A holiday concert on the steps of a Manhattan church was intended to be a gift to the neighborhood at the end of a year that has taken a toll on the city.
But festivity turned to terror on Sunday soon after the musicians played their last notes, when a suicidal man with pistols in both hands climbed the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights with one arm raised.
The gunman, Luis Manuel Vasquez Gomez, fired in the air, and the crowd scrambled, security camera video showed. An officer and a detective who were assigned to the event rushed to move bystanders to safety, then drew their guns and focused on Mr. Vasquez. A third officer working at a nearby hospital rushed over.
“Kill me! Kill me!” Mr. Vasquez shouted as he stood alone atop the staircase in front of the church’s large doors, which were decorated in festive lighted wreaths. “Drop the gun!” the officers commanded.
A volley of gunshots followed, and Mr. Vasquez, 52, was struck once in the head. He died at a hospital next to the church.
Relatives, the police and members of the church community on Monday were trying to find out what drove Mr. Vasquez to the cathedral that day with a death wish and what more he might have planned.
He had a history of violent offenses, including shooting at police officers and a woman in 1990. He had several arrests spanning 30 years and was wanted for threatening someone with a gun over the summer, the police said. The contents of his backpack — a canister of gasoline, rope, knives and a Bible — suggested a sinister plot, the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, said during a news conference in front of the church after the shooting.
“I think we can all surmise the ill intentions of the proceeds of this bag,” Mr. Shea said.
Mr. Vasquez’s sister, Maria Vasquez-Montalvo, said her brother had changed after a string of arrests that landed him in prison in the 1990s. He emerged a “damaged” man, she said, and his mental state had worsened recently during the pandemic.
“After he came out of jail, he was not the same,” Ms. Vasquez-Montalvo said. “And I think this year being in isolation, he just lost it. But my brother is no terrorist.”
Mr. Vasquez was the second person to be killed by police officers in less than a month. In late November, two officers in Queens shot and killed a man who shot them they were investigating a domestic violence complaint by his wife.
Institutions like the cathedral have long been targets of terrorism and other nefarious plots. Some employ armed guards, and the Police Department routinely sends officers armed with long rifles to watch over the sites during religious holidays and after attacks elsewhere.
Mr. Vasquez immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1976 and had grown up in the neighborhood on West 109th Street, Ms. Vasquez-Montalvo said in an interview.
He got into trouble there in his 20s. Mr. Vasquez was sentenced to prison in November 1990, when he was 22, after being charged with shooting three months earlier at an unidentified woman and police officers, according to the police and the prosecutors. He was also charged with selling drugs to an undercover officer.
He pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon and criminal sale of a controlled substance and was sent to an upstate prison, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office and state corrections records. He had been charged with cutting a man’s hand in 1989 and pleaded guilty to harassment but avoided prison.
But a senior law enforcement official said he was not on any terror watch lists and there was nothing in his past to suggest he would lash out in a public attack like he did on Sunday. The officials requested anonymity to discuss Mr. Vasquez’s history without authorization.
His sister, Mr. Vasquez-Montalvo, said he was beaten so badly by guards in prison that he lost much of his hearing and suffered a broken nose. He spent months at a time in solitary confinement and told his family he felt he was losing his mind, she said.
When he came out of prison in 1995, Mr. Vasquez was angry and grew distant, she said. The conviction had cost him his status as a legal resident of the United States.
Corrections records show the state turned him over to immigration authorities twice, once in 1994 and again in 2007, when he was arrested on an undisclosed parole violation.
Whether he was deported remains unclear. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Marcus A. Johnson, said he was tracking down information about Mr. Vasquez on Monday and was unable to immediately answer questions.
Ms. Vasquez Montalvo said their mother, with whom he lived in the Bronx until his death, had encouraged her son to seek counseling, but it remained unclear on Monday evening if he had ever received a formal mental health diagnosis or treatment.
By the time he climbed the steps to the cathedral, however, his anger had been simmering for years, his sister said. “He was so damaged,” she said. “And slowly, he just distanced himself completely.”
Bishop Dietsche described the concert as a beautiful respite from an ugly year marked by the global coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.
“I found myself thinking during the concert, ‘This may be the only live Christmas music I hear this season,’” he said. “It was nice. And then the shooting started.”
The bishop said he looked up and saw the gunman standing at the top of the cathedral steps in front of its great bronze doors — an area called the Portal of Paradise — with a gun in each hand. He was shooting into the air and screaming, the bishop said.
Judy Romer, who lives in the neighborhood, said she mistook the sounds for part of the performance before someone yelled that they were gunshots and told the crowd to run.
“I thought to myself, ‘My God, is this the way I’m going to die?’” she said.
Police officers rushed to the steps, guns drawn, and began to call out to the shooter, who did not respond, the bishop said. He was yelling, “‘Kill me! Kill me! Kill me!’”
“It appeared they were trying to defuse the situation and make a connection with the shooter to try to talk it down a little bit,” the bishop said.
Mr. Shea praised the three officers on Monday for quickly acting to protect those gathered at the church. The Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer, singled out Officer Jason Harper for his bravery.
The bishop fled after several minutes into the building, where terrified concertgoers and chorus singers were hiding. He led them in a prayer for all who were in danger, and for the gunman himself, he said.
Bishop Dietsche said he believed what Mr. Vasquez did was self-destructive and not an attack on the church, noting that the slain man had not harmed anyone.
“It is clearly a complicated and tortured mind that does something of this magnitude in the presence of the police and cries out to be shot,” the bishop said. “He was a person very much not at peace, and I do feel compassion for that. He traumatized a lot of people. I do forgive him, but I do not excuse what he did.”
Sean Piccoli and Liam Stack contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.