‘It did happen here’

Jerry Waddell sits with the many clippings from 1988 when he helped capture Cheun-Phon Ji after he shot and killed a man during a church service.

Could it happen in Emporia? Yes. It already has.

For some area residents, the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., brought back memories from 1988, when Cheun-Phon Ji, a 29-year-old from Taiwan, entered Calvary Baptist Church, 702 Arundel St., and opened fire on the congregation.

“It did happen here. It could happen again, and we need to be on our guard,” said Jerry Waddell, who was attending the Sunday morning service at the church the day of the shooting.

Tom DeWeese of Americus died at the church of a gunshot wound to the heart. Four others were hospitalized with injuries, and two more managed to dodge the bullets Ji sprayed into the church sanctuary.

Waddell took time Wednesday afternoon to talk about his memories of the incident, and his role in ending the shooting.

Waddell chased Ji from the church and wrestled him to the pavement where, with the assistance of two other men from the church, Ji was held until police arrived.

“Somebody had to do something,” Waddell said. “Obviously I was in a position to do something.”

Waddell became the first civilian to receive the Gold Award for Valor from the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, for his courage in apprehending Ji. He was nominated for the honor by former Emporia Police Chief Larry Blomenkamp and former Lyon County Sheriff Cliff Hacker.

According to Gazette archives, Ji — also known here as Paul Ji — graduated from Emporia State University in 1984 with a master’s degree. During his time here, he’d had a brief friendship with a member of the church, and sometimes had attended services and a Bible class there.

“He apparently had visions of some romantic attachment to a girl at the church that didn’t want anything to do with him,” Waddell said.

Ji later left the area and lived on both the East and West Coasts for a time. He was driving a late-model Cadillac with California license plates when he returned to Emporia on March 6, 1988, and drove to the church.

That morning, a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper stopped Ji about three miles south of the Emporia interchange on the Turnpike to give him a warning ticket for speeding, He apparently was en route to the church at the time.

When he arrived, he parked his car in the parsonage driveway, entered the church from a seldom-used side door, and walked to the back of the sanctuary shortly after the service began. Ji had slipped a clip of ammunition into his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and put on ear protectors.

As usher Scott Davies approached to hand a church bulletin to Ji, Davies saw Ji raise a gun toward him and fire twice. The men were about 20 feet apart.

“I don’t know how he missed, but he missed,” Davies was quoted in a Gazette article after the shooting.

Davies jumped behind a pillar and made his way to a telephone to call 911.

Ji had used 15 bullets and was attempting to install another clip when Waddell saw what he was doing and quickly rose to subdue him.

“I was the first one up and chased him out of the church,” Waddell said. “Rick Grossenbacher saw what was going on and followed me out of the church.

Waddell at that point did not have time for fear.

“I was angry more than anything, for someone coming in and disrupting the church like that,” Waddell said. “You don’t really think about the danger there. You just know something has to be done. … Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize that Tom DeWeese had been killed.”

Ji had a head start on Waddell and it seemed that he might somehow escape, so Waddell used the only weapon he had at hand — a hymnal he had been singing from just before the shooting started.

“I was chasing him out of the building, out in the street, and I couldn’t quite catch him, so I threw my hymnal,” Waddell recalled on Wednesday.

The hymnal hit Ji in the head and caused him to slow momentarily. Waddell caught up to the shooter and grabbed him around the neck, bringing him to the pavement.

“We slid clear out in the middle of the street,” he said. “I was on top of him.”

Grossenbacher landed on top of both of them to keep Ji held to the ground, and another church member, Richard Goza, was not far behind. Goza grabbed the gun that Ji still held in his hand.

“Ji asked Rick, ‘Don’t you know me?’ or something like that,” Waddell said. “He commented something like, ‘I want to kill Christians. You’re all like Jim Bakker,’” an evangelist who was sent to prison for misappropriating funds from his and Tammy Faye Bakker’s television ministry.

Waddell, Grossenbacher and Goza were cited later in a Kansas House of Representatives resolution for their courage and actions in capturing Ji and holding him for police.

“Waddell probably saved a bunch of lives today,” Police Lt. Larry Adams said in a Gazette article after the shooting. “If he hadn’t made a move, that guy probably would have re-loaded.”

Ji was tried in Lyon County District Court and found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted first-degree murder. The trial was held in March 1990, about two years after the shooting.

In an interview with The Gazette after the trial, Ji contended that his actions were “the result of hatred caused by his years of victimization in an oppressive American society.”

He was sentenced to life in prison on the murder charge and to six terms of 10 years to life on the attempted murder charges. He currently is serving time at Ellsworth, a medium- to high-security penitentiary operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Although the shooting is 18 years in the past, it is something that never really leaves Waddell’s mind. Reports of shootings at schools, universities and in workplaces across the country are continuing reminders to him that safety is something that can never be taken for granted.

And he was reminded of the small, unpredictable world we live in when his stepdaughter called this week to say that the daughter of a friend was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting rampage.

“Young people today have a lot of stress and strain on them,” he said. “I don’t know what the solution is. I wish I had some real words of wisdom that could fix all that.”

He’s bothered by assumptions that Emporia is a “safe” place to be, and that nothing would ever happen on the university campus.

“I imagine those kids back in Virginia would have said the same thing the day before,” Waddell said.

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