Attorney: Waffle House shooter believed God commanded him

Posted at 10:14 PM, January 31, 2022 and last updated 8:54 PM, July 18, 2023

By TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Attorneys for a man who killed four people in a shooting at a Nashville Waffle House said Monday that Travis Reinking believed the restaurant patrons and employees were government agents whom he had been commanded by God to kill.

Reinking, 32, was naked save for a green jacket when he opened fire inside the restaurant on April 22, 2018. He fled, triggering a two-day manhunt, after restaurant patron James Shaw Jr. wrestled his assault-style rifle away from him.

An aerial view of the Antioch, Tenn. Waffle House where a gunman shot and killed four people in 2018. The suspect, Travis Reinking was taken into custody by Nashville police after a tense 34-hour manhunt. (Photo by: WTVF)

Shaw testified Monday that he noticed Reinking sitting in a truck before he entered the restaurant, and his friend joked that Reinking looked crazy and would “shoot up the place.”

“His energy wasn’t right. I could just feel it,” Shaw testified. Reinking shot two people outside before entering the restaurant and continuing to shoot. When he stopped to reload, Shaw rushed him, grabbing the barrel of the gun. It burned his hand, but he held on until he had possession of the weapon and threw it over the counter.

Asked whether he could identify the shooter in court, Shaw looked at Reinking and said, “He’s giving me the same look he did that night. He looked like he didn’t care.”

In opening statements, defense attorney Luke Evans said Reinking was suffering from severe schizophrenia that had grown worse over a period of years.

“Mr. Reinking was driven by delusions, paranoid thinking and auditory illusions,” he said. That included the belief that he was Taylor Swift’s boyfriend and the star was stalking him, had broken into his house and sexually assaulted him.

>>>READ MORE: Waffle House Shooting Daily Trial Highlights

He had moved several times to try to leave the persecution behind, Evans said. By the time he moved to Nashville a couple of months before the shooting, he was “completely untethered from reality.”

“He believed he was communicating directly with God,” Evans said of Reinking. “He believed regular people walking around were out to hurt him and had been hurting him. Mr. Reinking believed he was commanded by God to go to the Waffle House in defense of himself and other people. The people at Waffle House were, in his mind, government agents.”

Reinking is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Taurean C. Sanderlin, 29; Joe R. Perez, 20; Akilah Dasilva, 23; and DeEbony Groves, 21. He also faces several counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Travis Reinking appears in court for a motions hearing on Monday, January 24, 2022. (Photo by: WTVF)

On Monday, Reinking pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. That means he must prove not only that he was suffering from a severe mental illness but also that the mental illness made him unable to appreciate the wrongness of his actions.

In opening statements, Assistant District Attorney General Jan Norman tried to demonstrate that Reinking made conscious choices. Norman pointed out that Reinking purchased extra magazines in the days before the shooting and chose to take his most powerful weapon. He also went to the Waffle House about 3:20 a.m. on a Sunday, when it was especially busy.

Norman said that when Reinking was captured in a wooded area, he was able to understand and comply with police commands.

“The proof in this case is that Travis Reinking made a choice,” Norman said. “He made several choices that led to the shooting.”

Several of the police officers who responded to the crime scene testified on Monday about what they saw. Metropolitan Nashville Police Officer Brett Johns was the first person on the scene after the shooting. He was visibly upset, voice cracking and wiping tears, as he spoke about the dead and injured people he encountered, saying that even nearly four years later, “I think about it a lot.”

Johns described seeing Perez and Sanderlin dead outside the building. Inside, he saw Groves and her sorority sister, Sharita Henderson, under a booth near the door. He thought they were both dead until he heard Henderson make a noise and saw her blink. She couldn’t talk, but he asked her to blink again if she understood him. She blinked.

On the other side of the restaurant, Shantia Waggoner’s leg was nearly severed below the knee, held together “by very small amounts of skin and maybe some muscle,” Johns said. Her boyfriend, Dasilva, kept repeating that he was in pain; his arm hurt. Also in the Waffle House was Dasilva’s brother Abede Dasilva, who testified on Monday that he hid in a bathroom during the shooting.

“I was just laying there with him, telling him everything was going to be OK,” Abede Dasilva said through tears. He said he thought his brother had only been shot in the arm, but it turned out a bullet had pierced his lung.

The last thing his brother said to him was, “I can’t breathe,” he testified.