The Tri-State’s TRUSTED news source.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to Herald-Dispatch.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

Learn more about HD Media

HUNTINGTON -- Mourners from near and far remembered the life of Mark McCalla on Friday, as investigators spent a second day searching for clues in the shooting death of the local minister.

McCalla, 48, was pastor at Highlawn Presbyterian Church. A state forestry official found his body Thursday morning at the Beech Fork State Park rifle range. Investigators believe McCalla died from a single gunshot wound to the head, Wayne County Sheriff David Pennington said.

Those who knew McCalla described him as a happy, fun-loving pastor with big ideas and an enormous love for the outdoors. His loss left a stunning void.

Highlawn church members filled their Collis Avenue fellowship hall Thursday night. Local minister Rick Wilson from Cabell Huntington Hospital is scheduled to deliver Sunday's message, said church elder Charlie Woolcock.

"This is a tragedy to us," Woolcock said. "This has broken all of our hearts. Everybody, all they can do is pray for our congregation, our church and number one pray for the family."

Pennington said the investigation yielded more questions than answers. They are looking for a motive and two missing firearms. Both guns belonged to McCalla, and it is unclear if the shooter used one of the weapons to kill the pastor.

Authorities believe the shooter fired in close proximity to McCalla. Then someone dragged his body about 20 yards.

McCalla had not moved from his target practice spot before being shot, Pennington said. Investigators have not identified anything that points toward motive.

"We're dealing with a different kind of case," he said. "Who wants to kill a preacher? Who wants to kill a deacon? Not very many people. Something has triggered something, and it may be robbery."

Wayne County Sheriff's Sgt. Travis Williamson said deputies and state police have received reports in the past few months of guns stolen from the range. The reports indicate people go to replace their paper target, and their gun is gone when they return. None of the incidents turned violent. Williamson said there is no direct link between those reports and McCalla's death.

But McCalla being robbed was just another piece of speculation Friday afternoon, as detectives searched for clues.

Woolcock and others described McCalla as an avid outdoorsman. He enjoyed kayaking, bicycling and running, and it was not unusual for him to visit the Beech Fork rifle range.

McCalla spent time Thursday morning feeding workers at the Asbury Woods Camp and Retreat Center near Barboursville. Approximately 180 people are staying at the camp this week, while they repair homes for the area's needy.

Woolcock said McCalla left the camp about 8:15 a.m.

Investigators believe he arrived at the rifle range about 8:30 a.m. The forestry worker called Wayne County 911 about 9:35 a.m.

Pennington said he believes Beech Fork State Park is safe, but he concedes there are no guarantees.

McCalla is survived by his wife, Pamela, whom he lived with at the church parsonage in Huntington. They have four children and one grandson. McCalla also has family in North Carolina and Columbus, Ohio, according to current and former church members.

Pamela McCalla serves as pastor at a Presbyterian church in Eleanor, W.Va., in northern Putnam County, according to Presbytery of West Virginia stated clerk John Bolt.

News of the tragedy traveled fast through congregations in Huntington and other states.

McCalla was ordained July 31, 1994. He became pastor a day later at First Presbyterian Church in Corry, Pa. He moved on to preach at churches in Franklin, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; and Huntington, according to the Presbyterian Church USA Web site.

Woolcock said Highlawn Presbyterian was without a pastor for more than two years, until McCalla inquired about the position.

"God sent Mark McCalla to Highlawn Presbyterian Church," he said. "For us to lose someone that we worked with for 4 1/2 years, it is heartbreaking. It is a shock."

McCalla was involved with Bluestone Camp and Retreat, which is the state presbytery's camp in Hinton, W.Va. He used the camp for church retreats.

McCalla was scheduled to volunteer in a couple weeks at Bluestone's Mission Adventure camp. Cheryl Miller, the camp's food service manager, said it mixed community service projects and rafting.

"That's what he was all about -- doing mission work and he was an adventurist," she said. "He was an all-around great guy."

McCalla's death has garnered prayers from across the Presbyterian denomination, Bolt said. He is among officials from the state attending the denomination's 218th General Assembly in California.

"This news has not only stunned Huntington and West Virginia, it has stunned the whole denomination," he said. "People who have no idea who Mark McCalla is, but know that he was a Presbyterian pastor, are praying for the family and the churches."

Bolt said McCalla was a key part of the denomination, including a role as a mentor to other preachers. He believes the tragedy will prompt some West Virginia officials to leave the assembly early. It's scheduled to end June 28.

McCalla's former congregation in Franklin, Pa., learned of his death through dozens of telephone calls and e-mails. The church's current pastor, Sam Gibb, spent time redrafting this week's sermon to offer hope for those saddened by the news.

Those mourners include Jack and Millie Armant. They estimated about 70 percent of today's congregation in Franklin, Pa., attended under McCalla's leadership. They received word of his death late Thursday.

The Armants said McCalla always wore a smile. They said he was a good preacher and a good teacher. They remember his love for the New Testament Gospel of Mark. McCalla used his love for the outdoors to connect with Franklin's youth. Building the youth group was part of his legacy.

"He was extremely loving and caring about young people," Jack Armant said. "He could strike up a conversation with almost anybody on the street. They would right away want to attach to him, like him and befriend him."

McCalla left the Franklin, Pa., for Hoge Memorial in Columbus, Ohio. That congregation was in decline. Members hoped McCalla would reverse the trend, according to organist Franklin T. Cory.

McCalla arrived with many big ideas, but Cory said Hoge Memorial did not adopt his vision at the same speed. McCalla became discouraged and moved to Huntington two years later.

"He believed if you had an idea of something the church ought to do, you ought to grab the ball and run with it," he said. "He believed if change was going to come about in a church, it was not going to be because of anything a committee did. It was what the people were going to do from the inspiration they got from their Bible study."

Cory recalled McCalla would spend his days off enjoying the outdoors.

"He enjoyed life. He was a wonderful person," he said. "He didn't live at the church 24/7."

The West Virginia State Police, Huntington Police Department and the National Guard are participating in the investigation.

They searched at least three to four acres Thursday and used aerial resources to look for leads from the sky.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.