Florida Baptist Church Pastor James 'Tripp' Battle Shot Dead in Triple Homicide, Suspect Still On The Run

( [email protected] ) Dec 05, 2014 05:18 PM EST
Amber and Andres Avalos
Amber and Andres Avalos. Photo: Tampa Bay Times

A manhunt is underway for a man suspected of fatally shooting his wife, a neighbor, and a local pastor in a small Florida town.

The suspect, 33-year-old father of six, Andres "Andy" Avalos, is reportedly armed and dangerous as Florida police search for the man in and around Bradenton, located about 45 miles south of Tampa.

Sheriff's deputies first responded to reports of a shooting at around 1:20 p.m. at the Bayshore Baptist Church in Bradenton. While at the scene, they discovered two more shooting deaths that they believed were related.

The church's pastor, 31-year-old James "Tripp" Battle was found shot to death in the church's courtyard. Battle was not only the church's pastor, but also a co-worker of the suspect's wife, 33-year-old Amber Avalos. The woman was the nursery and children's director for the church and it's reported that Andres Avalos' father, Andres Avalos Sr, was also a minister at the church and a prominent mentor for troubled young Latinos.

The third victim was identified as 46-year-old Denise Potter, a neighbor and co-worker of Amber Avalos. Relatives say the two worked together cleaning houses and had met earlier in the day for work.

While a motive is unclear, Manatee County investigators say that they believe the two women were killed before the pastor. Church members who spoke with Fox News say that they were unaware of any conflict between Avalos and Battle, but police say that the suspected shooter has had several previous arrests, including multiple DUI charges from 2004 and 2012, and an altercation that led to Avalos being shot in the arm in 2003.

Avalos' gold 2003 Chevrolet Suburban was found abandoned at a local Wal-Mart parking lot, but police have still not found the suspect and don't even know if he's alive. 

"We don't know if whether or not he is still alive," Manatee County sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow told the Tampa Tribune. "We presume he is [alive]."

James Battle and his wife Joy, the church's secretary, have a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. Church member E.W. Carpenter told the Tribune that the congregation grew from 30 to over 100 under the young pastor's stewardship. "He was 31 years old and would give you shirt off his back," Carpenter said. "It will take me days to get over this. He was in the prime of his life."

Denise Potter had two young sons, ages 14 and 7, but little is know about her connection to what police are calling a domestic dispute.

A neighbor of the Avalos family says that, although the Manatee River neighborhood is "the sweetest little community," a previous tenant of the Avalos' home was slain during what was thought to be a home invasion.

The Gold Star Club of Manatee County is offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Andres Avalos. Anyone with information can call Crime Stoppers at (866) 634-TIPS or the sheriff's office at (941) 747-3011, ext. 2159, ext. 2003, ext. 2008, or ext. 2274.