There were plenty of warning signs.
Zephen Xaver—the 21-year-old former prison guard trainee accused of killing five women while holding them hostage inside a bank in Sebring, Florida—had an obsession with guns and death, his ex-girlfriend told The Daily Beast.
“He always loved guns. He loved owning guns, talking about guns, and shooting guns,” said Alex Gerlach, who dated the suspect off and on for three years. “Sadly, I am not surprised this has happened at all.”
Gerlach, who lives in South Bend, Indiana, met Xaver in a psychiatric hospital in 2013 in Plymouth, where he grew up and attended high school. She declined to say why Xaver was at the hospital.
“His fascination with death got worse when we broke up,” she said. “We got back together on and off for a while. Then I decided it was too much for me.”
The 20-year-old said she tried to “warn people” about Xaver’s “potentially fatal interests” —and wasn’t shocked when she heard her former boyfriend took hostages at the SunTrust bank Wednesday afternoon.
“Listen, he was pretty open about the fact that he wanted everybody to die. All he talked about was killing people,” she said. “He was one of those people that was too into mass shootings you know? He even got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everyone in his class.”
Xaver had moved from Indiana to Florida about a year ago, his father, Josh Xaver, told The Daily Beast. He was hired last November as a correctional officer trainee at the Avon Park Correctional Institution.
“I am in total shock and heartbroken for my son,” Josh Xaver said. “He wasn’t raised like this. He always had troubles but I could never imagine this. My heart goes out to the victims.”
The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed his former employment, noting that Xaver resigned on January 9.
“He had no discipline while employed with the department,” Florida Corrections Department spokesman Patrick Manderfield told The Daily Beast.
In his first court appearance via video conference Thursday morning, Xaver, who is being held on five counts of premeditated murder, wore a black-and-white striped prison uniform as he was denied bail. He was also appointed a public defender.
Sebring police responded to a call from Xaver around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, after he took the the central Florida bank “by force” Wednesday and allegedly shot “everyone in the bank,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said.
According to his arrest affidavit, Xaver allegedly made the women lie down on the lobby floor before shooting them in the back of the head with a 9mm handgun. Multiple shell casings were found next to the five victims, who all sustained gunshot wounds in the back of the head and upper torsos.
“I have shot five people,” Xaver told police six minutes after entering the bank, according to Hoglund.
After initial negotiations to get the 21-year-old, who was barricaded inside the bank with hostages, failed, a SWAT team entered the building, and found Xaver in one of the bank’s rear offices with a handgun and a bulletproof vest, the affidavit said. He eventually surrendered.
“After an assessment of the scene we were sorry to learn that we have at least five victims, people who were senselessly murdered as a result of his act in this bank,” Hoglund said.
Two of the five female victims, Cynthia Watson, 65, and Marisol Lopez, 55, were identified at the press conference Thursday. The other three were not identified at the request of their families, Hogan said. Of the five women, four of them were employees.
Police confirmed Thursday that Watson was a bank customer and Lopez was a bank employee, but said they “have no information” about a motive or whether Xaver intentionally targeted women.
“Xaver knowing and intentionally took the lives of five people of our community members—our sisters, mothers, daughters, and our coworkers,” Hoglund said.
“We believe it was a random act and we are still trying to establish what has occurred and put things in perspective and understand,” he added.
Xaver, who was wearing glasses, a light-colored shirt, and cargo shorts, was handcuffed and led into the back of a police car after he surrendered, according to authorities. He was booked into the Highlands County Jail just before midnight Wednesday.
“We now begin the healing process. We attempt to make sense of a senseless act,” Hoglund said, adding that prosecutors are seeking the highest penalty possible against Xaver.