AMBRIDGE, Pa. (AP) — A man is in custody on assault charges after a witness told police he pointed a shotgun at two women and attempted to enter a predominantly Black church in a small steel town just outside Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.
Jeffrey Harris, 38, was being held in Beaver County jail on $975,000 bail Thursday, awaiting a preliminary hearing next week. He is charged with aggravated assault and a handful of other counts.
Harris, who is white, was arrested a block away without a shot being fired. He was taken into custody in Ambridge, a community of nearly 7,000 people about 16 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of downtown Pittsburgh.
Ambridge police reported in court papers that they found crystal methamphetamine on Harris, that he made “bizarre” comments about family members en route to the police station and that his nearby apartment had been set up for what looked like a possible standoff.
David Lozier, Beaver County’s district attorney, said investigators have no evidence that Harris intended to enter the Greater Dominion Church of the Millennium or that he was motivated by racial hate. Investigators have been unable to question Harris and court officials had no information Thursday about a lawyer representing Harris.
U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, who represents Ambridge, on Wednesday asked the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh for the Justice Department to investigate whether Harris violated any civil rights laws or committed any crimes against the church’s congregation.
“With hate crimes on the rise across the country, including against Black Americans, it is understandable that any community would be concerned by an armed individual terrorizing a place of worship,” Deluzio wrote. “A community not too far away from the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Greater Dominion congregation knows too well the harm that an armed individual filled with hate can do.”
Harris does not appear to have a criminal record in Beaver County.
Harris, wearing a camouflage vest, was first reported to police by a witness who told authorities he pointed a gun at her and another woman outside the Greater Dominion Church and then attempted to enter the church, according to court papers.
Police said an arriving officer encountered Harris pointing the shotgun at him a block away from the church from the entryway of a closed auto parts business. Officers arrested Harris at that spot, and Lozier said he had no information about why Harris left the area of the church or whether he was confronted there.
At the man’s apartment, police reported finding a handgun, more shotgun shells, crystal methamphetamine paraphernalia and a notebook with handwriting about “active shooting,” as well as a front door barrier and furniture arranged in what looked like a setup for a possible standoff.
On Saturday, a white man wearing a mask and firing a weapon emblazoned with a swastika gunned down three Black people in a racist attack in Jacksonville, Florida. The shooter, who had also posted racist writings online, then killed himself.