LISTEN LIVE

Former Prison Guard Trainee Charged With Killing 5 In Highlands County Bank

Jan 24, 2019

A former prison guard trainee who recently moved to Highlands County from Indiana killed five people during a standoff at a bank before surrendering to a SWAT team that stormed the building, police said.

Sebring Police are expected to provide an update at 11 a.m. this morning on Zephen Xaver, 21, who they said called police from inside the SunTrust Bank branch Wednesday to report that he had opened fire. Sebring is about 90 miles southeast of Tampa.

Police said Xaver barricaded himself inside and when negotiations failed, the SWAT team burst in, capturing him and discovering the bodies of the victims, police said. Investigators did not offer a possible motive, and a police spokesman said he did not know if the attack began as a robbery.

The victims were not immediately identified.

Late Wednesday, police investigators still swarmed the bank, which sits between a hotel and a hair salon located in a business district of U.S. 27. The four-lane highway passes through farming communities and small towns as it connects South Florida and central Florida. Sebring, with 10,000 residents, is known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance auto race that draws world-class drivers.

"Today's been a tragic day in our community," Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said during a news conference. "We've suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime."

Florida Department of Corrections records show that Xaver was hired as a trainee prison guard at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2 and resigned Jan. 9. No disciplinary issues were reported.

Public records and neighbors said Xaver had arrived in Sebring last fall with his mother, living in a non-descript pre-fabricated home about 4 miles from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police finished searching the home.  Public records and neighbors say he and his mother moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana, a town south of Notre Dame University.

John Larose, who lives next door, said Xaver kept to himself, but he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.

Xaver briefly was an online student of Salt Lake City-based Stevens-Henager College. A spokeswoman for the college, Sherrie Martin, confirmed that Xaver was enrolled from September 2018 until December, when he withdrew.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was in the region for an infrastructure tour and traveled to Sebring after the shooting. He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would assist Sebring police and the Highlands County sheriff's office.

"Obviously, this is an individual who needs to face very swift and exacting justice," DeSantis said of the suspect.

SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers released a statement saying the bank was "working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved."

The bank's "entire team mourns this terrible loss," he said.

A woman identifying herself as the ex-girlfriend of the suspect says he often thought about hurting people and has long been fascinated with death and guns.

 WSBT in South Bend, Ind., reported that Alex Gerlach said she tried to warn people about Xaver's potential for harm. Xaver was arrested by a SWAT team inside a SunTrust Bank branch in Sebring, Florida, on Wednesday after he called 911 to say he opened fire. Five people were killed.

"(Xaver) always hated people and wanted everybody to die." -Alex Gerlach, his former girlfriend

Gerlach told the station in a phone interview that for some reason, Xaver "always hated people and wanted everybody to die."

She said "he got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class, and he's been threatening this for so long."

Gerlach said "every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate that it had to come to this."

The Washington Post also interviewed Gerlach, reporting among other things that Xaver told her last week that he had purchased a gun. She told the Post that "no one thought anything of it" because he had always liked guns.