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Woman shows up in body armor to church, members convince her to put down her weapon


Charles Thompson


It’s every church leader’s worst nightmare: An armed intruder clad in body armor shows up at one of the softest targets in American society – a church where congregants are gathering for public worship services, just as they do every week.

That nightmare came too close to reality Sunday at Bethel Assembly of God church in South Middleton Township, when a woman later identified as Amber Leiann Espigh showed up on the property, about a mile south of Carlisle, with a loaded gun.

Not all details about the incident had emerged Monday, but the according to police reports the church in the 1400 block of Holly Pike went into an immediate lockdown while police responded to the scene.

Outside, meanwhile, two church members confronted Espigh, and – though she immediately pointed a handgun at one of them – they ultimately got her to put her weapon away and prevented her from carrying out any threats until police arrived.

No shots were fired.

“They obviously displayed a tremendous amount of bravery,” Cpl. John Boardman, patrol supervisor for the Carlisle station of the Pennsylvania State Police, said Monday of the church members who intervened.

By the time police arrived, Espigh had placed her gun in her car, and she quickly surrendered to troopers without further incident, Boardman noted. But, he added, “It was scary for us to think how bad this could have been.”

Because Espigh never entered the church, Bethel did proceed with its normal service.

Pastor Chuck Kish briefly addressed the episode at the end of Sunday’s worship, telling attendees “we had an incident. Everybody is OK, nobody is hurt. But we did have an incident, and all the things that we had in place deflected what could have happened, but did not.”

Kish said he wanted everyone to hear it from him first.

He was not available for an interview today, and a state trooper was stationed at the property for much of the day as a precaution.

Boardman said there did appear to be a mental health component to Sunday’s case.

According to arrest documents, Espigh told police she had come to the church after being notified that there was a possible crime occurring there, and said that her intent was to find “a priest” and hold him hostage.

Church member Rodney Smith was apparently one of the first to confront Espigh when she arrived about 9:50 a.m., as worshippers were still arriving for the 10 a.m. service. It was not clear how any people were in the lot at that time.

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Boardman said preliminary investigation has shown that, despite her belief that she on some kind of mission, Espigh had no connection to the church or anyone there Sunday. “She didn’t know a single name of anyone at that facility at all,” Boardman said.

Espigh likely arrived at Bethel totally randomly, after police say she broke into a fitness center in Fairview Township, York County, the night before and leaving that scene about 9 a.m. Sunday. She is being charged with burglary in that case, Fairview Twp. police said Monday.

State police said one of the men who confronted Espigh Sunday noticed her on his way in to church, and Smith told them that when he asked her to leave the property she grabbed her gun, chambered a round and “pointed it” at him and others in the parking lot.

The details of what happened from there have some blanks, but Boardman said the victims were able to convince Espigh to disarm without firing a shot as troopers responded from around the county. When police searched Espigh’s vehicle, they found the handgun in the center console.

Boardman said Espigh is the owner of the gun, but she does not have a permit that would have allowed her to drive with it in car.

Some background was also emerging about the intruder Monday.

Espigh’s current address is in the 400 block of Reserve Way, Susquehanna Township. On a LinkedIn profile page, she described herself as a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army. In the last three years, however, she listed jobs at Amazon, PNC Bank and Mission BBQ.

She had also been enrolled in an accelerated bachelor’s in nursing program at Widener University, and wrote about that experience here.

State police have charged Espigh with causing or risking a catastrophe, wearing body armor in the commission of a crime, harassment, simple assault, firearms not to be carried without a license, terroristic threats and other criminal charges.

After arraignment Sunday, she was committed to Cumberland County Prison in lieu of $500,000 bail pending a preliminary hearing before District Judge Daniel Freedman.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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