One year on, monastery lives with legacy of violent day

Saturday, June 7, 2003

CONCEPTION, Mo. -- Not a day goes by the Rev. Kenneth Reichert isn't reminded of the deadly rampage a year ago that shattered the serenity at his northwest Missouri abbey.

He's reminded when he uses his hands; the tip of one finger is missing. He's reminded when he puts on the brace to stabilize his right leg.

"I can't even take a shower without being reminded because of the scars on my body," he says matter-of-factly. "I can't even walk down the hall without remembering."

For reasons that still aren't clear, 71-year-old retiree Lloyd Robert Jeffress opened fire with an assault rifle in the hallways of Conception Abbey, 90 miles north of Kansas City, the morning of June 10, 2002. Two monks were killed and Reichert and another priest were severely wounded before Jeffress killed himself.

Little has changed at the Roman Catholic abbey and seminary in the year since the shootings. No security measures have been added; the doors to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the adjoining monastery remain unlocked during the day.

Police say the shooting appeared to be random. Jeffress had no connections to the abbey or the two slain monks, Damian Larson, 62, of Wichita, Kan., and the Rev. Philip Schuster, 84, of Pilot Grove.

A criminal investigation revealed one possible motive -- Jeffress was bitter following a 1959 divorce and an annulment granted by the Catholic church 20 years later. He also was in poor health.

Investigators weren't able to find out much else about Jeffress.

"This guy was reclusive. He had no contact with friends and little contact with family," said Sgt. Sheldon Lyon, a spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol in St. Joseph.

Witnesses say Jeffress arrived at the abbey around 8:35 a.m. that day and carried two boxes inside the abbey. He walked into the basilica and pulled out the weapons -- a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle and .22-caliber rifle.

He then opened a door marked "private," entered the monastery and walked down the hallway until he met and shot Larson.

Another monk, Blaise Bonderer, 63, of Chillicothe, heard the first shot and peered out the business office. He saw Jeffress standing over Larson, who was laying on his back. Bonderer heard Larson say, "no, no," before the gunman put the assault rifle to Larson's chest and fired the fatal shot. Bonderer fled upstairs to warn others.

Reichert was in the monastery's coffee room when he heard what he said sounded like a small explosion. Moments later, he heard another bang.

The Rev. Norbert Schappler also heard the commotion and emerged from a connected room to join Reichert. The two opened the door leading to the hallway to investigate.

"A gentleman was standing across the hall -- he didn't say a word. There was no expression on his face. He had a gun in each hand. He raised one and starting shooting," Reichert said.

Schappler was hit in his upper thigh. Another bullet pierced Reichert's side, leaving a gapping hole. Reichert also was shot in his right leg. Both men fell backward into the room. An automatic closer on the door pulled it shut.

Jeffress retraced his steps. On the way out, he came across Schuster and shot him in the chest, then in the head.

Jeffress went back into the basilica, sat on a pew and put the .22-caliber rifle beneath his chin and pulled the trigger. His lifeless body slumped over to one side.

Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey was among the first on the scene. He realized the gravity of the situation when he went into the abbey and saw the shell casing of the high-powered rifle littering the hall.

"I told the guys that were with me, 'Fellas, our (bullet proof) vests are no good. If he shoots, we all shoot back,"' Espey recalled. "And we have the best vests that are out there. We were outgunned that day."

A year later, peace is restored at the abbey. Silence yields to the occasional passing vehicle, chirping birds and the clanging of abbey bells calling monks to Mass.

Abbey monks showed forgiveness almost immediately. They offered to help with Jeffress' funeral and burial. Jeffress' family declined the assistance.

Jeffress' motivation for the shootings still haunts Reichert, but he tries to focus on forgiveness.

"I try hard to forgive, and I think I have forgiven," said Reichert, 69, of Brunswick. "I have to consciously do that every day. I don't expect to ever forget."

As a result of the shootings, Espey said the sheriff's department has bought new weapons -- AR-15 semiautomatic rifles -- capable of matching what Jeffress had last June.

The Rev. Gregory Polan, who oversees the abbey, finds solace in the positive happenings at the abbey since the shootings. Enrollment is up at the abbey's seminary, and the number of monks joining the monastery also is on the rise, he said.

"It is really a paradox of life," Polan said. "Out of death and suffering comes new life."

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