Zephen Xaver has been identified as the suspect accused of opening fire inside a bank in Sebring, Florida, killing at least five people before barricading himself inside the building and eventually surrendering to a SWAT team, authorities say. Xaver was taken into custody about 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday after police responded to an active shooter call about 12:30 p.m.
The incident occurred at the SunTrust Bank branch at 1901 US 27 South in Sebring, the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office said. Deputies responded to the shooting along with the Sebring Police Department. They were at the scene within four minutes, according to police.
Police have not determined the motive for the shooting. Police Chief Karl Hoglund said at a press conference Thursday that Xaver entered the bank with a gun, made contact with the four employees and one customer inside the building, “and overtook the bank by force. He then shot everyone in the bank.” According to court documents, Xaver shot the five victims in the back of the head while they were on the floor. The five women were found “lying face down on the floor in the main lobby of the bank, with apparent gunshot wounds to the back of their heads and upper torsos.”
The victims were all women, police said Thursday at a press conference. They have been identified by their families and police as Cynthia Watson, Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook and Ana Pinon-Williams. Watson was a customer at the bank and the other four women worked there. You can read about the five victims here. Police said the three women not being identified all worked at the bank. Hoglund said there is no indication that Xaver knew any of the victims or that they were targeted.
Xaver had recently been in training to become a prison guard. He was hired on November 2, 2018, by the Avon Park Correctional Institution in Highlands County as a correctional officer trainee, WTSP-TV reports. He resigned on January 9, 2019, and had no disciplinary violations on his record while employed by the Florida Department of Corrections, the agency told the news station.
Police swarmed the Sebring bank and surrounded the building, shutting down the road in the area just after noon on January 23. At least two schools in the neighborhood were put on lockdown as a precaution. There were reports of a hostage situation inside the bank, but police have since said that there were five people who were in the bank when he entered and they were all killed. The shooting was recorded on surveillance video cameras inside the bank, according to court documents.
Xaver, who police say is a 21-year-old Sebring resident, remains in custody. Xaver agreed to be interviewed by detectives after the shooting, but his statements to investigators have been redacted in court documents. His lawyer has not commented. His arraignment has been scheduled for February 25.
Here’s what you need to know Zephen Xaver and the SunTrust Bank shooting:
1. Zephen Xaver Entered the Bank & Opened Fire Before Calling 911 to Report ‘I Have Shot 5 People,’ Police Say
Zephen Xaver entered the bank Wednesday afternoon, opened fire and then called 911 on himself, police say. He told dispatchers, “I have shot five people,” police said. Xaver killed all five people who were inside the bank at the time of the shooting.
“At approximately 12:36 p.m. today, the Sebring Police Department responded to the SunTrust Bank at 1901 US 27 South in Sebring,” the sheriff’s office said in a press release. “A subject contacted dispatch and reported that he had fired shots inside the bank. SPD officers and deputies from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene and established a perimeter. After negotiations to try to get the barricaded subject to exit the bank were not successful, the HCSO SWAT team entered the bank and continued the negotiations. The suspect eventually surrendered to the HCSO SWAT team.”
Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said the suspect, Zephen Xaver, called the region’s consolidated dispatch center and said he had entered the bank and started shooting. Sebring officers responded along with deputies from the sheriff’s office and “established a secure scene and began negotiating with the subject,” Hoglund said. The sheriff’s office used its crisis negotiation team to talk to Xaver.
“While engaged in negotiations I asked the sheriff to send in the tactical unit, their SWAT team, in order to recover potential victims and take the subject into custody. After an assessment of the scene, we were sorry to learn that we have at least five victims, people who were senselessly murdered as a result of his act in this bank,” Hoglund said.
According to court documents, Xaver used a 9 mm handgun and was wearing a bulletproof vest. Police have not said when he bought the gun, where he bought it from and if it was purchased legally.
Xaver can be seen in his booking photo wearing a T-shirt that appears to depict the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office released video of Xaver being led from interviews to booking:
“This has been a tragic day for our community. We’ve suffered a significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said in a statement. “This is something that you hope will never happen anywhere, much less in your hometown. We will continue to investigate and work to see that the victims and their families are taken care of and that they receive the justice they deserve.”
Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman added, “I am heartbroken that this horrendous incident has occurred in our county. I pray for the victims, their families and our community. This tragedy will have a lasting impact on Highlands County and likely this community will never be the same. I have been in law enforcement all of my adult life and this horrific incident shocks and angers me more than anything I have encountered in my career. While we still don’t know what drove the suspect to commit this heinous act, there is no excuse that can justify the cold-blooded murder of multiple victims.”
Bill Rogers, SunTrust Bank’s CEO, said in a statement, “We’re deeply saddened by the tragic shooting at our Sebring, FL branch. We’re working with law enforcement & are dedicated to supporting the people & families impacted by this horrible & senseless tragedy. Our entire team mourns this terrible loss.”
2. Xaver Is a Sebring Resident Originally From Indiana & Has Attended Stevens-Henager College
Zephen Allen Xaver is a Sebring, Florida, resident, police said. According to his Facebook page, Xaver is originally from Plymouth, Indiana, and has also lived in Bremen, Indiana. Xaver’s ex-girlfriend confirmed on her Facebook page that the former Indiana resident is the suspect.
“If anyone has seen the news about my ex killing 5 people. Please do not ask me to talk to you about it. I am devastated,” she wrote. “I’ve been crying so much.”
On Linkedin, Xaver says he is a student at Stevens-Henager College, which is based in Utah, but also allows students to take classes online. He attended Bremen Senior High School and Plymouth High School in Indiana, where he was on the wrestling team.
Zephen Xaver’s Facebook page reveals few details about him. Xaver “likes” the page of far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos along with a page dedicated to memes featuring conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Xaver also reviewed Yiannopoulos’ page, leaving a 5-star rating in 2017.
He also likes a page called “Creepy Facts,” a page about cats and an anime GIF page, along with one called “Dysfunctional Veterans.” That page is aimed at those who have served in the military. According to The Washington Post, Xaver enlisted in the Army in March 2016, but was separated in June of that same year before completing initial entry training. The military did not detail why he was separated.
Xaver lists himself as single on his Facebook page.
An older Facebook page that Xaver appears to have stopped using in 2015 shows him pictured with his ex-girlfriend. The pages he liked on that page are mainly related to video games, anime, movies, sports and music.
Xaver is registered to vote in Florida with no party affiliation, records show. His address is listed as Pine Tree Lane in Sebring. He registered to vote on January 7, 2019. Xaver has two younger brothers. His father lives in Indiana. According to WESH-TV, Xaver lives with his mother and stepfather in Sebring. A neighbor told the news station they are a “sweet family.”
Kelly Rippin of WESH tweeted the neighbor, “Added she’s had little interaction w/ the 21-year-old, but when she did he was quiet, responsible, and polite. This neighbor stopped by the house earlier to say bye to the alleged gunman’s mother before she left on a business trip, but did not see Zephen Xaver today at the home.” Xaver’s mother and father have not commented.
Xaver does not appear to have a previous criminal record in Florida or Indiana.
3. Xaver’s Ex-Girlfriend, Whom He Met at a Psychiatric Hospital, Says He Has Long Been Obsessed With Killing People & Guns, but No One Took Him Seriously
Alex Gerlach, who dated Zephen Xaver when he was living in Indiana, told WSBT-TV that Xaver has been “fascinated with death and guns” for a long time. Gerlach said they had an off-and-on relationship for two years, but kept in touch after breaking up. She said Xaver talked often about wanting to hurt people, and recently showed her a photo of a handgun he had purchased.
“I never understood where it started,” Gerlach told the news station. “For some reason [he] always hated people and wanted everyone to die. He got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class.”
Gerlach said she tried to warn people in the past, but she was never taken seriously by anyone. She also talked to The Washington Post and said Xaver bought the gun last week, but “no one thought anything of it” because he has always liked guns.
She told The Washington Post that she and Xaver met in 2013 when they were both at a psychiatric hospital. Details about why Xaver was at the hospital and how long he spent there were not immediately available. She said he once told her he wanted to join the military so he could kill people. “Since the time we met, he had this fascination with death,” she told The Post. “It got worse as we broke up.”
Gerlach told the newspaper that Xaver moved to Sebring, Florida, with his mother. His father, Josh Xaver, told The Post his family is “heartbroken for the victims.” He added, “He wasn’t raised to be like this. He’s always been a good kid. He’s had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone before.”
4. The Sebring Police Chief Called Xaver a ‘Senseless Criminal Doing a Senseless Crime’
Police have not released a motive for the shooting. Officials had previously said the situation started as a bank robbery, but Sebring Police Police Chief Karl Hoglund said Thursday there is no indication that Xaver was trying to rob the bank.
Hoglund said at the press conference, “Today has been a tragic day in our community, we’ve suffered a significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime.”
On Thursday, Hoglund added, “We now begin the healing process. We attempt to make sense of a senseless act, we attempt to mourn the loss of our peers, our neighbors, our mothers and daughters. It’s a time for us to come together. It’s a time for us to heal. And it’s an opportunity for us to look back, reflect and build strength based on a senseless act.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at the press conference, “This is a terrible day for Sebring, Highlands County and for the state of Florida. The people of Florida stand with the community here in light of this tragic circumstance.”
DeSantis added, “I’ve asked the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) to provide whatever resources we can at the state level to assist with the investigation and obviously, this is an individual who needs to face very swift and exacting justice. I want to thank both the police department here and the sheriff’s department for responding to the situation. It is fluid, there is a lot going on. But they’re doing a good job and they’re doing what the people of Highlands County expect.”
Sebring, located in Highlands County in central Florida, is a city of about 10,000 people. It is located about two hours south of Orland. SunTrust Bank is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and has 1,400 branches across the southeastern United States.
“We are working closely with officials and seeking to take care of everyone affected,” said Sun Trust’s Chief Communications Officer Sue Mallino said in a statement to CNN. “We will provide more information as soon as we can.”
Schools in the area have returned to normal status. The Kindergarten Learning Center and Fred Wild Elementary were both previously put on “controlled campus” status, authorities said.
“All Controlled Campuses have been lifted. There was never an immediate threat to a school. Student safety will always be our first priority and we thank you for your patience with any delays in dismissals,” the School Board of Highlands County said on Facebook. “PLEASE NOTE that buses may be delayed as there is significant traffic congestion in the Sebring area as a result of the road closure.”
5. Xaver Has Been Charged With 5 Counts of First-Degree Murder
Zephen Xaver has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder, police said. The investigation by the state and local police, along with the FBI, is still ongoing.
State Attorney Brian Haas said at a press conference Thursday, “As state attorney it is my responsibility to prosecute this case. And that we will do. We have two priorities, one to build the best case possible to ensure prosecution that ends in a successful result, while seeking everything we can, the maximum allowed by law. The second priority is to be there for the families of the victims. They are hurting today in an unbelievable way. We want to be there for them to make sure that with the terrible thing they have been through that this next step, the criminal justice process, goes as smoothly as possible.”
Haas said a grand jury would be convened “in the next couple of weeks,” and he would seek indictments on first-degree murder.
Sheriff Paul Blackman told reporters, “The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office will continue to work with the Sebring Police Department as well as the FDLE in an attempt to make sure a thorough investigation is done regarding this incident. Currently, we have our investigators, our criminal investigations unit, working alongside the detectives from the Sebring Police Department doing interviews, doing search warrants and conducting crime scene property and evidence collection.”
Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said, “This is a very dynamic and ongoing investigation. I’m sure several details will come as the investigation continues.”
Hoglund said the crime scene remained active Thursday.