Houston church shooter’s mother-in-law: Mental illness, not antisemitism, to blame

Genesse Moreno

By Beth Harpaz

The Forward — The former mother-in-law of a woman who opened fire inside a Texas megachurch said the FBI found antisemitic material in the shooter’s home, including a painting where she’d written “Death to Jews.”

“I spent 3 ½ hours with the FBI yesterday,” said Walli Carranza, whose son, Quito, was married to the shooter, Genesse Moreno. “They showed me many of her writings, many things that were hateful, vile things.”

But Carranza, who describes herself as a rabbi trained in the Jewish Universalist tradition, was adamant in blaming mental illness for Moreno’s actions, not antisemitism. She said Moreno had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“To say she was antisemitic is ridiculous,” Carranza said in a phone interview. “The fact that there was pro-Palestinian rhetoric everywhere may have angered or somehow brought up anger in her. She went to some pro-Palestinian rallies. She seemed to have a fascination keyed in with it. Maybe it triggered her.”

Moreno opened fire on Feb. 11 in Lakewood Church in Houston and was killed when off-duty police officers working security there fired back. Moreno’s 7-year-old son, Sam, who is Carranza’s grandson, was shot in the head in the exchange of gunfire and critically injured.

FBI offices in Washington, D.C., and Houston referred requests for comment to Houston police. In a post on the social media platform X, Houston police said “no other details are being released” due to the ongoing investigation.

“Death to Jews in America”

However, analysts associated with the Anti-Defamation League have since uncovered specific online statements expressing terrorist sympathies.

The Telegram channel of 36-year-old Genesse Moreno, who had a criminal record, exhibited support for Islamist terror groups Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. It also showed premeditation for the attack on the megachurch, to which she reportedly once gave money.

She wrote on Jan. 3: “Don’t worry my MUSLIMS brothers I am pass the threat phase. I’m in planning mode. Please don’t message me private trying to stop me.”

On Dec. 23, Moreno posted: “I always knew I had a purpose to do for Islam and Christianity. We must all come together Christians need the heart that they had back in the day back in the revivals of the old age. But this time to kill all Jews. #warjihad #mywarjihad.” Moreno used the screen name “Die Israel” and wrote on Jan. 8, “Death to Jews in America!”

Investigators who searched Moreno’s home found further evidence of terrorist intent and sympathies. Along with ammunition and bulletproof vests, police found a mask saying “Free Gaza Trump” and a copy of the book “All Remainers Are Neo-Nazis: Indisputable Evidence That Nazis Created the EU.”

A practicing Muslim

Carranza said Moreno “was practicing as a Muslim when my son met her. She was wearing a hijab.” Carranza said she believes Moreno was born in Qatar but spent much of her childhood in Central America.

But Carranza couched those details by saying: “We cannot fuel this as being an Islamic-Jewish battle. We have to be very careful that we don’t try to put rational ideas into a deranged irrational mind of a person who is not being treated for their disease.”

Houston’s homicide unit commander Chris Hassig had previously cited a dispute with Moreno’s ex-husband’s Jewish relatives as a factor in the case.

“She was probably pushed to that by the fact that I’m Jewish and the father of her son is Jewish,” Carranza said, “and other people who testified for me and her husband (in a custody battle for the child) are Jewish.”

But Carranza said there’s a difference between antisemites who act out of “pure hatred” and Moreno, “who has schizophrenia and the mind is damaged by those chemicals that rage through the brain.”

Those who “rant about antisemitic things and even anti-Zionist things,” Carranza said, “when they do this kind of thing, they inflame those minds.”

Lakewood Church connection

Moreno’s precise motive in attacking the church remains unclear, though Carranza said Moreno’s mother had attended services there. One year, Carranza recalled, Moreno and her mother “spent the holidays with us, first Hanukkah, then Christmas, and when they did, I heard that her mom went to that church’s Christmas celebration.”

Carranza said she was surprised that Moreno was able to walk into Lakewood carrying a gun. How Pastor Joel Osteen, who runs the church, “lets people not go through a metal detector in this day and age I don’t understand,” she said.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the church was considering installing metal detectors in the wake of the shooting. The church did not respond to requests for comment from the Forward.

Asked why Moreno didn’t target a synagogue instead, Carranza said, “She couldn’t get into a synagogue if she tried.”

Synagogues around the U.S. have dramatically increased security since 2018, when a gunman killed 11 people inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Carranza said that she contacted police after hearing a description of the shooter and the child at the church. “I recognized the connection,” she said. “I called Houston police and said, ‘I know this is crazy, there’s millions of people in Houston, 16,000 go to this church, and I’m worried it’s my daughter-in-law.’”

Hoping to see her grandson

Carranza said she flew on Feb. 12 to Texas from France, where she has been living. She said she hoped to see her grandson on Feb. 14 at Texas Children’s Hospital.

She also said she hoped to work with her son and Moreno’s mother to sort out custody. Carranza said she planned to “sit shiva” with Moreno’s mother while “respecting her tradition. We need to be compassionate. This mother has lost her daughter.”

Carranza said her son had tried repeatedly in the past to get custody of the child, but was unsuccessful due to various issues with child protection agencies and judicial procedures. She said she has now asked for mediation to determine how custody will be managed going forward.

She said her son is currently jailed in Florida, where he was working, because Moreno had reported him to authorities there as an unregistered sex offender. Carranza said that accusation was connected to a charge against her son of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, in a case from 20 years ago, when he was 18 and had sex with an underage girl.

Rabbinical training

Carranza said Moreno had also “hacked into personal sites that I kept private,” including Carranza’s notes about her travels to places like Ukraine and Egypt. Carranza, who has a doctorate in nursing, said she had traveled to the Egypt side of the Gaza border in November to work with Palestinian refugees there.

Asked about her background as a rabbi, Carranza said she was ordained by a New York-based organization called the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, which offers online “transdenominational” rabbinical training in the Jewish Universalist tradition. She said she serves a congregation in France for Jews of various denominations.

She said she grew up in an “agnostic” family in Buffalo, N.Y., with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. “I inherited my Judaism and re-embraced it when I was older,” she said.

Carranza spoke about Moreno compassionately. “On medication, she was a very lovely lady,” she said. “I believe with good treatment she could be OK but not to parent alone and not to parent unsupervised.”

She condemned laws that allow people with mental illness to buy guns: “This was preventable.”

She added: “If you have mental illness, it’s pretty easy to have it triggered by all the crazies that want you to be triggered,” including those who “rage against Zionism or against all Jews.”

Updated Feb. 16 with ADL findings on Moreno’s Telegram channel.