SELMA, AL (WSFA) - A well-known Selma pastor and his deacons are thankful to be alive after a horrifying holdup at their church.
They were lined up to be shot after the suspects took what they wanted.
Now, the search is heating up for the gunmen and Selma police think they could have been behind other robberies.
Reverend B.T. Booker Jr. is having nightmares, and he's jumpy whenever someone approaches him after being held at gunpoint outside of his church along with two of his deacons. They were locking the doors at Morning Star Baptist Church on Buckeye Avenue around 7 p.m. and coming out to their cars last Thursday night (Jan. 26) after a board meeting.
They noticed three men walking down the street in front of the church.
"They walked by and all of a sudden, before the blink of an eye, they were right on us with guns," Rev. Booker, the pastor, said. "One was tall, one was medium at about 5'8" and the other was about 5'6" or 5'7". They told us that it was a robbery and they were pushing us around. They robbed us. They went in our pockets and took our wallets."
According to Rev. Booker, the suspects were armed with a sawed-off shotgun and two pistols. One of the deacons tried to run away, but the gunmen caught him and forced him to the ground and put a gun to his head. They went through his pockets and brought him closer to the pastor and other deacon, in between Booker's car and the fellowship hall.
They then demanded the keys to Booker's car.
"They lined us up to kill us. They told us they were going to kill us with such cursing they were putting on us. One of the fellows that was with them said 'Let's not kill them.' He begged for our lives. He was one of the robbers too. They couldn't get into my car so they took off running and that was it. It was all less than five minutes," Rev. Booker added.
A neighbor heard the victims pleading with the gunmen and called police.
"I was hollering for my life, begging them not to shoot us or kill us," Booker added. "They really seemed like they were mad. It was quite frightening."
Selma police released surveillance video to WSFA 12 News of a robbery two days earlier at the Family Dollar store nearby on Broad Street, and investigators think it could be the same suspects. It happened Jan. 24 around 6:30 p.m.
(A Google street map showing how close the violent holdups were to each other. Police believe they may be connected.)
The footage shows three gunmen with their faces covered. One suspect was armed with a shotgun and the other two had handguns, including one with an extended magazine. As one of the suspects pointed a gun at the cashier behind the counter, the other two stood guard at the door.
Lt. Tory Neely says they were "violent" and "aggressive" as they demanded money from the clerk, hit her in the head with a gun, and took money from the register. They fired several shots inside and outside of the store and even robbed customers at the front door before running away.
Neely thinks the Family Dollar incident is connected to the robbery at Morning Star Baptist Church because of the description provided by the victims and due to the close proximity of both locations.
"They looked just like the size of all those same fellows," Rev. Booker said after watching the security video. "I hope they get them so no one else gets hurt. Someone is going to get hurt."
Selma's new police chief, former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier, revealed at his swearing-in ceremony this week that he will be turning to state and federal agencies for help combating the city's crime.
"We're not taking this on alone. There's already been some initial conversations and there's already a meeting scheduled. So we're going to ask for that help and I feel confident we're going to get that help," Collier said.
Rev. Booker offered his support to the new police chief and his officers.
"I hope he can get something accomplished. I really hope they can get something done because it's bad here. Every time we turn around someone is getting shot, someone is getting killed," Booker added. "I hate that it's come to this because people are getting afraid even to come to church."
Meanwhile, Morning Star Baptist Church has canceled all of its nighttime meetings and is increasing their security measures after what their church leaders went through. Rev. Booker says he will do whatever he can to protect his congregation.
He has been the pastor there for the past 35 years and has never had to deal with any suspicious or criminal activity at the church before.
"We will have people on duty during regular services at our church," he said. "We can't afford to let them have a victory and for us to close our doors because of that. We're going to have church."
Anyone with information on the robberies is asked to call Selma/Dallas County Crimestoppers at 1-866-44CRIME (1-866-442-7463) Also, call 334-874-2125 (Selma PD's Criminal Investigations Division) or 334-874-2190 (Secret Witness Line).