A Houston priest, his wife and their young son were found dead in their apartment Monday, victims of a homicide that has shaken the city’s Episcopal community as police search for the killer, and a motive.
The Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe, 52, a towering and highly educated clergyman from Uganda, served as a chaplain at the University of Houston and pastored part-time at a small church, where members said they grew worried after he didn't show up to lead their Sunday afternoon services. They went to his apartment, and when no one answered, they contacted the building’s management, who called authorities.
Police and fire personnel entered the apartment at 9:30 a.m. Monday, and found the three bodies. Neighbors told parishioners they hadn't seen the family since Friday.
Local media including NBC Houston affiliate KPRC, citing police sources, reported that the victims had been beaten to death. But police would not confirm the manner of death, or provide the victims’ names.
Ahimbisibwe’s congregation, the Church of the Redeemer, confirmed that the he’d been killed, along with his wife, Dorcus, and 5-year-old son, Jay. Ahimbisibwe and his wife also had two adult sons, Emmanuel and Issac. One reportedly attends boarding school in California and the other had recently announced he was joining the Marines.
"We’re in a state of shock," Nancy Taylor, the church’s secretary, told NBC News. “We cannot think of anything — he never talked about any type of problem or situation that would lead us to think of someone who could have done this.”
Ahimbisibwe, ordained in Uganda, came to the United States in the mid-2000s to study at Harvard Divinity School, the Houston Episcopal Diocese said. He pastored in Cohasset, Massachusetts, then moved to Texas to study at Rice University, where he earned a master’s and doctorate.
In Houston’s tight-knit Episcopal community, Ahimbisibwe was known as a soft-spoken but charismatic workhorse who often held several un-glamorous part-time jobs simultaneously. He was passionate and animated, but he spoke with an accent that was sometimes difficult for older parishioners to understand. That became an issue at the Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, where he led Sunday morning services and taught bible classes.
“He could have gotten indignant and angry, but he didn't,” said Patrick Hall, the Episcopal chaplain at Rice University who preceded Ahimbisibwe as Holy Spirit’s pastor. “He took their concerns really seriously and began taking diction classes to get to where they could understand him more easily.”
Ahimbisibwe left Holy Spirit last summer. The children still remember him as Christian Ed, after the class he taught, the current pastor, the Rev. Josh Condon, said. “He smiled a lot, and talked with his whole body,” Condon recalled. “When he would preach from the pulpit, it was hard for the pulpit to hold him. He moved a lot. You could see the joy in his movement.”
At the University of Houston, where Ahimbisibwe worked in a student-outreach ministry and was known as Father Israel, officials were organizing a Tuesday night memorial service.
“He was very tall, skinny, quiet, but he could light up a room,” said Bruce Twenhafel, manager of the university’s A.D. Bruce Religion Center. “He was just a neat person.”
Seth Fewell, a friend of the Ahimbisibwes, said Israel and Dorca were selfless and seemed to always be upbeat. "They were always smiling, and genuinely cared how you were doing," Fewell said in a Facebook chat. "They were just a wonderful family."
Another friend, the Rev. Glenice Robinson-Como of Houston's Christ Church Cathedral, recalled the last time she heard Ahimbisibwe's voice, in a message on her office phone last week. He'd been struggling over the next step in his career, and told her he had something "wonderful" to share. He promised to tell her at an upcoming meeting of church leaders. That meeting is to be held this weekend. "Now I'll never know the wonderful thing he wanted to share with me," Robinson-Como said.