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'Unthinkable:' Sebring Residents React To SunTrust Shooting

The small community of Sebring was devastated by Wednesday's shooting at SunTrust Bank that killed five women.

The day after the shooting, the entrance of the Highlands County bank was still bashed in, where police vehicles broke down the barricaded doors to get to confessed culprit Zephen Xaver, more than an hour after he shot his victims.

Yellow caution tape kept people from getting too close to the crime scene. But it didn't stop some residents from laying flowers on the bushes surrounding the bank to pay respects to the female victims.

Jim Jackemeyer rode his bike by the bank. He spends his winters in Sebring but hails from Indiana, like

21-year-old Xaver, who moved to Sebring last fall with his mother.

"You know I feel for the people,” he said. “We've got a real quiet community here and we hate seeing things like this happen."

With a population of only about 10,000 residents, the city typically doesn't come up in national conversation, except for its famous 12 Hours of Sebring auto race.

Many residents and business owners in the area said they're not comfortable with the newfound attention, especially under such painful circumstances.

One woman who works at a spa a few buildings down fromSunTrust said she banked there and knew the victims well. Her eyes welled up with tears as she declined an interview, saying, "It's just too raw."

At a nearby salon, Joyce Watters shared her thoughts while she got her hair shampooed. She said she spent the drive to her appointment crying.

"I grew up in Sebring, I’ve been here my whole life and it's a tragedy to all of us," she said.

She said she's frightened by the senselessness of Xaver's actions.

"I just wish people were more aware of others who are so challenged or confused, I mean, there had to be some indications he was not sane, in my opinion."

After the shooting, an ex-girlfriend of Xaver's told Indiana TV station WSBT that he “for some reason always hated people and wanted everybody to die.”

But his neighbor Sharon Spillane, who is friends with Xaver's mother and would attend barbeques at their house, said she never imagined he could do something like this.

"It's a little intimidating, it's a little scary to think it's right next door, and I’ve been in that house and had my daughter around him," she said.

Xaver lived on a quiet street less than 10 minutes from the bank. Some houses were decorated with colorful lawn decorations like wind chimes and plastic frogs.

All along the block, American flags were flown at half-staff to mourn Xaver's victims. It sent a clear message: this man does not represent this neighborhood.

"Shooting five people to me is just unthinkable, it's just absolutely unthinkable,” Spillane said. “And Sebring is not going to ever be the same."

In the aftermath of the murders there has been outcry on social media –calls to end gun violence, often accompanied by "#Another FL Shooting." The hashtag became popular last August, when Parkland shooting survivors used it to express frustration over the mass shooting at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, which happened just months after 17 people were killed at their high school.

Tweets by Republican state leaders like Gov. Ron DeSantis & U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio saying their prayers are with the victims were met by dozens of angry replies arguing prayer is not enough.

But not all Sebring residents agree, like Tim Williams, the brother-in-law of Ana Piñon Williams, one of the SunTrust Bank employees killed in the shooting.

He spoke at a press conference after her identity was made public Thursday afternoon.

"There are those who say that prayer is a useless act when tragedy such as this strikes,” he said. “These same people say we need to pass more laws and exert control over people. Our family rejects this ideology."

As does Sebring "snowbird" Jim Jackemeyer, who said gun control would not have stopped Xaver.

"He could have used a knife, you know, he could’ve used a stick to beat them to death, so no – I mean obviously a gun is an easy way to make sure they die, but I think we need to protect ourselves, and I think if all those people had been carrying, than he could have been slowed down a little bit or stopped," he said.

Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shooting data, considers a "mass shooting" an incident where four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter.

The group lists the murders in Sebring as Florida's fifth mass shooting in January 2019 alone.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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