On Sunday, 24 September, a resident of Laurel, Maryland, contacted the Anne Arundel County (Md.) Police Department to report several Instagram posts made by an acquaintance. The tipster believed the posts made threats against Park Valley Church in Haymarket, Virginia, on the opposite side of the Washington, D.C. metro area from Laurel. Pictures posted of the church were apparently taken by the suspect in the pre-dawn hours of 24 September. Anne Arundel Police processed the information and requested that Fairfax County (Va.) Police go to the suspect’s residence in Falls Church for a welfare check. They found he was not at home. Meanwhile, authorities determined the description of the suspect’s vehicle. Already concerned about the threatening statements directed at Park Valley Church, Fairfax County Police contacted the Prince William County Police Department to advise that the suspect might be in their jurisdiction attempting to attack the church. A Prince William officer working an off-duty assignment directing traffic at the church found the suspect’s vehicle in the parking lot.

Meanwhile, the church’s security team had observed a man wearing all black clothing and sunglasses (on a rainy day and after he entered the building) enter through a rear or side door. Reporting by CNN depicts the security team pursuing the man to make contact with him, following him first to the sanctuary’s balcony level, then through a door marked “Do Not Enter,” and eventually into the church’s foyer, from where he appeared to be ready to enter the sanctuary’s ground level as services started. At least twice, the team is described has having “confronted” the man before he changed directions and moved again. At this point, the off-duty officer coordinated with the security team to detain and question the man, who the officer described as cooperative. The officer found a loaded handgun, an extra magazine, and a knife on the man’s person. The man surrendered his handgun for safekeeping. Fairfax County officers obtained a search warrant for the man’s residence and located what the police chief described as a “kill manifesto.” Police are convinced they stopped a mass attack at the last possible moment. The man has been charged, at least preliminarily, with making threats and carrying a weapon in a house of worship. He told police he didn’t intend to harm anyone.

Observations and Takeaways


It is utterly inspiring to see so many things go right to prevent a mass attack in a church. Concilium rejoices with this congregation that God showed His hand so mightily through the actions of a bold tipster, three different county police departments in two states, an alert and active church security team, and an off-duty police officer. We have several observations that reinforce our common teaching points.

Concilium Insight has viewed the posts shown in reporting by NBC News 4 Washington. The posts show pictures of Park Valley Church in the pre-dawn hours, apparently of Sunday, 24 September. The suspect strongly indicates he is preparing to kill men in the church out of frustration with God for some misfortune in life, which may have been linked to government service and perceived unjust treatment by employers.

1) See Something, Say Something Saves Lives

The suspect’s acquaintance who saw the Instagram posts took quick action to notify police. This is how the thwarting of the attack began. People often hesitate to report suspicious activity because they are unsure of what they saw or are reluctant to get involved. This tipster overcame or never thought of those hangups and left the analysis and follow-up of the threatening posts in the hands of police, as should you. They are the professionals trained to determine what should be done about your tip.

2) Mass Violence Prevention is a Community Effort

The tipster knew the suspect but does not appear to have had a connection to the church. Any given person in any given church might hear or observe violent ideation or attack planning from an acquaintance in the community, a coworker, family member, or friend. The attack planner may even be a member or attendee of the church. A congregation educated about the “attack planning cycle” and the “pathway to violence” will be equipped to protect the church and the larger community. The Prince William County Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit promotes and manages a “Worship Watch” program for crime prevention training and information sharing between houses of worship. This forward-leaning posture by the department and area churches may have helped set the
stage for the swift preventive action that occurred. If you have an opportunity to participate in such a network, you should.

3) Inter-agency Cooperation is Crucial

This factor is outside the control of churches, but the three police departments involved in this case deserve every bit of credit they receive for quickly processing, sharing, and acting upon threat intelligence. They literally started several hours behind the suspect and caught up to him through the power of communication.

4) Safety Teams are Essential

The church’s security team apparently detected the suspect, flagged his demeanor and behavior as suspicious, and began following him before they received the threat intelligence from the police. Had they not done so, police would have been starting from “zero” looking for a needle in a haystack, and the intelligence may not have reached the safety team in time to prevent the suspect from opening fire. Don’t hold back time and money for training and equipment from your church security specialists if it’s available, and always bolster them with moral support and a clear understanding of their purpose and their actual activities.

5) “Soft Skills” Won the Day

While the security team may have been minutes away from needing to draw their own weapons and return fire, they didn’t have to in this case. They successfully detected, assessed, followed, and interdicted the suspect without using force. They were proactive upon detecting suspicious behavior and pre-attack indicators, keeping this incident “left of the bang” because of their proactive approach. It is always better to prevent than react to an attack. Furthermore, the suspect’s movements in response to theirs indicates they were seeking to make contact, and he was being evasive. Even though he reportedly avoided two attempts by the team to “confront” him, the bottom line here is that they very likely threw a wrench into his plan just by forcing him onto the defensive. “Hard skills” – shooting,
specifically – should not be your primary skills or the only ones you ever plan to use. A purely reactive team, or a so-called “team” of disorganized armed citizens would likely not have stopped this attack or been available for the off-duty officer in the parking lot to contact.

Communication is essential. A pursuit of a suspicious person, an intruder, or an armed person cannot be coordinated reliably without radios. Cell phone “walkie-talkie” apps can be effective. Texting is cumbersome while moving and under stress and should only be a secondary method. Headsets should be used to keep communications from disrupting church activities and to protect sensitive information. Do not worry about how people will look at you differently if you are wearing a headset and earpiece. Production crews, fast food workers, and department store employees wear earpieces, too.

If you identify a need to follow a person, don’t be too coy about it. Your team exists for a reason. Be as discrete as you need to be to avoid creating unnecessary commotion and fear in the church body, but close distance that needs to be closed, make contact with people needing to be contacted, block access that needs to be blocked. Back your tactics with policies and procedures, ask for law enforcement, district attorney, insurance, and civil legal opinions about those policies and procedures, and make sure your church’s leadership has approved them.

6) Off-Duty Officers are Worth Every Penny

Off-duty officers should not take the place of church security teams, and they are not merely extra guns. They are instant communications links to dispatchers and ready recipients of threat intelligence. Had an off-duty officer not been directing traffic (not even engaged in a strictly security role) for the church that
morning, it is highly questionable that the threat intelligence would have reached the security team in time for the team to comprehend that their suspicious person was, indeed, an armed person who had communicated threats that very morning. Prince William police would have had to respond from off-site, potentially not reaching the church in time, or call church leadership, who may have been unreachable as the main service was beginning. If you have funds available, and your local department has enough officers, hire at least one off-duty officer to be attached to your security team. An officer’s presence on traffic detail is better than nothing and worked in this case, but it’s not ideal. Also, make sure your local dispatch center has the phone number of an emergency contact at your church who will be reachable during church services.

7) Build a Security Culture by Locking Doors

Media reporting indicates the suspect entered the church through a rear entrance that may have served an auxiliary purpose. The security team detected him at this point, perhaps using surveillance cameras or observing him from a distance. Maybe the door was manned by a person who granted the suspect access and immediately thought better of it. Odds are, though, the door simply wasn’t locked or manned. One of the most straightforward ways to start building a security culture among your staff and congregants that doesn’t risk violating your church’s Gospel mission is to emphasize the importance of locking “unimportant” doors. If there’s not a compelling reason for a door to be unlocked, it should be locked. Limiting the number of entrances the security team must monitor makes it much easier to focus limited security team resources.

For further reading:
Concilium, “Violence During Church Activities from 2019 to 2022,” March 2022

Torchstone, “The Importance of Understanding the Attack Cycle,”
https://www.torchstoneglobal.com/the-importance-of-understanding-the-attack-cycle/ April 2020

Torchstone, “Exploiting Vulnerabilities in the Attack Cycle,”
https://www.torchstoneglobal.com/exploiting-vulnerabilities-in-the-attack-cycle/ May 2020

Torchstone, “Where the Attack Cycle Intersects the Pathway to Violence”
https://www.torchstoneglobal.com/where-the-attack-cycle-intersects-the-pathway-to-violence May 2020 

U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016-2020,”
https://www.secretservice.gov/sites/default/files/reports/2023-01/usss-ntac-maps-2016-2020.pdf January 2023