Courage under fire

Ashton Johnson
Co-Executive Editor

Registrar Staci Pollan Martin was so busy with her graduation duties last December that she did not hear about that morning’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., until it was mentioned in the prayer at the ceremony. Then the memories flooded back.

“I know I must have gone pale because I remember just feeling sick and I wanted to cry thinking of those children who were younger than I was,” Martin said.

Martin was just 10 years old when a gunman burst into her church and opened fire.

“It’s just heartbreaking and makes you relive the whole thing. I just want to reach out to those kids who survived and say ‘I was around your age when something like this happened to me and you can go on with your life,’” Martin said.

Jonathen Ruesch / THE FLARE || Registrar Staci Martin stands in front of the monument at Daingerfield First Baptist Church. Martin was just 10 years old when a gunman burst through the doors of the church and opened fire.
Jonathen Ruesch / THE FLARE || Registrar Staci Martin stands in front of the monument at Daingerfield First Baptist Church. Martin was just 10 years old when a gunman burst through the doors of the church and opened fire.

Thirty-two years, nine months and 30 days after the Daingerfield shooting, Martin feels compelled to share her story that changed her life forever.

The date was Sunday, June 22, 1980.

Daingerfield–population 2,500–was a quiet, small town with a pretty church downtown. First Baptist was a safe, peaceful place, but on that day one man’s hatred changed everything.

“My family was always in church, so it wasn’t unusual for us to be there that day. My mother and I were sitting about half way down on the left hand side of the church as you face toward the front. My brother was sitting with a friend closer to the front and my dad was a deacon so he was waiting on the front row to take the offering, “ Martin said. “It is important to me to know that we weren’t all sitting together when something unexpected happened.”

The services had just begun that sunny Sunday morning when Alvin Lee King III, brandishing an AR-15 rifle with an attached bayonet, burst through the doors of Daingerfield First Baptist Church and shouted “This is war,” before firing randomly into the right side of the sanctuary.

“We were singing the hymn ‘More about Jesus.’ It wasn’t one I knew very well, but I will always remember that now,” Martin said.

The puzzled congregation turned to look at the back of the church.

“I heard a noise that sounded like firecrackers. My first thought was that something had gone wrong with the soundboard system because I knew it was coming from behind me,” Martin said. “Before I could turn around, my mother pushed me down into the floor and up under the pew in front of me. I didn’t really know what was going on, but she actually got on top of me.”

After only 10 seconds and a hail of gunfire, five people were dead and 10 others were wounded.

“I heard people just screaming and then somebody who was in the row ahead of me and was also down on the floor was just saying ‘We need to pray, We need to pray’ and then all of a sudden it stopped,” Martin said.

Usher Gene Gandy had stood to greet the latecomer when the church doors burst open and was immediately shot several times in the chest. As King continued to spread gunfire across the right side of the sanctuary, soundboard operator Chris Hall jumped at him, pushing him back into the foyer.

The gunman’s rifle, glasses and combat helmet went clattering to the floor. King then pulled the .22-caliber pistol out of his vest and began firing at Hall, who managed to crawl down a nearby stairwell.

Red McDaniel and Kenneth Truitt bear-hugged and pushed King out the front doors of the church, down the three steps and out onto the lawn, all while King was shooting both men in their chests. There on the grass,  McDaniel and Truitt died.

“They sacrificed their lives. They’re [McDaniel and Truitt] heroes. They did not hesitate. Mr. McDaniel’s wife had been shot and he tended to her for a minute and said he would be back, for her to stay there, something like that and he went after him [King]. That’s incredible,” Martin said. “There’s a monument in front of the church that memorializes the heroism of Red McDaniel and Kenneth Truitt. It’s amazing to think about the sacrifice that someone else made so that you can live. It makes you eternally grateful that there are people in the world who are like that.”

King escaped from the front of the church, walked around the side of the building and crossed the street. He stood in the parking lot of the fire station and shot himself in the temple.

Meanwhile, inside the sanctuary, frantic people began to try to make sense of what had just happened.

“Our pastor was sick, and the pastor that day was actually filling in,” Martin said. “I remember when he got on the microphone and began telling people to calm down and that we needed to pray. At some point he said ‘We all need to get out of here. Walk to the front of the church and out a side door.’ They didn’t want us to see what had happened.”

Attempting to block the children’s view of those injured, congregation members helped to rush them out the back doors.

“I remember them routing us through the hallways of our Sunday school building to keep us from seeing the things going on outside,” Martin said. “Curious, I looked and could see bodies on the concrete in front of the church.”

As the congregation made its way outside, the chaos continued.

“In a small town like Daingerfield you don’t have a big hospital to take people to, but there was a small hospital in the nearby city of Lone Star. It was about seven miles away, so they started taking people there,” Martin said. “My mother’s good friend and her pregnant daughter had been shot so before I knew it we were at the hospital.”

Hospital in the Pines (now closed) was overwhelmed by the number of people in the small emergency room.

“My mother was taking her friend’s rings off and putting pressure on her arm to try to stop the bleeding, and while all of this was going on my brother and I watched an ambulance pull up,” Martin said. “It was the gunman. I remember standing outside with a crowd of people when they pulled the gurney out of the ambulance. They didn’t bring him inside, but just started treating him in the parking lot.”

King was still alive and had suffered only a minor injury to the head.

“We were just standing there, watching him,” Martin said. “I had no idea who it was at the time because I had never looked around when it [the shooting] happened, but my mother and many others immediately recognized him.”

King had previously been a math teacher at Daingerfield High School and was well-known around town, especially in recent events.

“My mother had previously taught with him and had served on the grand jury who had recently indicted him for incest with his daughter,” Martin said.

King was scheduled to begin trial Monday, June 23, 1980. He had asked many congregation members to be character witnesses in his trial. All refused.

“I remember listening to the crowd whisper and mumble among themselves about King’s possible motive [while at the hospital], and I remember mentioning to a woman that mother had been on the grand jury,” Martin said. “I will never forget her saying, ‘Well maybe that’s why he did it.’”

After he was treated in Lone Star, King was transported to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.

“That afternoon we went back to the church to meet family members, and I remember seeing the pews and carpet on the grass in front of the church,” Martin said. “They immediately started ripping out those pews that had bullet holes in them. They even ripped out the carpet that had blood on it.”

Martin and her family gathered at her grandparents’ house for the rest of the afternoon.

“I remember sitting around the kitchen table just feeling really numb,” Martin said. “We could not believe that something like that could happen. Now we are used to hearing about this stuff, unfortunately, but back then that did not happen.”

The summer of 1980 has been recorded as one of the hottest summers in East Texas.

“It rained that day and it had hardly rained that summer. That afternoon a dark cloud came and it rained for a while and then it quit. It was just strange,” Martin said. “Many people call it ‘the day the angels cried.’”

Phone lines were busy and all media outlets were transfixed on the city of Daingerfield.

“Of course back then we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have 24-hour television news and you certainly didn’t have cell phones. There was a lot of uncertainty once it started getting out later that afternoon,” Martin said. “We had an influx of media come in–news helicopters from Dallas. We didn’t have counselors to help people or any of that. We just coped on our own.”

Daingerfield buzzed with talk of the shooting and members of the town were forced to face the tragedy.

“It was dealing with something unheard of first of all and in a small town where you think you’re safe. We didn’t lock our doors and my parents left their keys in their cars most of the time,” Martin said. “We lived out in the country and my brother and I slept in my parents’ room because we were afraid to be by ourselves and afraid that that man would come back.”

Martin’s parents placed a mattress at the end of their bed, and Martin and her brother slept there for a month.

“When you’re a kid and you hear ‘he’s going to plea insanity and get out’ that’s all you think about. You think he’s going to get out of jail and come back,” Martin said.

Martin and the residents of Daingerfield were confronted with the event everywhere they went.

“I remember going to the lake that summer in Daingerfield and seeing a news helicopter fly overhead, so you couldn’t forget about it,” Martin said. “We just tried to get over it on our own, and only the people who were actually there could understand and help you cope with it.”

Martin and her family were in church the next Sunday along with their congregation and many more.

“My parents were bound and determined that we were going to go back to church that next Sunday. Nothing was going to keep us from going back to our church home, we had to be strong and show that some evil person could not overcome something that was good,” Martin said. “It was a packed service, and in fact the attendance went up tremendously after that.”

The sanctuary revealed bullet holes in the walls, hardwood floors that were once covered by blood-stained carpet and a room full of horrific memories.

“That Sunday I wore these little flip flop shoes that had a wooden heel. I had wanted them so much and I can distinctly remember how loud they were on the wooden floor,” Martin said. “I didn’t want to hear loud; I wanted to be quiet.”

King remained in Rusk State Hospital for 18 months before being relocated to Morris County Jail. Just hours before he was scheduled to return to a courtroom where a district judge was considering whether to relocate a court hearing to determine if he was competent to aid in his defense at his murder trial, King hanged himself with strips of a towel in his Morris County Jail cell.

“I remember very distinctly the day he killed himself. I was in the sixth grade and the phone rang, and when the phone rings early in the morning, it’s usually not good news,” Martin said. “I just had the biggest sense of relief. It was like a weight had been lifted off all of us.”

Even today Martin is still affected by shooting-related incidents.

“As I got older, maybe college age and older, and could really look back on what an unusual experience it was and how tragic it was. When you are sort of removed from the situation it makes you really think ‘I can’t believe I went through something like that,’” Martin said. “It becomes more unbelievable as time goes by and it’s not as fresh.”

Martin says it makes her more aware of her surroundings.

“There is a side of me that says ‘I’ve already been through this awful experience. What are the odds of this happening to me again?’ and that’s the logic that you tell yourself to try to cope,” Martin said.

Though Martin has experienced an unusual and tragic event, the happenings of that day haven’t held her back.

“I take the positive aspects out of it; like the heroes, the outpouring of support we got and the fact that we could go on with our lives,” Martin said. “Not many people have been in an experience like ours. God pulled us through it and let us prosper beyond that.”