Lexington faith communities stunned, searching for meaning after three killings

Messages of condolence in for Chris McCutchan family

A sampling of social media messages for the family of the late Chris McCutchan.
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A sampling of social media messages for the family of the late Chris McCutchan.

When bullets tore into Christopher McCutchan and Tammy Ricard on May 28 and, later that night, through alleged gunman Heath McCutchan, they also ripped through a mesh of interconnected faith communities in Lexington County.

What police called a “family disagreement” — and what friends of the McCutchans call a complicated brotherly relationship — birthed unimaginable devastation.

Three people, all loved by others, all members of Lexington churches, are dead and their families and communities are searching for answers in senselessness.

‘JESUS in all caps’

Long before Christopher McCutchan was killed in a building he hoped to turn into an event venue, according to his friend Todd Carnes, McCutchan considered what would happen after he died.

McCutchan, 43, wrote a letter to his family in his journal one night before a trip. He outlined his wishes for his funeral and his legacy.

“I got a strange feeling tonight as I leave with my bride, Wendy, for Florida,” he wrote, according to Radius Lexington pastor Russell Johnson, who read the passage at McCutchan’s livestreamed funeral service on June 3.

McCutchan, 43, wrote about the “precious” people in his life, starting with his three children and expanding outward to his nieces and nephews, the family members he’d drawn to South Carolina so they could be together.

And he apologized.

“Please forgive me. I was very imperfect. I’m just a man reliant on Christ to give me His strength,” McCutchan wrote, according to Radius pastor John Reeves, who dedicated the church’s Sunday service on June 2 to Chris and Heath, who also attended the church.

In outlining what he wanted his funeral to be like, McCutchan demanded his church preach the word of God, which friends say he kept as the core of his life’s mission.

“Make sure JESUS is preached,” he wrote in his journal, Johnson said, emphasizing that McCutchan wrote “Jesus in all caps.”

And once the funeral was over, McCutchan wanted his loved ones to “start an orphanage in Cambodia and Uganda,” he wrote in his journal.

He spent years of his life traveling to and living in far-flung places where he saw an opportunity for work as a missionary. He left his hometown of Evansville, Indiana, as a young man and spent a year teaching children baseball and ministering to youth in Africa.

“His engine got revved up when you talked about places like Uganda and Cambodia and Moldova,” Reeves said during the service. “He couldn’t wait to get another group of people so that they could hear about Jesus.”

McCutchan later moved to Berkeley, California, to teach college students about Jesus and work as an elementary school teacher, friends say.

He attended seminary at Columbia International University from 2002 to 2005, and graduated with a master’s degree in intercultural studies, according to a university spokesperson. A yearbook shows he was a member of a council that planned activities and fellowship events for graduate and seminary students, the spokesperson said.

Chris McCutchan and family

Along the way, McCutchan fell in love with Wendy, a woman whose excitement for mission trips first drew him to her, friends said. They wed, though Chris would refer to Wendy as his “bride” long after their nuptials.

Then, the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused in August 2005 called to him. Chris and Wendy moved from Columbia to Gulfport, Mississippi, to help rebuild homes and offer relief to victims, according to the McCutchans’ friends. His passion for construction and homebuilding sprung from the disaster.

When McCutchan finally landed back in South Carolina more than a decade ago, he wanted his family together, sharing memories and uniting in communion at the same church, Radius. He and Wendy had three children.

He moved near his younger brother, Brett, and gradually lured his two other brothers — Mark and David, who went by his middle name, Heath — and their families, according to Reeves.

Chris especially wanted to help his older brother, Heath, 45, according to Reeves and others familiar with the situation.

Court records show Heath and his wife, Jennifer, filed for bankruptcy in Indiana in 2006. Their first child was 2 years old and they and were nearly $200,000 in debt, according to that filing.

“The dream was to help a brother who was troubled, for Chris to invite his brother into his family, to help him find a work situation,” Reeves said.

Heath and Jennifer had two daughters. He worked on heating, ventilation and air cooling systems in Evansville. Once in South Carolina, Chris hired him to work for one of his businesses, Master’s Men Remodeling and Construction (Chris also ran Stone River event venue along the West Columbia riverwalk).

All four McCutchan brothers were living in the same place again by spring 2019.

An ‘angel’

Tammy Ricard, 51, who was a meticulous bookkeeper and secretary for multiple construction companies in Lexington, worked for Chris McCutchan.

A lifelong Lexington resident and graduate of Airport High School, she also volunteered at Boiling Springs United Methodist Church in Lexington as a treasurer and youth ministry helper. She loved spontaneous gatherings and taking cruises, according to loved ones who spoke at her funeral service on June 2. A “very loving,” outgoing introvert, Ricard was also in transition.

Five years before she died, her husband, Gary, died from cancer.

“She never really recovered from that, not that we ever do,” said Rev. Ken Prill, who worked with and befriended Ricard over the course of his four years leading the church.

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With the love of her life dead and her sons grown, Ricard was seeking something to spark her light again, friend and fellow church volunteer Rose Bass said — even if she didn’t know what that something was.

“She felt like she was falling through the cracks,” Bass said.

Ricard tried bereavement groups, but the people there were too negative, Prill said Ricard told him. Yet amid her grief and loss, she was continuously serving others, Bass said.

“‘Just tell me what you need.’ I heard that many, many, many times,” Bass said.

When Bass’s husband suffered a stroke and she was caring for him during early recovery, Bass said Ricard would show up out of the blue with lunches and suppers.

She carried around gift cards and cash to give to those in need, Prill said.

“If there was ever an angel, she was one,” Bass said.

The night of May 28

The brothers’ business relationship soured recently, with Heath leaving the construction company, according to a statement Mark McCutchan gave to police. Heath also was described by Reeves as “troubled.”

On the afternoon of May 28, Heath walked into his brother’s building on Railroad Avenue in Lexington with a handgun and opened fire on his brother and Ricard, according to police.

Mark — the last brother to move to Lexington — and Wendy McCutchan showed up to the business before police arrived, according to an incident report.

Wendy collapsed on the floor, crying. Inside an office, Ricard’s body slumped over itself in a chair. Chris lay on the floor with “a large amount of blood” beside him, the responding Lexington sheriff’s deputy reported.

Mark told police to look for Heath, who had recently stopped working for his brother’s business and was “very mad,” according to the police report.

In the hours that followed, police searched for a white Ford F150 work vehicle Heath had taken from the business, according to a statement Mark gave police.

By 10:45 p.m., Heath’s body was being pulled from the waters of Lake Murray. He had killed himself on the dock of a waterfront property on Mooring Lane, investigators said.

Pressing on

In the wake of it all, Lexington churchgoers wrestled with pain, and with that unsettling, persistent echo: why?

Why were people the church held up as Christlike — though they were as flawed as everyone else — ripped from the world by such violence? How could the God they served allow it?

“If you’re looking for a logical explanation for why this happened, I have none,” Prill said. “If you’re looking for it in Scripture, there is none.”

At Radius, where a mission fund was established in Chris McCutchan’s name within hours of his death, a broken family is working to heal, said Carnes, former pastor of the church and a friend of the McCutchans.

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Melissa McCutchan Facebook

Carnes said he’s been blown away watching the McCutchan family push against the pain of its losses and do the opposite of what’s expected.

He said he’s watched Wendy McCutchan extend a hand and support to her sister-in-law, Heath’s wife, Jennifer, and her nieces, even helping to raise money for them. He’s seen them sit side-by-side days after the two brothers’ untimely deaths. These are the awe-inspiring moments within the destruction, he said.

“I hate the fact that the faith and the goodness of the church shines the brightest in the darkest of nights,” Carnes said. “But it’s just true that in these dark nights, there are some beautiful glimpses of what faith and grace and mercy really mean. And you can’t really see them when everything is daylight and just rolling along.”

How to help:

Donate to the Chris McCutchan Memorial Missions Fund at Radius Church

Donate to the crowdfunding campaign to support Heath McCutchan’s family

Donate on behalf of Tammy Ricard to the American Cancer Society or to the Rheumatology Research Foundation

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

For Deaf and Hard of Hearing assistance, you can call 1-800-799-4889. Para español, puede llamar la Red Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio, 1-888-628-9454. Fore more information, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.