Church security member sentenced for murder: Lessons learned for your security team.

By Craig Cable, Director of Ministry Safety and Strategic Partnerships

If you serve on or lead an armed security team, or your ministry has an armed security team, you must fully understand the huge responsibility that comes with that decision. The following incident can provide a cautionary tale for all of us to learn from.

On the evening of Sunday, April 2, 2023, George Ryan Walters (age 43) was serving as an armed member of the church security team at The Rock Church in Laurel, Mississippi. Mr. Walters was an active member of law enforcement at the Jones County Sheriff’s Department where he served as a volunteer Reserve Deputy.

During the service, Mr. Walters was notified of an adult male who witnesses described as “acting funny” and creating a disturbance. Mr. Walters contacted the individual, later identified as James Corey Donald (age 45). Mr. Donald was asked to leave the premises and was escorted out of the building by Mr. Walters. Once outside, a physical altercation occurred between Mr. Walters and Mr. Donald, which culminated in Mr. Donald being shot and killed by Mr. Walters.

After the incident, Mr. Walters provided a statement that Mr. Donald attacked him and was attempting to take control of his concealed Glock 9mm handgun. Acting in self-defense, Mr. Walters fought back regaining control of his handgun and shooting Mr. Donald once in the upper torso. Medical care was immediately provided to Mr. Donald by other members of the security team but unfortunately, he succumbed to his injuries.

Within days of the shooting, after physical and video evidence was collected and reviewed, investigators with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation charged Mr. Walters with second-degree murder in the death of Mr. Donald. That charge was later upgraded to first-degree murder, which could have resulted in a life sentence.

According to the evidence, Mr. Walters was the primary aggressor in the incident. There was no evidence of Mr. Walters’ claim of self-defense. According to eyewitness reports and the security camera video, the evidence showed that Mr. Donald was attempting to flee after being struck in the face by Mr. Walters. It was during his attempt to get away that Mr. Walters then fired a single shot to the upper back of Mr. Donald causing him to fall. Once on the ground, Mr. Walters kicked Mr. Donald in the head. This resulted in an additional charge of aggravated assault. While the gunshot wound was the primary cause of death, the head injury was corroborated by the medical examiner’s report which identified hemorrhaging in Mr. Donald’s brain, consistent with blunt force trauma.

On May 17, 2024, the 13th Circuit Court sentenced George Ryan Walters to 20 years for the fatal shooting. Ten years to be served in prison with no chance of early release plus an additional ten years of probation after time served.

Lessons learned for your security team

  • Are members of your security team trained and practiced in de-escalation techniques? When words are exchanged and tempers flare, will your people remain calm and professional and will they make good decisions?
     
  • Does everyone on your team have a clear understanding of the laws in your state that pertain to the use of force? Despite Mr. Walters’ law enforcement training, he made a very bad decision that not only cost someone their life but his freedom as well.
     
  • Does everyone on your team understand the role they play and are there written policies and procedures that spell out these expectations clearly and unmistakably?
     
  • While it is too early to tell, it won’t come as a surprise to me if the Rock Church is sued in civil court for what will be asserted as their negligence in the shooting death of Mr. Donald. Does your ministry have adequate coverage to defend itself against such a lawsuit?

It needs to be said that this was a preventable tragedy that has forever impacted multiple families as well as an entire community. While it may be tempting to point blame at a single individual, we all have to look objectively at our training, policies, and procedures to make sure that we’re doing what we can to prevent an incident like this from happening within our ministry.

In addition to his role with the American Church Group of Colorado, Craig Cable is a sworn peace officer and serves as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff for the patrol division at the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. He has trained hundreds of security team leaders and volunteers and was the lead developer of the Safe and Secure & Church: The Ministry Approach training kit produced in partnership with Group Publishing and Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company.  

 If you have further questions about protecting your ministry, please feel free to reach out to Craig at ccable@americanchurchgroup.com.    

©2024 American Church Group of Colorado, LLC. All rights reserved. The information in this article is intended to help your ministry better understand issues of vulnerability and mitigate risks. It does not constitute legal advice between an attorney and a client. If specific legal advice is required, your ministry is encouraged to consult with a local attorney. Neither Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, American Church of Colorado, LLC, nor the author assumes liability for reliance upon the information provided in this article.

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