A young woman with a concealed weapons permit and a gun was on the scene at the terrorism-like attack on mourners at Greenlawn Memorial Park and might have prevented further bloodshed.
The presence of a gun was confirmed by Jennifer Timmons, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Police Department.
Timmons said the woman “presented” the gun at the scene, where accused assailant James Kester’s car had come to a stop amid the low-lying memorial tombstones and plaques. The woman had a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon in public, Timmons said.
“It’s not clear if Kester saw the gun, since it wasn’t pointed at him,” Timmons said.
The gun was not fired.
John Montgomery, 76, dean emeritus and professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, was one of the mourners at the cemetery Wednesday for the funeral of beloved family elder Margaret “Peggy” Livingston, 70. He didn’t see the gun but heard about it from numerous mourners who were in a better position to see it.
A dozen people were injured, none fatally but several seriously, when the car mowed into them during the early afternoon service.
Kester, 64, who faces 12 counts of attempted murder, weaponized his car to try to kill mourners, police and warrants said. Kester was seeking revenge against the S.C. Department of Mental Health, which had treated his daughter, who died last year. Livingston’s funeral became a target when he read her obituary earlier in the week, police said. He is being held on a $5 million bond.
Before the attack, mourners had sung “Amazing Grace” at Dunbar Funeral Home and recited “The Lord is My Shepherd” at the graveside. Montgomery then saw a car he estimated to be about 25-30 feet away gun its engine toward a lingering crowd of about 40 mourners, including a dozen children.
“The next thing I know, you hear this tremendous roar, and the car was coming right at us. ... he just slammed on the accelerator,” said Montgomery, who was grazed by the car, cut but not seriously injured.
“Bodies started flying,” he said. “I do remember seeing my son being flipped up and landing on the hood of the car, crashing onto the windshield and then rolling off the other side as the car went by. My initial thought was ‘He’s been killed.’ I didn’t see my granddaughters.”
After Montgomery saw his son, John, 45, hit, and the car speeding by, he recalls “people yelling and screaming, people crying, ‘Help me.’... There must have been seven or eight people just lying around.”
At the time, Montgomery was bleeding from a gash in his lower leg but didn’t realize it as he made his way to his son. “The next thing I saw, he popped up. I said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
After checking on his wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughters, he saw the attacker’s car – a light-colored Cadillac sedan, which had come to rest about 50 yards away in the middle of some graves.
“The windshield was dramatically cracked, the bumper was down on the ground. I went over and tried to peer in and yelled at him, ‘For God’s sake, don’t move.’ ”
One injured person, who had apparently been struck and carried by the car, was lying nearby, crying, “Help me get away. I’m afraid he’s going to run me over again.”
At that point, Montgomery’s wife of 51 years, Bonnie, went to the car window and asked the man, “Why did you do this?” He said, “ ‘Well my foot slipped, and the accelerator stuck,’ ” Montgomery said. Kester told the police a different story later.
Montgomery said it looked like the bumper on Kester’s car had snagged in the ground, keeping the car from moving. But before that, it looked like Kester might circle around and come at them again.
Police and emergency medical technicians swarmed into the cemetery within two to three minutes, Montgomery said. The police took Kester into custody. The EMTs separated people based on their injuries.
It wasn’t until the next day that Montgomery heard about the woman with the gun. “That struck me as a good thing,” he said. “We all think perhaps she prevented something else, because if he had started up again, at least one of us was prepared.” And even though Kester’s car had stopped, people believed he might come at them again. “We had the same fear: that this might not be over.”
The first night afterward, Montgomery said, he didn’t get much sleep.
Both of his granddaughters were hit by the car. One, who’s 11, had her arm broken. Another, 14, was terrifically upset and remains shaken. “She keeps asking, ‘Why would someone do this to children?’ ” Montgomery said.
As for Montomery, “I barely slept, I could not get this image of my son being flipped over the car...,” he stopped, choking up. “Then last night, I slept much better.”
His son is “very sore” with severe back pain, but he can walk, Montgomery said Friday.
People have been calling, texting, dropping food by and offering to help, and that has been nice to see, he said.
Talking about what happened is “cathartic,” he said. “I keep processing this.”