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An open letter to Ron Dart: We are not cowards
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Open letter to Ron Dart:
We are not cowards
By Thomas M. Geiger

The writer is a member of the Living Church of God and author of the book Martyrdom in Milwaukee.

HELENVILLE, Wis.--Below is an open letter in rebuttal to comments by Ron Dart that The Journal quoted in its January-February 2007 issue.

Mr. Dart, founder and director of Christian Educational Ministries, out of Tyler, Texas, was a speaker at a conference of Church of God leaders in Lexington, Ky., in late December 2006.

In the article in The Journal titled “Conference of Church Leaders Convenes to Talk About the Diversity and Defense of Congregations," Mr. Dart, one of four keynote speakers, was quoted as talking about the events of Brookfield, Wis., on March 12, 2005, when a member of the Living Church of God during a Sabbath service shot and killed seven of his fellow church members and then himself.

I am a member of the Living Church of God. My then-12-year-old son Robert was present in that service, sitting next to his cousin, 15-year-old Bart Oliver.

My son watched as his cousin, the son of my sister Loni and her husband Ron, was shot and killed during that service.

The Journal quoted Mr. Dart as saying: “To me, I still to this day can't understand why three guys didn't just tackle him [murderer-suicide Terry Ratzmann] all at once."

Mr. Dart, in the next paragraph, was quoted as implying that men of the Living Church of God, specifically those present in the LCG service that day, are cowards and “spiritually castrated" because they didn't instantly tackle Terry and prevent him from continuing to kill the brethren.

[See the February and March 2005 issues of The Journal for full coverage of the aftermath of the shootings, including an extensive interview with Bart Oliver's mother and other close relatives.]

Following is my open letter to Mr. Dart.

Answering a matter

Dear Mr. Dart:

I am writing in response to your recent comments in the wake of the Brookfield shooting relating to the requirement that Christian men protect their families.

I don't believe that your response is reflective of the underlying facts concerning what really happened on that horrible day in March 2005. I would like to send you a complimentary copy of my book, Martyrdom in Milwaukee, in the hope that it would serve to flesh out some details for you.

I want to say here that I have held you in high regard as a minister and have been inspired and instructed by your messages. I was disappointed to observe that it appears that in this case you have “answered a matter before you have heard it."

I spent many of my early years in the Church of God learning at the feet of Carl McNair, who posthumously still casts a long shadow in the Milwaukee Churches of God and in the Living Church of God as a whole.

Like Mr. McNair, I am a hunter and thus join you as being a gun-toting Christian.

Mr. McNair was not a pacifist, nor am I, and I would defend my family to the death. I believe that, almost to a man, this is the way the men in the LCG and most of God's churches are wired.

God's Spirit drives us to lay down our lives for our families, whether an inch at a time, laboring to support and provide for them, or all at once in a last stand in the face of imminent annihilation.

Now, to the facts of the Brookfield shooting.

Firsthand information

It is important to note that I was not present during the actual shooting but came onto the scene a short time thereafter.

However, my book and the comments that follow in this letter are a reflection of numerous firsthand accounts, including interviews with police and government officials and friends, family and associates of Terry (the shooter), as well as a detailed study of the police report.

It is important to understand that Terry stalked this congregation. He quietly walked into the back of the room through the rear door of the hall in the Sheraton Hotel during that fateful Sabbath service and stood with his back against the wall. (A folding table stood between Terry and the wall.)

No warning

From that vantage point, with a full range of view, he could survey the entire room and would be able to mow down any possible defenders.

At some point he suddenly opened fire into the backs of those nearest him.

Much like Pearl Harbor, his was a sneak attack without warning.

From the numerous accounts I received, it became clear to me that he fired 22 rounds within a minute or less, including a clip change.

Mr. Dart, since you own a 9-mm automatic (the weapon Terry used), I am sure you are aware of how rapidly one can lay down a spray of lead with such a firearm.

The unfortunate brethren in the back row (who were closest to Terry) were all wounded, dead or dying within a few seconds (with the exception of Fred Cretari, who carries deep emotional and spiritual wounds to this day).

Many in the room could not mentally process the sudden, unexpected explosion of gunfire that came at them from behind for some moments after the inception of the incident (this, too, I discuss in my book).

Because the two sections of chairs had been placed tightly against the outside walls, the only access to Terry was down the center aisle, right in his line of sight.

Wounded and dying

Immediately after the shooting started, people lay wounded, dying or taking cover on the floor. To reach Terry, one would have had to access the center aisle and navigate past anyone seeking cover and then make one's way toward him in his clear line of fire.

Anyone who had moved toward him would have been instantly mowed down.

Harold Diekmeier merely stood up (probably already wounded in the arm), and Terry immediately fired two rounds into his back.

Not a dance floor

You, Mr. Dart, said that you “couldn't understand why three guys didn't just tackle him all at once."

According to the seating chart, there weren't three men in the room sitting close enough to each other so they could have coordinated a plan in the few seconds they had. As I have clearly indicated, these events did not happen on a dance floor, and under the circumstances access to Terry was essentially impossible.

Further, it's easy to armchair-quarterback after a tragedy like this. You can be sure that no one will ever again be able to take over an airplane here in the United States armed only with box cutters. But this is true only after our experience of the 9-11 tragedy.

In the same way, at least here in Milwaukee, we are now extremely mindful of anyone entering the room once the service has begun.

Focus on the speaker

Before the shooting it was considered rude to turn around to look at latecomers, especially during a sermon or sermonette. As a consequence of this practice, when Terry came into the room almost everyone continued to focus on the speaker. And thus my son Robert (who was watching for our late arrival) was one of the only ones who saw him enter the room.

I spoke with a man who was about halfway back in the room. He said that once the shooting started he thought about trying to exit the room through the front door, run down the hall and come back in through the rear door to try to reach Terry from the side.

But, before he could even think to begin to implement his plan, it was all over.

Another man told me that he thought of throwing a chair at Terry from the front of the room but realized that it was just too far.

As Terry changed clips, David Mohr, knowing that he couldn't physically reach Terry, bravely raised his head as he made eye contact and hollered at him.

Withering rain

It is important that we understand the level of disorientation that follows an unprecedented surprise attack such as this coupled with the withering rain of fire that Terry laid down.

Had I been there (one row up from the back on the right) with my son and nephew (Bart), I probably would have had time to turn toward Terry and maybe even make a move to stop him (but I would have had to vault over the three members of the Randy Gregory family, who were probably shot first).

But I am certain that, if I had been there, I wouldn't be here to write this rebuttal.

Richard Reeves (four rows up on the right aisle) merely turned toward Terry and was shot and killed.

My son Robert (12 at the time) merely moved toward the center aisle and Terry drew down on him, looking to make a head shot. By the grace of God, Robert fell back at just the right instant and the round whizzed past his face, missing him by inches.

Protecting loved ones

My good friend Jerry Miller moved to protect another good friend of mine, Dorothy Hodzinski, as they fell to the floor to take cover.

As they spoke of praying, Jerry moved to shield Dorothy with his body and took a lethal shot in the back.

Several of the men in the congregation, while under fire, used their bodies to cover and protect their wives.

Ann Varichak used her body to cover a young girl entrusted to her care.

Members of this little congregation, Mr. Dart, demonstrated the antithesis of cowardice while they stared death squarely in the face.

The survivors showed great courage under fire and in the aftermath of the tragedy, with compassion and forgiveness in the face of catastrophic loss and pain.

Our people still struggle on in the faith, daily bearing the excruciating loss of our loved ones.

Not cowards

Mr. Dart, you do your brothers and sisters in the faith a great disservice when you accuse them of cowardice.

They are cowards no more than the brave young men who occupied the battleship Arizona while peacefully docked in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

In the same way, I know the men who occupied the war-torn meeting room at the Sheraton in March 2005 would gladly have given their lives to defend their families and stop Terry if that had been humanly possible.

I entreat you to examine the facts and rethink your position on the conduct of the brethren involved in the Brookfield shooting. It is my humble belief that those who died were martyrs and those who survived and conducted themselves so bravely, while under fire, are heroes.

Thomas M. Geiger

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