This is painful.”
Church officials asked media to give those at the vigil room and privacy to grieve collectively. Suddarth described the scene inside.
“At the vigil, there were tears, shock; many are just numb,” she said. “I witnessed every stage of grief across the board. …Please keep Collierville in your prayers.”
Amid a flood of posts on social media were these sobering words from Wes King, son of Olivia King, the lone fatality.
“…I cannot believe I am typing this, but my mother Olivia King was one of the victims today at the shooting in Collierville at Kroger. I normally don’t post publicly about Mom’s medical concerns, but this is obviously different.
“I don’t know much more than what’s being released to the public at the moment. I received a phone call while in a meeting from a stranger. He informed me that Mom was hit during an active shooting scene, and that I was marked as her emergency contact. She was breathing at the time he called me.
“I will post updates as I get information, but we please need prayers for Mom, for the rest of the victims, and as hard as it might be, that God might have mercy on the soul of the person who committed this terrible crime.
“We are on the road and trying to get home as quickly and safely as possible from Ohio.”
As law enforcement went aisle by aisle and room by room, the injured were rushed off the scene in ambulances. The gunman was found in the back of the store, and was believed to have been killed by a self-inflicted gunshot, according to Collierville Police Chief Dale Lane.
Police cordoned off the entire perimeter of the Kroger Store with crime scene tape, including a parking lot still full of vehicles. Amid that backdrop, Lane addressed the media, calling the mass shooting the “most horrific event” in the Collierville history.
“I’ve been involved in (law enforcement) for 34 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it (the scene),” said Lane, who acknowledged the response from the local fire department and other area first-responders. “We just trained on this two months ago at Collierville High School. …
“I watched guys that ran into the front of that building knowing that historically many of these shooters have very high-powered rifles and not one of them hesitated going in that front door.”
Saying his heart was broken, Lane continued: “Please, keep the families in your prayers. Keep the people from Kroger (in your prayers). … a lot of people were impacted by this.”
Lane said there were 44 employees inside the store at the time of the shooting.
Teresa Dickerson, public affairs manager for Kroger Delta Division, said every Kroger associate across the country “stands with our team here at the Collierville store.
“We are praying for our associates here in Collierville. We are asking the community to please pray for us as we go through this difficult time. We are saddened and heartbroken about what happened …”
Describing what she called an “emotional rollercoaster,” Dickerson said Kroger was “providing counseling for every associate that was here today and we will continue to do that.”
The store will remain closed until further notice, she said, reiterating her call for prayer for all the victims.
“We want to say thank you to the police department, to the first-responders who were rushing in as people were rushing out. If you can imagine that, then you will also pray for our first-responders who came out today to help us through this tragic incident.”
After the vigil later that evening, Suddarth boiled things down to this:
“We just need everyone’s prayers. … We know God is holding us in the palm of His hand. Comfort and hope – that continues to be my message to our community.”
Shelby County Government has resources available through the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center to provide support, counseling and assistance to victims and their loved ones.
Victims can contact the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 901-222-3950. Available resources include immediate crisis intervention, trauma counseling and support navigating emergency financial assistance.
“Our community is still reeling from the awful mass shooting in the Town of Collierville,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said in a statement released Friday afternoon.
“Our prayers are with the customers and staff who experienced this harrowing event. We know there are a range of services that victims may need in the coming days and months. Shelby County Government stands ready to support them.”
(This story reflects contributions from multiple members of the TSD newsroom.)