(Scroll down to find latest updates and developments.)
Three people have died following a shooting outside of Cornerstone Church on the east side of Ames.
According to Story County Sheriff’s Office Captain Nicholas Lennie, “several” 911 calls were placed at approximately 6:51 p.m. with reports of a shooter in the parking lot of the church and multiple victims down.
Officials confirmed that three people have passed away, one of which is believed to be the shooter. No further details regarding the deceased are currently being provided. Lennie stated that law enforcement believes the shooter died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.” However, that information is still under investigation.
According to Lennie, it is believed that there were services occurring inside the church at the time of the incident. “We’re going to be looking for eyewitness testimony,” Lennie said. “What they saw, what they knew, and if there was any relationship to the shooter of the victims.”
The number of people who were inside the church at the time is currently unknown.
Police are currently keeping members who were at the church services inside the building for questioning. “We are providing resources with the immediate family members that were impacted by this tragedy,” Lennie noted.
(UPDATE- Thursday 9:48 p.m.) According to Lennie, two females and one male, identified as the shooter, have passed away in the shooting. No “young kids” were killed, added Lennie.
One firearm has been recovered from the scene.
(UPDATE- Thursday 10:24 p.m.) Through a statement released on social media, church officials are calling the two female victims “young members of [the] Cornerstone Church community”.
A separate Facebook post indicates that a college-based youth group was scheduled to meet at the facility at 7:00 p.m., just minutes after the shooting allegedly took place.
(UPDATE- Friday 10:30 a.m.) The two deceased female victims from last night’s Cornerstone Church shooting have been identified as 22-year-old Eden Mariah Montang and 21-year-old Vivian Renee Flores. Both women were students at Iowa State University.
The shooter, who is also deceased, has been identified as 33-year-old Johnathan Lee Whitlach of Boone.
The sheriff’s office is classifying the shooting as a “targeted act of violence.” The motive for the shooting is thought to be the result of a domestic situation between the shooter, Whitlatch, and Eden, one of the two victims. The two had previously been involved in a relationship, according to Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald.
According to Fitzgerald, Whitlatch pulled up to the church in a pickup truck and approached Eden in the parking lot, just as she was starting to walk toward the building. He was reportedly armed with a 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol. Whitlatch then fired several rounds at Eden and Flores.
Deputies were dispatched to the scene of the shooting at 6:52 p.m. Thursday and arrived on the scene at 6:56 p.m. Fitzgerald was one of the first law enforcement officials to arrive.
Flores and one other female were reportedly accompanying Eden to the church at the time of the attack. The other female managed to find shelter during the incident and was not injured by the gunfire.
Law enforcement confirmed Friday that it appears that Whitlatch’s intent Thursday was to complete a targeted killing. “I think he was there for a specific purpose, which he accomplished,” Fitzgerald said. “There is nothing else, at this point, that has been provided to me to make me believe that he was preparing for engagement with law enforcement or anyone else.”
Ames Police Commander Jason Tuttle was attending an elders meeting at the church Thursday evening and responded to the parking lot after hearing shots fired.
Responders rendered medical aid to all three individuals who had been shot and injured, but attempts to save their lives were unsuccessful. It was quickly determined by deputies that there was no further threat to those inside the church; however, members were retained for questioning. No other injuries were reported.
During the execution of search warrants, investigators found computer files and an AR-15 rifle with ammunition at the Boone home of Whitlatch. Fitzgerald stated that it is not believed the rifle is linked to the shooting.
In addition, 9mm ammunition, which had been purchased earlier that same evening, was found in Whitlatch’s vehicle. It is thought that, had the shooting been of random nature, Whitlatch had the means to harm even more people. “In the pickup, we found 9mm ammunition and a receipt from a business in West Des Moines where, an hour before [the shooting], he had purchased the 9mm ammunition,” Fitzgerald explained. “There were over 80 students in the [church] auditorium…Had he found his way inside the church, with that intent, it would have been much more tragic.” There has been no indication that Whitlatch ever intended to enter the church, according to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald noted that Whitlatch had been charged by the Ames Police Department on May 31 for Third-Degree Harassment, pertaining to a situation with Eden. Whitlatch was arrested and subsequently bonded out. He was awaiting an initial court appearance on June 10.
According to Fitzgerald, there was a restraining order in place to prevent Whitlatch from contacting Eden.
The following agencies and individuals assisted in response to the tragedy:
- Story County Sheriff’s Office
- Ames Police Department
- Nevada Police Department
- Huxley Police Department
- Story City Police Department
- Iowa State Patrol
- Iowa DCI
- Nevada Fire Department
- Story County Attorney’s Office
- Story County Emergency Management
- Mary Greeley Medical Center
- Story County Medical Examiner’s Office
- Civilians on scene who assisted with medical aid
Although the investigation continues by the sheriff’s office and assisting agencies, it is asked that the public respect the privacy of and ongoing grief being experienced by the families of those who lost their lives. “We experienced a tragic event that we honestly thought we would never see in our county,” Fitzgerald admitted.
(UPDATE- Friday 11:21 a.m.) According to court documents, Whitlatch was awaiting trial for a sexual assault charge stemming from an incident at a Cedar Falls bar in October.
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported in November that Whitlatch had been accused of inappropriately touching a woman multiple times inside Deringer’s Public Parlor on Main Street in Cedar Falls. Security footage later confirmed the woman’s report to authorities, according to The Courier.
Whitlatch was scheduled to appear in court for a jury trial on one count of Assault with Intent to Commit Sexual Abuse, an aggravated misdemeanor, on July 19. Originally, the case was set to go to trial in February, but several motions for continuance were filed, resulting in an over five-month delay, per online records.
Attempts to contact a Cedar Falls Police Department spokesperson were not immediately successful.
(UPDATE- Friday 12:47 p.m.) Ames Mayor John Haila released a statement Friday on the Cornerstone Church shooting, describing the “unbearable sadness and confusion” that has transpired from the tragedy. Read the full statement below:
“On behalf of the Ames City Council, I want to express my deepest sympathy to the friends and families of the victims killed Thursday at Cornerstone Church. Our thoughts go out to the Iowa State University community where Eden Montang and Vivian Flores were students.
“This tragic event creates unbearable sadness and confusion during already troubling times. When confronted with difficult, complex problems, we need effective solutions to combat violence. As a community and as a country, we must work together to create an environment where hurting others is never an acceptable solution. These are not times to lose hope, but to unite and move forward.
“As we process the grief, shock, and horror of this event, understand the hard work is still ahead. Together, we must find a way out of the darkness because we want a safer community, a stronger city, and a better future.”John Haila – Mayor, City of Ames –
(UPDATE- Friday 12:47 p.m.) According to criminal complaints obtained by StoryCounty.News, Whitlatch was facing one count of Third-Degree Harassment, a simple misdemeanor, and one count of Impersonating a Public Official, an aggravated misdemeanor, from an incident that had occurred on May 1.
The complaints allege that at 2:17 p.m., Whitlatch called Eden’s place of work, Massage Heights in Ames, claiming to be a police officer who was investigating a former officer for an “inappropriate relationship with a staff member named Eden Montang.” Whitlatch claimed his name was “Dominic”, but would not reveal his last name.
At 2:22 p.m., Whitlatch allegedly called again, requesting to speak with a manager to report Montang.
The complaints go on to state that Whitlatch called the spa again at 4:43 p.m., stating that he “took another statement about Powers and Montang, so he would be investigating while on patrol today.” Again, he did not provide a last name.
Finally, at 5:02 p.m., Whitlatch is said to have called once more, this time claiming that his name was “Nicholas Jefferson”. In this instance, Whitlatch stated that he had received phone calls about Montang and had reported it to the Ames Tribune. After alleging that information about Montang was set to be published in the following day’s edition of the paper, Whitlatch hung up.
The Ames PD officer that filed the complaints noted that all phone calls at Massage Heights are automatically recorded, which enabled police to identify Whitlatch’s voice and identity.
Whitlatch was scheduled for an initial court appearance on the two charges June 10, according to an earlier Story County Sheriff’s Office press release.
(UPDATE- Saturday 3:00 p.m.) An obituary for 21-year-old Vivian Renee Flores, one of the two victims in Thursday’s shooting, has been released by Grandon Funeral and Cremation Care in Ames.
According to the obituary, Flores was born in El Paso, Texas, but graduated from Valley High School in West Des Moines in 2019. She was working toward a degree in Animal Science and reportedly planned on pursuing her education in Veterinary Medicine. She was a sister, aunt, granddaughter, and niece to those she leaves behind.
The obituary describes Flores as “driven, kind, and giving.” It adds that she had a “love of dancing, music, animals, children, and Iowa State University.”
Click here to read Flores’ obituary.
(UPDATE- Monday 4:30 p.m.) Investigators have obtained video footage relevant to the moments leading up to Thursday’s deadly shooting. Lennie told StoryCounty.News on Monday that authorities are still working to confirm whether or not the three female friends rode together to the church Thursday evening. Dashcam video from a nearby vehicle, surveillance footage from outside the church, and frames from DOT cameras placed along Highway 30 are all being examined, according to Lennie.
In addition, Lennie stated that investigators have not found any indication of previous death threats made by Whitlatch toward Eden. However, the process of securing social media and text message records is ongoing.
Work also continues to confirm Whitlatch’s legal ownership of the 9mm gun used in the shooting.
As of Monday, it is still believed that no other individuals helped Whitlatch in drawing up plans for the shooting. “Everything up to this point indicates that he acted alone in this,” Lennie explained. “There has been nothing at all to indicate that anyone else had knowledge or conspired in this act.”
Toxicology and autopsy results are not expected for at least a number of weeks.
(UPDATE- Tuesday 8:00 p.m.) A full obituary for 22-year-old Eden Mariah Montang, a victim in Thursday’s shooting outside Cornerstone Church in Ames, has been released by Schroeder Stark-Welin Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Boone.
Montang, who was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but attended Boone High School in Iowa, is described as “strong and tender”, as well as “intellectually gifted, articulate, and confident.” She had earned her massage therapy certification after schooling in New Mexico and joined the Army shortly thereafter. She later enrolled at ISU.
According to the obituary, Montang’s “ability to use words to touch and challenge people was something she described as a gift from God.”
Montang leaves behind both of her parents, two siblings, a nephew, and many other family members.
Click here to read Montang’s obituary.
Friday morning’s press conference from the Story County Sheriff’s Office can be seen replayed in its entirety on the StoryCounty.News Facebook page.
This is a developing story. Stay tuned to StoryCounty.News and the StoryCounty.News Facebook page for updates.