Shooter at Houston megachurch had lengthy criminal history including weapons charges, police say

Christina Maxouris, CNN | 2/13/2024, 10:35 a.m.
The shooting at Houston’s Lakewood Church over the weekend was a “completely preventable horror” as the woman who opened fire …
Genesse Ivonne Moreno confronted a security guard Sunday outside the Lakewood Church. Mandatory Credit: Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office

A woman who walked into a popular Texas megachurch Sunday afternoon with a long gun and her 7-year-old son opened fire before she was killed by law enforcement officers on scene. The gunfire left the child in critical condition and another man injured, officials said.

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Parishioner describes hearing shots amid reports of shooting at Joel Osteen's church

Authorities are responding to a reported shooting at pastor Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, the Houston Police Department said in a post on X Sunday. Two people explain to CNN affiliate KHOU what they witnessed by the church. Source: CNN

Authorities are now probing the shooting at televangelist and pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church – roughly 6 miles from downtown Houston.

The woman, identified in a search warrant as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, entered the church shortly before 2 p.m. wearing a trench coat and backpack and opened fire, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said in a Sunday afternoon news conference.

Officers “shot and killed her in self-defense” after she pointed her weapon at them, according to the search warrant released Monday by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.

Her son was shot in the head during the shooting and remains in the hospital Monday in critical condition, the police chief said. It’s unclear who fired the shot that injured the child. CNN has reached out to police for more information.

Police have not shared details about a possible motive in the shooting. The injured man was shot in the leg, sought treatment at a hospital and was released, Finner said Monday. The search warrant identified him as Tom George Thomas.

The gunfire unfolded while the church was “in between services” and preparing to go into a Spanish service, Osteen said in Sunday’s news conference.

“I can only imagine if it would have happened during the 11 o’clock service,” he said.

The shooting is just the latest instance of gun violence disrupting American life at places once considered safe. This one was at a place of worship. Others have been at schools, grocery stores, outlet malls, hospitals, college campuses and house parties.

First responders and members of law enforcement surround the area after a shooting Sunday at television evangelist Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston.
Mandatory Credit:	Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters

First responders and members of law enforcement surround the area after a shooting Sunday at television evangelist Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston. Mandatory Credit: Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters

2 off-duty law enforcement officers confronted the shooter

Moreno entered the church accompanied by her son. “Once she entered, at some point she began to fire,” the chief said. One federal law enforcement source told CNN she fired around 30 rounds.

Two off-duty officers were present: a 28-year-old Houston Police Department officer and a 38-year-old agent with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, both with less than five years of service. The two officers engaged the shooter and she was struck, the police chief said. She was pronounced dead at 2:07 pm local time.

The shooter used a legally purchased AR-15 with a “Palestine” sticker on it, police said. A federal law enforcement source previously told CNN “Free Palestine” was written on the gun. She also had a .22 caliber weapon in her bag which was not used in the attack, according to a federal law enforcement source. Investigators are trying to determine whether she was politically motivated or a disturbed individual, the source said.

“I want to commend those officers. She had a long gun and it could have been a lot worse,” Finner said. “But they stepped up and they did their job, and I want to thank them for that.”

Both officers who engaged with the shooter will be placed on administrative duty pending the investigation, as is protocol with officer-involved shootings, Finner said.

“It’s traumatic not only for our community but it’s certainly traumatic for the officers who had to take a life and we worry about their mental health as well, so our prayers are with them,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said in Sunday’s news conference.

Shooter had history of criminal charges and mental health problems

Information from Moreno’s social media accounts and local authorities paints a portrait of a single mother with a history of mental health challenges going through the ups and downs of trying to turn her life around and launch a business.

During a Monday news conference, Houston Homicide Commander Christopher Hassig said the shooter used multiple aliases, including both male and female names. Moreno was put under an order for emotional detention in 2016 and she has a mental health history documented by Houston police, Hassig said.

Records from the Texas Department of Public Safety show Moreno had a string of arrests for minor offenses over the last two decades, including possession of marijuana, an assault, illegal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest and a forgery charge. But in her 30s, she described herself on social media as the founder of a real-estate and financial services firm. By her own account on social media pages, she is involved in sales of everything from new condos to shopping malls.

A social media post in March 2020 shows a screenshot of a form letter from Lakewood Church thanking Moreno for her donation.

A CNN review showed the story of a bitter custody battle between Moreno and representatives for her ex-spouse’s family played out on her social media accounts. In 2022, when she had her divorce proceeding transferred to county court, according to an attorney who represented her, Moreno was also arrested on a weapons charge, a misdemeanor, which was cleared with two days’ time served in the Fort Bend County Jail.

According to police, there was some sort of family dispute between the shooter and her ex-husband and ex-husband’s family, some of whom are Jewish.

“This might possibly be where all this stems from,” Hassig added. He said police also found antisemitic writings connected with the shooter.

Attorney William Capasso said he represented Moreno in 2021-2022 and told CNN Genesse Ivone Moreno went by the name Jeffrey Moreno Carranza at the time.

Capasso said he later withdrew as her attorney and she represented herself in divorce proceedings.

“I am deeply saddened to learn that Ms. Moreno may be responsible for the tragic events that occurred at the Lakewood Church and pray for the recovery of (the child) and for all of the people that were affected by this terrible tragedy,” Capasso.

Police have said they believe Moreno acted as a “lone wolf” and is not part of a larger group.

Woman also threatened a bomb

Moreno threatened that she had a bomb, but authorities searched her vehicle and backpack and found no explosives, the Houston police chief said.

She was also spraying “some type of substance on the ground,” Finner said, but he did not share further details. Peña said fire authorities were on scene and were going to “take our time to ensure that any issue, any risk that we see is properly vetted.”

“Right now, I can safely say that we have not found anything that is of concern to our community or to this location, but we’re going to take our time to ensure that we look at every aspect,” the fire chief added.

The search warrant for Moreno’s home said she had yellow rope similar to a detonation cord and “substances consistent with the manufacture of explosive devices.”

CNN has reached out to the Houston Fire Department for further information.

On Sunday night, authorities searched Moreno’s home in Conroe, Texas, in connection with the shooting, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed Monday. Spokesperson Melissa Garcia told CNN the ATF-Houston Division was one of the law enforcement agencies involved in the search. The home is about 50 minutes north of Lakewood Church.

The warrant includes searching for any ammunition, firearms, explosives, cell phones, and computers in the home, among other items.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he has been in contact with local and state officials and offered “the full support and resources” of the state to help the community.

“Join Cecilia and me in praying for his community during this difficult time and for the brave men and women in blue who acted quickly to respond to this tragedy,” Abbott added.

Witness describes ‘erratic’ sound of shots and screaming

With a background in television production, Osteen took over his father’s church in 1999 and built a huge following. His services draw 45,000 attendees to the church weekly, in addition to people around the nation who tune in for online and television sermons, according to his website.

“We’re devastated,” Osteen said. “We’ve been here 65 years and to have somebody shooting at your church…”

A woman who was inside the church at the time of the shooting told CNN affiliate KHOU Osteen was greeting people after the end of the service and she was among the last to meet him.

Soon after, she told the news station, she heard repeated bangs, almost like “mechanical sounds.”

“It almost sounded like folding tables were being dismantled and dropped to the floor,” she said. “But they were erratic.”

Then, the woman said she heard another set of gunshots and saw people screaming and running. She ran into a room and squeezed inside with multiple other people, including a child. The group put two large wooden slats on the door to keep it from opening, and then, they began to pray.

“We were thankful,” she said. “We could have been a casualty. We could have been shot.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Raja Razek, Andy Rose, Ashley Killough, John Miller, and Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.