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Visalia, California community mourns death of Mormon bishop

VISALIA, Calif. — One day after a shooting at an LDS chapel left a Mormon bishop dead, the Visalia community mourned the loss of a hard-working family man and ecclesiastical leader.

Clay Sannar, 40, was killed Sunday at the meetinghouse where he served as bishop of the Visalia 2nd Ward. The LDS building at the intersection of Conyer Street and Tulare Avenue neighbors the Grace Lutheran Church, the Gateway Church of Visalia and Mount Whitney High School.

"What this bishop did, he gave his life for. There is no bigger calling than that," said John Lloyd, executive pastor at the Gateway Church of Visalia. "We're optimistic that there will be good that comes from this. I know God's face will be seen in it. I am in awe; this is someone who gave his life for the ministry because he was willing to open his door to anyone. In that way, we admire and want to reach out."

On Monday, Visalia police identified Kenneth James Ward, 47, of Modesto, Calif., as the man they say shot Sannar between meetings on Sunday. Following the shooting, officers say Ward called police from a pay phone to identify himself as the shooter and provide his location. He was eventually killed in an exchange of gunfire with police.

Mike Ward, the younger brother of the alleged shooter, said his brother was mentally ill and felt wronged by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he belonged to in the 1980s, according to the Visalia Times-Delta newspaper. His brother said Kenneth believed he had been "shunned to hell" by a bishop in 1988, and that is why he asked for a bishop when he went to the church in Visalia on Sunday.

The gun used in the violent act belonged to the alleged shooter's grandfather, said Mike Ward, a Bakersfield, Calif., resident. He said the Ward family is sorry for what happened.

From his office on Tulare Avenue, Ben Meraz told the Deseret News that he can see where police covered the bullet holes in the windows at the LDS meetinghouse across the street.

Less than an hour after Kenneth Ward walked into the meetinghouse and allegedly shot Sannar, concerned phone calls and e-mails began pouring in to Meraz at Grace Lutheran Church.

"They were all curious to know if everyone was OK, knowing we are in close proximity to where the incident happened," said Meraz, director of youth ministries at the church. "Word gets around a small town fast." (Visalia has a population of around 122,000.)

Meraz didn't know Sannar, who had only been serving as the ward's bishop for a few months.

Lloyd has served as the executive pastor at the Gateway Church of Visalia for more than five years. He described the mood in the community as one of absolute shock.

"We consider ourselves a safe community, a loving and conservative town. This is unbelievable," said Lloyd, who sent flowers to the Sannar family. "It's one thing to hear about it somewhere else. It's another to have it happen in your own community and directly across the street. This is absolutely horrible. We are pulling the pastors together to see what we can do, because we love our LDS friends. Nobody should be prone to such an act."

Many have expressed a desire to help Sannar's ward, which is likely overwhelmed with media inquiries and the investigation. It will take some time for the community to heal, Lloyd said.

Jeff Hohne, principal at Mount Whitney High School, said counseling and other special support were available to the seven or so LDS students at school Monday. Almost all attended church on Sunday, and one was allegedly very close to the shooting, Hohne said. The principal said none of Sannar's children are enrolled at Mt. Whitney.

"They were upset. They were able to express their feelings, and the school psychologist walked them through this senseless act," Hohne said. "We are all feeling the pain. It just rocks you. But the kids are resilient. A lot can happen to them, and they can get through it. As long as they are hurting and need us, we will be there for them."

Jerry Rivers, an independent consultant for Soil Basics — the Sannar's family-owned fertilizer business — said he has known Sannar for 12 years and found him to be a good manager and excellent family man. Sannar and his wife had six sons, the youngest blessed in front of the congregation just a short time ago.

"He always had his boys with him," Rivers said. "The whole thing is a senseless tragedy."

Rivers said the world is poorer for the loss.

"(Sanner) was a tribute to the Mormon church," he said.

The bishop led a Christ-centered life, according to friends who commented on Facebook and the Deseret News' website, had a good singing voice and was well liked by ward members, business colleagues and friends.

The LDS Church expressed condolences late Sunday.

"We have learned of the shooting incident in Visalia, Calif., today, which has taken the life of Bishop Clay Sannar," church spokesman Scott Trotter said. "At this tragic time, our thoughts and prayers are with the Sannar family and all who knew Bishop Sannar."