SEBRING — What started as a normal Wednesday turned tragic for SunTrust Bank employees and their customers at 1901 U.S. 27. The day would end with five people killed and Zephen Xaver, 21, of Sebring in custody.

Sebring Police Cmdr. Curtis Hart was the lead public information officer for the incident and was assisted by Highlands County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski.

“At approximately 12:36 this afternoon, the Sebring Police Department and the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office responded to SunTrust at [U.S.] 27 and Tubbs Road, Sebring in reference to a subject calling [911] and stating that he had fired shots inside the building,” Hart said. “Once a viable perimeter was set around the bank, negotiations continued. We did breach the bank with the Highlands County SWAT team. At that point the subject did give up and come out. He has been arrested.”

According to a Sheriff’s Office press release, the shooter said to the 911 dispatcher, “I have shot five people.”

Hart said the suspect was unharmed and he could not attest to the suspect’s mental health.

Area hospitals were contacted and put on standby, and Aeromed from Tampa General Hospital was also on scene. Highlands County Emergency Management Services ambulances responded to transfer the injured to local hospitals, according to Rybinski.

“We are so sorry to receive this news,” AdventHealth Sebring Director of Marketing Cathy Albritton said. “Our hearts go out to their families and the community. The ER is standing ready. The trauma unit is ready. Surgeons and medical staff are here and ready.”

Lindsey Pierson, marketing director for Highlands Regional Medical Center, echoed Albritton’s response.

A press conference held at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Sheriff’s Office confirmed the worst: Five people were killed inside the bank. Gov. Ron DeSantis opened the briefing along with Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund and Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman.

“It’s a horrible day for Sebring, Highlands County and the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “People of Florida stand with the community here in light of the circumstances.”

He promised help directly from the state with the investigation.

Hoglund was audibly affected when he talked about the fate of the five people inside the bank.

“At least five victims were senselessly murdered as a result of his actions,” Hoglund said.

He went on to thank local authorities and the state resources made available to his department. He said the identity and ages of the victims have not been released and authorities are notifying next of kin. The crime scene was still being processed. Another news conference is set for 11 a.m. Thursday.

A reporter on scene spoke to Victor and Deanna Sparks, who said they alerted authorities to the incident.

At about 12:35 p.m. Victor Sparks said he walked up to the front door of SunTrust Bank. He said he was going to make a deposit and reached for the bank door and found it was locked. He said he peered inside and saw people laying on the floor and someone walking around in front and among them. Victor Sparks said he turned and walked away from the bank, adding it was “sort of scary” because as he did he heard a big bang. He said he and his wife called 911 and cops were on scene in two minutes.

Hoglund, Hart and other police officials, SWAT, K-9, sheriff’s deputies and Blackman responded to the scene as well as Sebring Fire Department and Highlands County Fire Rescue. Florida Highway Patrol assisted with traffic.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman said the FDLE is providing assistance in the investigation, to the Sebring Police Department, with agents and analysts. FDLE forensic scientists helped to process the crime scene.

U.S. 27 was shut down between Lakeview Drive and Golfview Road with only law enforcement being allowed in the area for several hours. The incident forced the lockdown of several area schools.

“Everyone is on lockdown,” Lelia Currence, general manager of Residence Inn by Marriott in Sebring, said Wednesday afternoon. “Guests are safe and secure in their rooms. When we saw police officers, we locked the doors.”

The Sheriff’s Office asked employees and family members of anyone who was at the SunTrust branch during this incident to go to Inn on the Lakes.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic shooting at our Sebring, Florida branch this afternoon,” said Brian Rogers, SunTrust chairman and CEO. “We are working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved. Our entire team mourns this terrible loss.”

Services provided through the state’s Division of Victim Services include assistance with paying medical bills, funeral expenses, lost wages, grief counseling and more.

“Our focus is on helping the family members of the victims of this horrific attack receive the support they need in this extremely difficult time,” Attorney General Ashley Moody said. “I spoke to Sheriff Paul Blackman and FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen offering any and all resources our office can provide to help in the aftermath of this tragedy. [We] are praying for the victims of this attack and for the brave law enforcement officers who responded to the scene.”

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, was saddened by the news.

{div}“I am deeply saddened to learn of the tragic events that occurred today in Sebring. My prayers are with all those who were affected by this senseless act of violence,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have learned five innocent people lost their lives today. I want to send my most sincere condolences to the loved ones who must now live with the loss of a loved one taken too soon.

“I am heartened by the courage shown by our first responders that brought an end to this horrific situation,” Pigman said. “Their brave action directly resulted in preventing any further loss of life. We are in communication with local officials on the ground and will receive updates as they come in.”{/div}

“Today’s tragedy in Sebring is another senseless act in which five innocent lives were horrifically lost, and a sobering reminder of the impact that gun violence has on our communities,” state Agriculture Commissioner Nicole Fried said.

“As we wait for more details to surface, we praise our courageous law enforcement professionals, and we stand with the victims and their families to ensure they have the support they need in this traumatic time,” she said.

Congressman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, also expressed his sympathy for the families affected by the shootings.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of today’s tragic shooting in Sebring. We will stand by law enforcement as they continue their investigation. Thank you to Sheriff Blackman and the brave men and women of Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. To the people of Sebring, we are with you.”

Highlands News-Sun staff writers Melissa Main and Marc Valero contributed to this report.


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