A picture began to emerge late Wednesday of the man accused of killing five people in a Sebring, Florida, bank and barricading himself inside with hostages until authorities arrested him. Zephen Xaver, 21, opened fire inside SunTrust Bank about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday before calling 911 on himself, leading SWAT teams and hostage negotiators to descend on the bank, according to the Highlands County Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's office has not released the identities of the victims or elaborated on any other injuries or any motive in the attack.
But two people who know Xaver told The Washington Post early Thursday that the suspect had talked about killing before.
Alex Gerlach, who said she dated Xaver on and off for about three years, said she met him in a psychiatric hospital in 2013 in Plymouth, Indiana, the area where Xaver grew up and attended high school. Gerlach provided a photo of herself with Xaver to WSBT, a station in South Bend, Ind. (Xaver's parents did not immediately return calls or messages from The Post to confirm whether he was diagnosed with a mental illness.)
"Since the time we met he had this fascination with death," she said. "It got worse as we broke up. We got back together on and off for a while. Then I decided it was too much for my mental health."
Still, she said they kept in touch every few months. She said last week he told her he had purchased a gun - a handgun, from what she remembers - but that "no one thought anything of it" because he had always liked guns, she said. A friend of Gerlach's who also knew Xaver, and who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, said Xaver had once told her he wanted to join the military "because he wanted to kill people."
On Tuesday at 11 p.m., the night before the shooting, the friend said Xaver sent her a Facebook message, which was provided to The Post. All the message said was "Hey.." Now, she said, she fears he was reaching out for help. Both friends say they had been encouraging him to seek help for years.
"I'm just sad that he didn't get the help he needed because this could have been prevented," the friend said. "I'm even more upset that he messaged me and I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to speak to him out of respect for my best friend. Now I wish I would have. I feel like I could have said something if I would have known. But I know you never truly know what someone really has planned. I hope those poor people get the justice that he deserves."
Josh Xaver, who identified himself as the suspect's father, told CNN late Wednesday that his son moved to Florida about a year ago. He said he is "heartbroken for the victims."
"He wasn't raised to be like this," he said. "He's always been a good kid. He's had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone before." CNN noted that he did not elaborate on what troubles he had faced.
While living in Sebring, Xaver had been hired in November as a correctional officer trainee at the Avon Park Correctional Institution, about 17 miles northeast of Sebring, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed late Wednesday.
Xaver resigned from that job on Jan. 9, the department noted.
"He had no discipline while employed with the department," Florida Corrections Department spokesman Patrick Manderfield said.
At a news conference Wednesday, Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund and the Highlands County Sheriff's Office detailed the scene and how they were able to take Xaver into custody.
When authorities arrived after receiving the 911 call, they established a perimeter and attempted to negotiate with the gunman from outside the bank, the sheriff's office said.
"After negotiations to try to get the barricaded subject to exit the bank were not successful, the HCSO SWAT team entered the bank and continued the negotiations," the sheriff's office said.
The suspect, later identified as Xaver, eventually surrendered, authorities said. Xaver - wearing glasses, a light-colored shirt and cargo shorts - was handcuffed and led into the back of a police car after sundown Wednesday, according to video published by ABC Action News.
When police entered the bank, they discovered "at least five victims - people who were senselessly murdered as a result of [the gunman's] act in this bank," Hoglund said at the news conference.
Hoglund did not elaborate on whether others were wounded.
"Today's been a tragic day in our community," Hoglund said. "We've suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime."
At the news conference, Hoglund said police had not finished identifying the victims or notifying their families.
He and other officials did not take questions or offer possible motives for the shooting.
"Obviously, this is an individual who needs to face very swift and exacting justice," Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said of the gunman.
Authorities said another news conference is planned for Thursday morning.
The incident threw Sebring, a central Florida city about 80 miles south of Orlando, into a frenzy, closing part of U.S. Highway 29 for much of the afternoon. A nearby kindergarten and elementary school were temporarily placed on lockdown as well, WFLA News Channel 8 reported.
Throughout the day, aerial footage from a news station showed several police cars surrounding the bank, where the entrance was mangled and shattered.
Earlier Wednesday, authorities had directed co-workers and relatives of anyone who was at the bank to go to a nearby hotel.
"ONLY co-workers and family members please," the sheriff's office said.
Representatives for SunTrust Bank did not answer questions and said they were "deeply saddened" by the shooting at the Sebring branch.
"We are working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved," SunTrust Banks CEO Bill Rogers said in a statement. "Our entire team mourns this terrible loss."
The bloodshed in Sebring was the latest mass shooting in Florida, where rampages have cut down students, travelers and clubgoers in recent years.
The Sebring shooting occurred just weeks before the first anniversary of the Parkland massacre, which saw 17 students and staff killed in a high school in February 2018. In January 2017, a traveler flew to the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport and then shot and killed five people in the baggage claim area.
In June of that same year, police said a disgruntled ex-employee returned to an Orlando factory after being fired and gunned down five former colleagues. A year earlier, a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people in Orlando's Pulse nightclub.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)