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December 17, 2014

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Phoenix police search for answers in church attack

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Ross D. Franklin/AP

Parishioners kneel at the front door at the Roman Catholic church Mater Misericordiae Mission at a makeshift memorial for the Rev. Kenneth Walker on Thursday, June 12, 2014. An attack at the downtown Phoenix church the previous day left Walker dead and the Rev. Joseph Terra critically injured.

PHOENIX— Investigators searching for solid leads after one priest was killed and another critically injured at a Roman Catholic church in a gritty stretch of downtown Phoenix on Friday released what they acknowledge was little more than a "limited description" of the suspect.

Sgt. Steve Martos said the description of a white male between the ages of 40 and 49 years old came from an interview with the Rev. Joseph Terra, who is hospitalized in critical condition with unspecified injuries.

There is a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Police still are unsure if there was only one suspect involved or whether robbery was the motive in the attack at the Mother of Mercy Mission, Martos said.

A vehicle belonging to the Rev. Kenneth Walker, who died at a hospital late Wednesday, was found abandoned a few blocks from the church.

Police were investigating whether the suspect or suspects took the 2003 Mazda and left it behind after the crime. Authorities were examining the vehicle for clues in what Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia called a "tragic and appalling criminal violation."

Walker's family members said they were overwhelmed with emotion after the loss of the priest. They fondly remember his sense of humor and the last time some of them saw him as he served as the priest at a younger sibling's wedding. Family members also took solace in the fact that the surviving priest was able to administer last rites.

"For Catholics, receiving your last rites basically guarantees you're going to heaven," said his stepsister, Sasha Keys. "That's one of the biggest reasons we have to smile."

About a dozen parishioners gathered across the street on Thursday, kneeling on the sidewalk and reciting the rosary. A bouquet of flowers and a photograph of Walker lay on the sidewalk.

The two priests lived at the church in downtown Phoenix near the state Capitol. Terra, 56, served as pastor and Walker, 28, as assistant pastor.

Terra called 911 to report a burglary around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and administered last rites to the wounded Walker while waiting for police to arrive.

The Rev. Fred Adamson, vicar general of the Phoenix Diocese, said the act brought a "great deal of comfort and consolation to us as Catholics, that he was able to extend that in his own suffering."

Deacon Jim Trant, of the Diocese of Phoenix, speculated that the suspect or suspects may have just knocked on the church door to be allowed in by the priests.

Parishioner Bill Haley visited Terra in the hospital and said the priest was in critical condition but able to talk. "He said nothing evil about the person who did this, expressed no ill will," Haley recalled.

Haley, who knew both priests well, joined others in prayer Thursday outside the church.

"He truly is a father, and he loves his parishioners deeply," Haley said of Terra. "He would care for both our spiritual as well as our physical good."

Walker was a "young priest full of energy" who loved baseball and the outdoors, would learn the names of each new parishioner and would visit some for dinners at their homes, Haley added.

Both men believed the church "was a safe place to live," Adamson said.

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