Written by Liam Stack and Jacey Fortin. (Wendy Thompson, Matt Stevens and Julia Jacobs also contributed)
A gunman killed five people in a bank in Florida on Wednesday, setting off a tense standoff with police negotiators that ended when a SWAT team burst into the building in Sebring and the man surrendered, authorities said.
The gunman called emergency dispatchers at 12:37 p.m. Wednesday and said, “I have shot five people,” police said in a statement. The Sebring Police Department and the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office quickly responded to a SunTrust Bank branch on U.S. Route 27, where the shooter had barricaded himself inside.
Chief Karl Hoglund of the Sebring police said that officers had tried to persuade the shooter to exit the bank, about 80 miles south of Orlando, but he surrendered only after the sheriff’s SWAT team entered the building. Police said the gunman’s victims were the only five people in the bank at the time of the shooting.
“We are sorry to learn that we have at least five victims, people who were senselessly murdered, as a result of his act in this bank,” Hoglund said at a brief news conference late Wednesday afternoon.
He identified the man in custody as Zephen Xaver, 21, a resident of Sebring. A photo and video of the suspect posted online by the sheriff’s department Wednesday showed him wearing a T-shirt that bore the image of four scythe-wielding grim reapers on horseback.
Scott Dressel, a spokesman for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, said Xaver was being held at Highlands County Jail and would be charged with five counts of first-degree murder.
Hoglund told reporters that investigators had not finished identifying the victims and had not notified the families of those they had identified. “This is a very dynamic and ongoing investigation,” he added.
Xaver had recently been training to work as a correctional officer at Avon Park Correctional Institution, a prison about 20 miles north of the bank where the shooting occurred, said Patrick Manderfield, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
He was hired as a trainee in November and resigned Jan. 9, Manderfield said. He had no disciplinary record with the department.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who traveled to the area Wednesday afternoon, posted a condolence message from him and his wife, Casey, on Twitter.
“This is a terrible day for Sebring, Highlands County and for the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “Casey and I extend our most sincere condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims. The people of Florida stand with the community of Sebring.”
The governor said the gunman was “an individual that needs to face very swift and exacting justice.”
Bill Rogers, chairman and CEO of SunTrust, said in a statement that the company was “working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved.” He said the company was “deeply saddened” by the loss of life at the bank.
Sebring, a sleepy town of about 10,000 whose meandering borders are dotted with lakes, boasts a historic downtown and an international raceway. On Wednesday night, it was swarming with wailing police cars, buzzing helicopters and media vehicles.
Don Elwell, a member of the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners, said families of the victims had gathered at a hotel in Sebring to wait for updates from police.
“We have a whole lot more questions right now than answers,” he said.
Both the shootings and the lack of information had left the community in shock, he said.
“For us — I have some family in Las Vegas, where there was that big shooting, and they said, ‘We’re sorry to welcome you to our club,’” Elwell said Wednesday, referring to a 2017 shooting that killed 59 people. “Obviously that was a different scale, but here in little Sebring it might as well be same.”
The episode Wednesday is just the latest of several high-profile shootings in Florida that have roiled the state in recent months.
Last February, a young gunman barged into his former high school in Parkland, opening fire on terrified students and teachers and leaving 17 dead. In August, a man with a handgun killed two people at a video game tournament in Jacksonville before fatally shooting himself. And in the fall, a man walked into a yoga studio in Tallahassee, and shot six people — two fatally — before killing himself.
Florida, which bears the official nickname the Sunshine State, is sometimes referred to as the Gunshine State because of its traditionally loose restrictions on firearms. But in March, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed an array of gun limits into law that included raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 and extending the waiting period to three days.
It was the most aggressive action on gun control taken in the state in decades, and the National Rifle Association almost immediately sued.