By Phillip Sitter and William Morris, Des Moines Register
The alleged gunman from Boone who killed two Iowa State University students outside an Ames church Thursday had recently been charged with harassing one of the victims in what authorities described as a “domestic situation.”
Story County sheriff officials said Johnathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, shot and killed 22-year-old Eden Mariah Montang and 21-year-old Vivian Renee Flores in the parking lot of Ames’ Cornerstone Church just before 7 p.m. Thursday before turning the gun on himself.
Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald called the shooting a targeted attack by Whitlatch. He and Montang had a relationship that had recently ended, Fitzgerald said.
“There was over 80 students in the auditorium at Bible study, and if he’d have found his way inside the church with that intent, it would’ve been much more tragic than what we had today,” Fitzgerald said. “He went right into action when he got there from all indications. I think that’s pretty evident that he was there for that purpose.”
Montang, of Boone, was a senior in the College of Human Sciences, and Flores, of West Des Moines, was a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, according to a statement signed by Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen and other university officials.
The two women were at the church Thursday night with a third woman, a friend who was not injured in the shooting. They were there for a service with The Salt Company, the church’s university ministry.
Law enforcement searching for understanding of ‘what happened and why’
Authorities received multiple 911 calls about the shooting at 6:51 p.m. Thursday, Fitzgerald said. Deputies were dispatched one minute later and arrived at 6:56.
At 6:59 p.m. police confirmed the shooter was down from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to Fitzgerald, who said the weapon was a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol.
He said it was still being investigated whether the weapon was legally within Whitlatch’s possession.
Ames Police Department Commander Jason Tuttle had been inside the church as a congregant and also responded, arriving at about the same time as the first deputies did, Fitzgerald said. He added that no officers fired shots — the shooter had shot himself before they arrived.
Fitzgerald said authorities searched Whitlatch’s vehicle, which he drove to the church, and residence following the shooting. An AR-15 rifle with ammunition was found at the home, but the weapon played no role in the shooting at the church, he said.
More 9mm ammunition was been found in Whitlatch’s pickup truck — some of it purchased the hour before the shooting from a business in West Des Moines.
“Everything that’s been presented to me, at this point, indicates that he’s a lone individual, and we do not suspect others being charged down the road, but that will all be answered as we complete this investigation,” Fitzgerald said.
He added that investigators, including agents from the FBI, would be looking at social media and doing interviews with people at the church that may have known more about the relationship between Montang and Whitlatch.
“There’s a whole host of things that we still need to complete in order to bring a full understanding as to what happened and why,” he said.
Court records show allegations of assault, domestic violence
The week before the shooting, Whitlatch had been charged with third-degree harassment and impersonating a public official.
Court records allege that on May 1, a man repeatedly called Massage Heights in Ames, the business where Montang worked as a certified massage therapist, and claimed to be a police officer investigating an inappropriate relationship between Montang and another officer, or that he’d reported such a relationship to the Ames Tribune.
The caller gave several false names, but the calls were recorded and his voice matched Whitlatch’s, according to the complaints.
The court had set a $6,500 bond for Whitlatch, and a court hearing had been scheduled for June 10, according to court document.
Court records indicate the May incident was not the first in which Whitlatch has been accused of violent or inappropriate actions toward women.
Whitlatch had a marriage end in divorce in 2014, and he had at least two children with other women, both of whom later took him to court seeking child support, court records show. One of those women, with whom he had a child in 2016, also sought and received a domestic abuse protective order in 2017.
In her petition, the woman — whom the Des Moines Register is not naming — writes that on Aug. 5, 2017, Whitlatch grabbed her by the throat and made a motion as if to punch her, but stopped before the blow landed. The following day, she wrote, he threatened that he was going to come to her home and murder her.
The woman said she was concerned because Whitlatch had military training and access to a gun.
Sgt. First Class Christie Smith, a spokesperson for the Iowa National Guard, confirmed that Whitlatch was an active member of the Guard, assigned as a human resource specialist to Detachment 1, Headquarters Support Company, 248th Aviation Support Battalion in Boone. Smith said the Guard could not immediately share details about Whitlatch’s discipline record but said he was meeting all requirements, including monthly drills.
No criminal charges were filed in the 2017 case, but Whitlatch was charged in November of last year after a woman accused him of putting his hand in her clothing and groping her at a Cedar Falls bar. Investigators allegedly confirmed this with surveillance camera footage, but when interviewed, Whitlatch said he didn’t remember his actions and “only remembers bits and pieces of the night, as there was drinking involved,” according to the complaint.
Whitlatch was charged in Black Hawk County with assault with intent to commit sexual assault, an aggravated misdemeanor. Court records show he was scheduled to stand trial on July 19.
Meanwhile, Whitlatch faced his second child support case, involving a child born in 2020. Court records show Whitlatch did not appear for the hearing in that case, and that on May 27, five days before the shooting, the court entered an order withholding his wages to cover his unpaid child support bills.
Correction: The name of alleged gunman Johnathan Lee Whitlatch was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
If you need help
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office recommends the following resources:
Iowa Domestic Violence Helpline — 800-770-1650
National Domestic Violence Hotline — 800-799-SAFE or 799-7233; TTY 800-787-3224; Text Line – Text “START” to 88788
Love is Respect Teen Dating Violence Hotline — 866-331-9474; Text Line: Text “LOVEIS” to 22522