A quiet parking lot outside a megachurch in rural Ames, Iowa became the scene of shocking violence Thursday evening when a man enraged over a recent breakup opened fire on his ex-girlfriend and her friend, killing both of them before turning the gun on himself.
Around 6:50 p.m., Johnathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, arrived at Cornerstone Church—where the two slain Iowa State University students and a third friend were about to head into Bible study—with the intent to kill, authorities said.
“The three women were in the parking lot going to go in the church,” Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said at a Friday morning press conference. “[The] suspect pulled up in his pickup, got out, and then the chaos began.”
Whitlatch opened fire with a Smith and Wesson 9 mm handgun, killing 22-year-old Eden Mariah Montang and 21-year-old Vivian Renee Flores “within seconds,” as an unidentified third friend, who was uninjured, fled to safety, Fitzgerald said.
Cops arrived at 6:56 p.m. and confirmed Whitlatch was dead three minutes later. Fitzgerald said the shooting “was isolated to the parking lot of the church.”
He added that the “situation that could’ve unfolded much more tragically had it been a random act of violence.”
The disturbing ambush outside the megachurch—where around 80 college and high school students had gathered for Bible study—was sparked by the recent breakup of Whitlatch and Montang.
On May 31, Whitlatch had been accused of third-degree harassment and impersonating a public official, charges that were directly related to his relationship with Montang, who had been granted a restraining order against her ex. Whitlatch had been released from the Boone County Jail on bond and was due back in court on June 10.
In the weeks and months before her tragic death, Montang had posted on social media several times about abusive relationships. And exactly one week before her death, she warned against being the “healing, redeeming savior” of an abusive partner.
“1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be in an abusive relationship: whether that’s boundary manipulation, physical violence, or verbally/emotionally malicious,” she wrote. “A lot of people think: ‘That would never happen to me…’ ‘I live in a small town…’ ‘I’m smart enough to recognize the signs!’ But it’s not about who YOU are - how smart you are, or how confident you are - it’s about who THEY are.”
During a search of Whitlatch’s home, authorities said they found an AR-15 rifle and ammunition that “played no part” in Thursday’s bloodshed. Fitzgerald added that Whitlatch purchased ammunition for his 9 mm handgun just an hour before the murders.
While officials declined to comment on any earlier charges, a news report from last year said a 32-year-old Johnathan Lee Whitlatch from Boone had been arrested for allegedly reaching down a woman’s pants at an Iowa bar.
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