Friends call church gunman a good man in need of help

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Friends of James Onstott claim the man who police and witnesses say fired a pistol once during a six-hour standoff at a local church Sunday was caught in a downward spiral - out of work, "down on his luck" and recovering from knee surgery.

"I believe that Jim had good character before this (standoff) happened," said Mary John, a former parishioner of United Pentecostal Church who has known Onstott since 1987. "He came to my house a couple of times and told my husband (Charles) and me he had tried to make amends with his wife and wanted to go on with their marriage."

"I wish the circumstances had been different - that he could have gotten the help he needed," she added.

Doug Gray, another former parishioner who has known Onstott for four or five years, agreed.

"He is a very nice man, but he has a broken heart," Gray said.

Police had to cut through two walls - one in a nursery and another in a Sunday school room - to extricate Onstott's wife from a potential hostage situation after he walked into a Sunday evening service holding a gun. She had retreated into the Sunday school room, which had only one exit, when her husband appeared.

Onstott, who police said threatened only himself with the gun, had a recent history of criminal charges stemming from the breakup of his marriage.

In June 2000, Onstott was found guilty of violating a domestic violence order stemming from an offense of Jan. 19. District Court Judge Peter Froehlich ordered him to serve 100 days in jail; to enroll in, pay for and complete a substance-abuse treatment course; and to seek employment.

Froelich also put Onstott on probation for two years.

In late December, Onstott was found guilty of second-degree stalking stemming from an offense of Nov. 1. Froehlich committed him to 12 months in jail with nine months suspended. Froehlich also ordered him not to be within 100 feet of the Christian Life Center (United Pentecostal); ordered him to complete any recommended mental health counseling through the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill; and placed him on probation for three years.

A notice of divorce or dissolution between the Onstotts was filed in Juneau court in early February.

Police said the standoff that occupied a dozen officers for more than six hours ended when Onstott decided to lay down his pistol. He was lodged at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center and charged with first-degree burglary, first-degree stalking, three counts of third-degree assault, five counts of terroristic threatening, and second-degree misconduct involving weapons.

Onstott is a former employee of the Juneau Post Office but left in the late 1980s, according to postal officials. Friends said he had fallen at work, injuring his knee.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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