White man attempting to enter full Black church in Pa. arrested; police discover attack plans during search

An armed Jeffrey Lewis might have succeeded in entering a crowded Greater Dominion Church in Ambridge if he'd come an hour later for Sunday service, its pastor said.

A white man seen threatening two women with a gun and attempting to enter a Black church in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, with murderous intent early Sunday is now in police custody.

Jeffrey Harris, 38, of Ambridge, was charged with aggravated assault and making terroristic threats among other counts, following his arrest outside a business, according to WTAE 4 News.

Police received calls just after 9 a.m. about a man wearing a camouflage vest pointing a long gun at two women outside of Greater Dominion Church at 4th Street and Melrose Avenue, according to a criminal complaint. A witness told authorities the man was trying to enter the church.

If suspect Jeffrey Harris had attempted to enter Greater Dominion Church (above) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, just one hour later, during Sunday service, its pastor said, he might have succeeded in carrying out a mass shooting. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com/WTAE-TV Pittsburgh)

Beaver County Regional Police later informed Ambridge police that the subject was on the 300 block of Merchant Street. He brandished a gun at an officer, who dispatched backup.

Bishop Kenneth Crumb told WTAE the suspect might have succeeded in entering the crowded building if he had come only one hour later for his Sunday service.

“There is a whole lot of mass murders going on, there is shootings,” Crumb said, “particularly in the African American community, people targeting our communities.”

According to the complaint, Greater Dominion’s majority-African-American congregation raised concerns that the man was attempting to enter with a long gun to commit a hate crime.

Harris was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and 25 shotgun shells, and was subsequently found to possess crystal methamphetamine. He was returned to the Ambridge police station while uttering “multiple bizarre comments” to officers about a deceased brother.

In addition, after searching Harris’ home, which he shares with his boyfriend, police concluded that Harris had prepared for a standoff with authorities. The residence reportedly had a weapons case with a hole drilled into it, “creating a tactical position from which the occupant would fire at the front door from a protected position.” Police called the Allegheny County bomb squad, which removed a potential explosive device from the residence, and the search also turned up crystal meth, ammo and a notepad with a “handwritten script” for a live shooting.

The complaint claimed that getting inside the house was challenging since the porch was covered in a slick material. On the porch, police discovered an empty bottle of personal lubricant.

Harris’ bond was set at $975,000 bond and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 5. Police did not say if they had located Harris’ boyfriend, who neighbors claimed they hadn’t seen in days, but did say Harris’ weapon had been fired recently.

U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., wrote to the Department of Justice on Wednesday, asking for a federal investigation into the event to see whether Harris had violated any civil rights laws and, if it was determined he committed federal crimes, to pursue him to the maximum degree possible, according to a press release.

Crumb said that although his church currently has armed protection, it will be implementing additional safety precautions, according to WTAE.

“When you just think about how close we came to having the same kind of horrific situation that we had at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s like the grace of God,” he said. “Thank God for his grace, for his covering over us, because this could have been a total different way.”

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