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Three dead in shooting outside Cornerstone Church in Ames

People walk around outside the Cornerstone Church in Ames.
Grant Gerlock

Updated June 3 at 4:30 p.m. CT

The man who shot and killed two women and then took his own life outside of an Ames church Thursday evening had a prior relationship with one of the victims, law enforcement said Friday.

Law enforcement are calling the shooting a “targeted act of violence.”

During a news conference at the Story County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald identified the shooter as Johnathan Whitlatch, 33, of Boone. The victims were identified as Eden Montang, 22 and Vivian Flores, 21, both Iowa State University students.

They were killed in the parking lot of the Cornerstone Church, a megachurch in the outskirts of Ames, where they were to attend a Bible study program, Fitzgerald said. Whitlatch apparently shot himself in the head and died on the scene.

Fitzgerald said Whitlatch was armed with a 9mm pistol as he approached Montang, who was with Flores and another woman in the parking lot. Whitlatch fired several rounds, killing Montang and Flores. The third woman was unharmed and made it to safety, the sheriff said.

Whitlatch and Montang had “just broken up from a relationship,” Fitzgerald said. Whitlatch was arrested and charged by the Ames Police Department on May 31 for third-degree harassment and impersonating a public official. The charges were related to Montang, the sheriff said, adding that Whitlatch posted bond and was scheduled to appear in court June 10.

“This was a situation that could have unfolded much more tragically had this just been a random act of violence,” Fitzgerald said, adding that there were more than 80 students in the church for the Bible study program. “If he had found his way inside the church with that intent,” Fitzgerald said, “it would have been much more tragic than what we have today.”

Ames Mayor John Haila released a statement Friday afternoon expressing sympathy to the church and Iowa State University community.

“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,” Haila said in a statement. “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.”

Church holds prayer service to mourn victims

Hundreds gathered at Cornerstone Church for a prayer service Friday morning to grieve the deaths of Montang and Flores.

Church members and family filled the auditorium. They embraced each other and cried together through prayers and worship songs.

Lead Pastor Mark Vance said Montang and Flores were involved in Salt Company, a youth ministry for Iowa State University students. The shooting occurred just as a summer ministry event was set to get underway inside the church.

“They’re loved, they’re treasured and that’s why there’s grief,” Vance said. “Mourning is what we do to say that we love.”

During the service, Terry Montang took the stage — seemingly unexpected —and said his daughter was a person of faith.

“She died for her faith. I’m proud to have been her father,” he said. “And I don’t know what more there is to say than that she is with the Lord.”

The Ames shooting happened around the same time that President Joe Biden was addressing the nation about the recent mass shootings across the country. He called on Congress to pass gun legislation, such as a ban on assault weapons.

Story County Captain Nick Lennie referenced the recent nationwide mass shootings as he spoke at the news conference.

“This is a very tragic event for our community, but I think also nationwide." Lennie said, "as we experience violent incidents nationwide, and it only seems to increase.”

Law enforcement conducted two search warrants, and reported they found an AR-15 rifle at Whitlatch’s home, which they say was not involved in the shooting.

They also found additional 9mm ammunition in Whitlatch’s pickup truck and a receipt from a West Des Moines business, Sheriff Fitzgerald reported. The receipt revealed he had bought ammunition an hour before the shooting.

Sheriff Fitzgerald said law enforcement are continuing to investigate the situation. They’ll be looking at social media and interviewing people at the church.

“There's a whole host of things that we need to still complete in order to bring a full understanding as to what happened and why,” Fitzgerald said.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.