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FOREST HILL — Police worked into the night Monday trying to determine what caused a 33-year-old man to crash his car into a church here and then bludgeon the popular pastor to death with an electric guitar.
The church’s janitor was also beaten, though not severely, before the suspect died in the back of a squad car several minutes after he had been shot with a Taser gun by police.
Authorities said the Rev. Danny Kirk, 53, pastor of Greater Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church, died at the scene of the late-morning attack in the suburb on the southeast side of Fort Worth. The janitor, 59-year-old John Whitaker, was treated for a broken jaw. A church secretary locked herself in her office to escape the 11:12 a.m. attack where she was able to call 911.
Caller: “I think someone’s trying to break in … it was like a loud crash … I need an ambulance also. My pastor’s bleeding. He’s been attacked.”
Operator: “So your pastor confronted him?”
Caller: “They’re trying to fight him.”
“They’re going in and out [of the church] like they’re chasing them. … My pastor and the custodian are chasing him … it looks like he drove his car into our building.”
Forest Hill police called in the Texas Rangers to lead the investigation. Two men who arrived at the church after the attack identified the attacker as Derrick Birdow and said he was their cousin. Forest Hill City Manager Shay Ipaye confirmed that Birdow was the assailant.
The cousins said they did not believe Birdow was a member of Greater Sweethome, but added that they thought his children are members.
Forest Hill Police Chief Dan Dennis said he believes the attacker and Kirk first fought outside. The attacker’s Crown Victoria was smashed into a front doorway, and it probably wasn’t possible to enter through that door.
Dennis said he believes the attacker chased Kirk through a side door and then beat him with an electric guitar in the music area of the church near the back classrooms. At some point, Whitaker tried to help Kirk, but was also injured.
When officers arrived, the attacker was still beating Kirk with the guitar, Dennis said. Officers used a Taser on the man, but he resisted even as an officer dragged him to a squad car. Later, emergency personnel found him unresponsive inside the squad car. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Dennis said later that the attacker “had a lot of blood on him, but I don’t think it was his blood.”
Tarrant County records show that in 2004, Birdow received a five-year prison sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He also had convictions in Tarrant County for possession of a controlled substance, misdemeanor family violence and driving while intoxicated.
Birdow’s cousins came to the church after hearing news accounts of the attack. When they got there, they said they recognized Birdow’s crashed Crown Victoria.
“I know — I see the car and everything, but it hasn’t hit me yet,” said one cousin, Deeverett Wingham.
The other cousin, Christopher Henderson, said Birdow had been acting strangely, saying that people were trying to kill him.
“He’s been having some issues, and he hasn’t been himself,” Henderson said. “This past week, he’s been going through some stuff.”
Henderson said someone had given Birdow a drug “about a week ago that made him go crazy.”
“He’s a happy dude,” Henderson added. “I’m sorry for the church people, but I wouldn’t have expected this out of him at all. I know it’s a loss for you, but it’s a big loss for us, too.”
Friends say Kirk was a former star football player at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M-Commerce, who got along well with everyone in this tight-knit community that straddles Interstate 20.
“Danny is well-known all around,” said Charles Lewis, manager of LL&L Enterprises in Wilmer, a bus transportation service. Lewis said he grew up in Marlin with Kirk and both later played football at East Texas State.
“He had a great reputation. You’re not going to find anybody to say anything bad about Danny Kirk,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he was having a difficult time accepting his friend’s death and wondered just how he would tell his own family, adding that the Kirk clan is well respected in Marlin. Kirk’s 90-year-old mother still lives there and a brother, Ben, has served for years as the Falls County sheriff. Another brother, Ernest, played one year of pro football with the Houston Oilers in 1977 and now is pastor of a church near San Angelo.
Danny Kirk became a minister in the 1980s, friends say, and started Greater Sweethome in 1995. Initially, the fledgling congregation — which included his sister, Lenell Kirk Hall — met in a tiny space inside a Forest Hill shopping center. As membership grew, the church moved to its current location in the 7300 block of Forest Hill Drive and now boasts more than 850 members.
Known for its community outreach, the church has a food pantry, a clothing ministry and a scholarship program for students.
“I’ve never heard anything that could be scandalous about him and I’m praying that’s not the case now,” said Jerline Harvey, a former Forest Hill councilwoman and community leader. “He walked every morning singing and praying. He’d sit out in front of his church every morning. He was always at the church.”
Hundreds of people, many inconsolable church members, went Monday to Greater Sweethome to express their grief. Many gathered at the Forest Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church next door, where Dennis and several pastors sought to reassure them.
“God has a way of working through this,” said the Rev. Emanuel White Sr. of The Church of Christ in Forest Hill. “We may not know how yet, but he can use this for his kingdom.”
A few hours later, another man urged the congregants to pray for Kirk’s family but not to bombard them with texts and phone calls.
Lewis, who had known Kirk for more than 30 years, said that the pastor and his wife were still grieving over the loss several years ago of their 6-year-old daughter and had named the church’s new educational wing after her. Lewis said his friend once told him that the hardest thing he had ever done “was preach his baby’s funeral.”
Greater Sweethome member Pamela Thomas, who joined in 2005, said she will always remember Kirk as a man who always preached “the true gospel.”
“He was my shepherd, my leader, a true man of God,” she said.
Staff writer Tanya Eiserer contributed to this report.