BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) – Authorities in Florida were searching Friday for a man suspected of killing his wife and another woman, then going to the church where his wife worked and fatally shooting the pastor.
On Friday morning, sheriff’s deputies found his vehicle abandoned in a Wal-Mart parking lot near Bradenton, 45 miles south of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Andres “Andy” Avalos, 33, was still on the loose, officials said.
The killing spree started Thursday afternoon. Investigators were called to the Bayshore Baptist Church, where pastor James “Tripp” Battle was found dead in the courtyard.
Investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said Avalos was last seen driving the gold-colored Chevrolet Suburban near the church.
A witness at the scene told deputies about the other two victims. Deputies then found the bodies of Amber Avalos, 33, and neighbor Denise Potter, 45, at a home in Bradenton.
“We don’t know exactly what transpired,” said sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow.
Andy and Amber Avalos have six children. Deputies said the children were in the custody of a relative.
The Bayshore Baptist website said that Andy Avalos’ father also is a minister. It says Battle and his wife, Joy, who is the church’s secretary, have a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.
“We have to be strong for Joy,” church member Linda Stewart was quoted by the Bradenton Herald as saying. “I don’t know how she will get through this.”
E.W “Karp” Carpenter, a member of the church since the 1950s, told the newspaper that Battle “was a great pastor,” and that the church’s congregation grew from 30 to more than 100 under his stewardship.
“He was 31 years old and would give you shirt off his back,” Carpenter said.
Sheriff Brad Steube said Battle and Avalos met face-to-face in the church courtyard shortly before the shooting.
“The pastor saw this coming,” he told the newspaper.
Jane Riley, a neighbor of the Avalos family, told The Associated Press that the neighborhood near the Manatee River is “like the sweetest little community,” although she did point out that in 2008, a previous tenant of the Avaloses’ home was slain during a home invasion.
“Now I’m scared,” said Riley. “I have an alarm system, but is that enough? I hope the cops hang around for a while.”