MANATEE -- The pastor of Bayshore Baptist Church, the children's director at the church and her neighbor were killed Thursday in a triple homicide that sparked a massive manhunt into the night.
The suspect, Andres "Andy" Avalos, is wanted in the slayings of his wife, Amber Avalos, 33; Denise Potter, 46; and James "Tripp" Battle, 31, the lead pastor at Bayshore Baptist Church, 6502 14th St. W.
The pastor was shot to death at the church. The women were found slain at the Avalos home in Northwest Bradenton.
"We believe this all stemmed from a domestic situation," Bristow said. "This wasn't random."
Avalos, 33, is considered armed and dangerous, according to sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow. Four schools were put on lockdown throughout the afternoon for fear Avalos would attempt to pick up any his six children.
As of press deadline early Friday, he had not been caught; anyone who sees him was asked to call 911 immediately.
He was last seen in the 6500 block of 14th Street West, Bradenton, driving a
2003 Chevrolet Suburban, gold in color, tag #484VTZ.
At 1:20 p.m. Thursday, deputies responded to reports of a shooting at the Bayshore Baptist Church. Battle was found shot dead just outside his residence on the church property, outside what appeared to be a church office.
The church's website lists Amber Avalos as the church's nursery/children's director.
Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Battle and Andy Avalos met face to face in the church courtyard moments before the shooting.
When asked if the pastor saw what was happening or was taken completely by surprise, Steube said, "The pastor saw this coming. They were facing each other."
After finding Battle's body, investigators were advised that they should check the suspect's home for additional victims.
At the Avalos' home in the 1200 block of 67th Street NW, investigators uncovered two more bodies, later identified as Amber Avalos and Denise Potter.
The cause or manner of the women's deaths was unclear and will be determined by the medical examiner's office, Bristow said. It did appear they were killed before Battle was slain at the church.
Deputies began their search as a "be on the lookout bulletin" was issued for Avalos and his gold 2003 Chevrolet Suburban.
Meanwhile the sheriff's office scrambled to get deputies to the schools of all six of the couple's children. Palma Sola and Miller elementaries, King Middle School and Manatee High School were all placed on lockdown. All six children were taken into protective custody, Bristow said, but for safety he could not reveal who was given custody.
Just before 4 p.m., officials lifted lockdowns at the four schools.
Leslie Howell, owner of the Avalos' home, arrived at the scene. She had vague suspicions the couple had problems over the nearly three years that Avalos and his wife rented the home.
"I suspected because of the condition of the house," she said. "It made my eyebrows raise because I'm a guardian ad litem, but it's not illegal to be a bad housekeeper."
One of Amber Avalos' sisters, who lived in the same home with her three children, arrived at the scene shortly after the deputies.
She said the couple had been married for 15 years and together for more than 20. The couple's marriage license has a June 2000 date.
"He's crazy, he's psychotic," she said. "He takes drugs and he drinks a lot."
Patrick Duff, her children's father, was also at the scene.
"I have three kids that live there," Duff said. "Thank God they weren't there."
Duff had a missed call from the suspect at 2:07 p.m., he realized. Others at the scene spoke about calls from Avalos.
"He was a loose wire," Duff said.
She had left him a couple months ago, but later returned home, he said.
Assistant State Attorney Art Brown, who prosecutes first-degree murder cases, was also on the scene. Someone from the State Attorney's Office typically goes to a major crime scene to guide, but not direct, law enforcement in proper procedures to ensure they have a strong case that can be properly prosecuted.
Detectives obtained a search warrant for the Avaloses' home and an arrest warrant for Andres Avalos.
At around 1 p.m. Thursday, Michael Rantz had been watching TV in his home across from the Avalos home when he heard a woman screaming.
"I walked out to check with her and find out if she's OK," he said.
Rantz said the woman was on her stomach by the curb.
Both the doors of Avalos' home and of a red vehicle parked out front were open.
"She was very distressed," he said.
Tom Jacobs, who lives a few houses down from Avalos on 67th Street Northwest, said the Avalos children often stopped by to marvel at the metal sculptures on his front yard. Two of the large sculptures shaped as a shark and manta ray are made of recyclable materials and old circuit boards.
"I encouraged the kids to drop by, and so the dad came by to introduce himself because he said since I was being so nice to his kids and his kids liked me, he wanted to come and say thank you and to introduce himself," Jacobs said.
Jacobs estimates that was about three years ago.
He said Avalos seemed like a hard-working, normal, laid-back guy.
"I never had any gut feeling of negativity or anything," Jacobs said.
Jacobs' wife, Sheri, a social worker at Ida M. Stewart Elementary School, was at the school when the attacks occurred nearby.
She said she was shocked when she realized that the incident happened just down the street from her home.
Jacobs described her neighborhood as quiet with little traffic.
"It's not real close-knit where everybody knows everybody, but everybody waves and I don't feel uncomfortable," she said.
From the late afternoon through the evening, neighbors trickled into the street, which was lined with several sheriff's cars. They stood in clusters behind the yellow tape blocking off Avalos' home to share what they knew.
Marlene Lofgren, 73, lives in the neighborhood. After her granddaughter called to tell her what had happened, the retired registered nurse immediately locked the doors to her home.
Jim Dougherty, 63, also lives in the neighborhood. He stood beside Lofgren close to the crime scene.
"What's weird about it is that's where the other murder was," Dougherty told Lofgren.
"I know," she said. "That's odd."
In 2008, two men broke into the home and attacked 74-year-old Janice Fore in her bedroom. The men shoved a sock in her mouth, wrapped duct tape around it and stole a computer from her home.
Fore, who suffered from a lung disease, suffocated from the stress of the attack and the gagging affecting her breathing.
"This is the second incident of that house that's associated with death and violence," Jacobs said. "It's kind of an eerie feeling."
Rose Hickey, 54, was on her way to her daughter's basketball game at Peace Lutheran School when she got a call from her lawn caretaker asking what was going on down the street. Hickey was told there were deputies everywhere.
"I couldn't believe it," she said when she heard about the triple homicide. "I just seen her (Amber Avalos) this morning coming around the block from dropping her kids off at school waving at me, happy... she was fine."
Anyone with any additional information about events leading and surrounding Avalos' whereabouts can contact the sheriff's office, 941-747-3011, ext. 2003, ext. 2008, ext. 2274; or other local enforcement.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. Follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.