The massacre of more than two dozen churchgoers – the youngest of whom was just 18 months old – occurred amid an ongoing “domestic situation” involving the gunman and his relatives, some of whom had attended the church, law enforcement officials said Monday.
Also on Monday, the Air Force launched an internal review into why it failed to provide key information to the FBI that should have prevented the attacker from purchasing firearms after he was discharged from the service. While in the Air Force, the gunman – Devin Patrick Kelley, 26 – was convicted by a general court-martial on two charges of domestic assault, but the conviction wasn’t entered into a national database, meaning he was able to pass background checks to purchase weapons and obtain jobs without raising red flags.
While authorities have not publicly identified a motive for the attack, they emphasized that the shooting did not appear to be fueled by racial or religious issues, as has been the case with other rampages at U.S. houses of worship. Instead, they pointed to the gunman’s issues with his relatives, saying that Kelley had been sending “threatening texts” to his mother-in-law, who was not at the First Baptist Church when he opened fire on the congregation Sunday morning.
“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Monday. “There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”
Kelley’s anger boiled into what appeared to be a planned assault on the tiny church in a tiny town outside San Antonio, the latest mass attack to cut down Americans in seemingly safe public spaces. Kelley killed 26 people and injured 20 others, most of whom were praying in the pews when they faced a barrage of bullets from an assault-style rifle.
The painful stories of the lives lost to a mass shooting have become a familiar ritual, and this community church in the Texas countryside was no different. Among the dead here were eight relatives spanning three generations in a single family; the victims included toddlers, teenagers and the elderly. While authorities initially said the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72, they said Monday that was the age range of the wounded, and that the death toll encompassed even younger and older people.
“Inside the church, the deceased actually ranged from 18 months to 77 years of age,” Martin said.
The family that lost eight relatives said one of them was a 1-year-old girl. Among the 20 wounded Sunday at the church, 10 remained hospitalized in critical condition, Martin said. Almost everyone at the service was injured.
Texas authorities on Monday officially identified Kelley, of New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of Sutherland Springs, as the attacker. They said Kelley shot at the churchgoers with a Ruger assault-style rifle before a man who lives near the church heard what was happening and began firing his rifle at the attacker, hitting him at least once.
Kelley then dropped his rifle, jumped in his Ford Expedition SUV and fled, Martin said.
“Our Texas hero” flagged down another young Texan and hopped into his vehicle and they chased Kelley at high speeds, Martin said.
It was “act now, ask questions later,” said the truck’s driver, Johnnie Langendorff.
During the chase, Kelley called his father on his cellphone to say “he had been shot and didn’t think he was going to make it,” Martin said. An autopsy showed Kelley was shot twice – once in the leg and again in the torso – before shooting himself in the head, Martin said Monday.
Three guns were recovered Sunday, according to authorities: a Ruger rifle and two handguns – one a Glock and another a Ruger, inside Kelley’s vehicle. He had purchased four guns during the past four years, officials said.
According to the Air Force, he shouldn’t have been able to buy any of them. The service acknowledged Monday that Kelley’s offense was not entered into a national database, which meant he was able to pass routine background checks to purchase weapons. Kelley was convicted on charges of assaulting his then-wife and stepson and served 12 months in confinement before being released in 2014 with a bad-conduct discharge.
“Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in a statement.
After Sunday’s attack, investigators had questioned how Kelley, who spent a year behind bars, was able to purchase guns and pass state background checks for jobs. The Air Force’s oversight appeared to allow Kelley’s gun purchases to proceed despite a law meant to prevent them.
According to court-martial documents made public Monday evening by the Air Force, Kelley kicked, choked and struck his wife in 2011 and 2012. He also struck her young child “on the head and body with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm,” the documents said.
Texas officials said Kelley had sought and failed to obtain a permit allowing him to carry a concealed weapon after his release. He had an “unarmed private security license” akin to what a security guard at a concert would have, Martin said.
In televised interviews, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, said it appeared the church was targeted, rather than chosen at random, but said there were “more unknowns than there are knowns” a day after the attack.
“By all of the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun, so how did this happen?” Abbott said in an interview Monday morning on CNN. “We are in search of answers to these questions.”
Though Kelley’s in-laws had attended the church, they were not there during services Sunday and instead came to the scene after the shooting, said Joe Tackitt, the Wilson County sheriff.
Some mass shooters lash out seemingly indiscriminately, while others target their relatives or those in their community they think are working against them.
Peter Blair, a criminal justice professor at Texas State University and executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, said people who open fire in public places can have “rage welling up,” and then they lash out, said
“What you typically see in active shooter attackers is an avenger-type mentality,” said Blair, who co-wrote an FBI study in 2013 that examined 160 active-shooter incidents. “They’re people who believe they’ve been wronged in some way. They get angrier and angrier, and they plan the attack as a way to get people to recognize their issue.”
Kelley worked briefly over the summer as an unarmed night security guard at a Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, the company said. He passed a Texas Department of Public Safety criminal background check before beginning work there, a spokeswoman said, though she added that Kelley was fired in July – as the season was reaching its peak – because he was “not a good fit.”
He also was able to pass a background check that allowed him to work for HEB, a Texas-based grocery chain, in New Braunfels. Company spokeswoman Dya Campos said he worked there for two months in 2013 and quit.
The attack on Sunday left a staggering hole in a Texas town of fewer than 700 people.
“Nearly everyone had some type of injury,” Tackitt said of the churchgoers. “I knew several people in there. It hasn’t really hit yet, but it will.”
Tackitt said the aftermath was “a horrific sight,” adding: “You don’t expect to walk into church and find mauled bodies.” More than a dozen of those killed or injured in the attack were children, he said.
The massacre added Sutherland Springs to the growing roster of places synonymous with a mass tragedy, and it came just a month after 58 people in Las Vegas were gunned down in the country’s deadliest modern mass shooting.
President Trump appeared to try to steer the debate away from gun control after the Texas slayings. At a news conference in Tokyo, Trump said he thought “mental health” was a possible motive, adding that it appeared the shooter was “a very deranged individual, a lot of problems for a long period of time.” He did not further explain.
Trump said the incident “isn’t a guns situation,” and added: “Fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction” or the rampage “would have been much worse.”
No one inside the church was armed, the sheriff said Monday, saying he was not surprised by that fact.
“People from this community would never think this could happen,” he said.
Witnesses and officials said the gunman in Texas, dressed in black and wearing a tactical vest, began firing an assault rifle as he approached the church. Texas state officials said Monday that he also was wearing a black mask with a white skull face on it.
He killed two people outside before entering the church and spraying bullets at the congregation during morning worship, police said. Officials said he was inside for some time.
The attack tore apart families in this small community. Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all at once, a total of eight extended family members, the couple said.
Their son, Bryan Holcombe, 60, and his wife, Karla Holcombe, 58, were killed. Bryan was associate pastor for the church and was walking to preach at the pulpit when he was shot, Joe Holcombe said.
Also among the dead was Joe and Claryce’s granddaughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, who was pregnant. She and three of her children – Emily, Megan and Greg – died, according to Joe Holcombe. She was at church with her husband, John Holcombe, who survived along with two of her other children. Joe and Claryce’s grandson Marc Daniel Holcombe and his daughter, who was about a year old, also died.
Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist, and his wife, Sherri, spoke to reporters through tears.
Their 14-year-old daughter Annabelle – known as Belle – was among those killed in her father’s church, although both parents were out of town at the time. But the couple lost much more than their daughter, they said.
“We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and we worshiped together. Now most of our church family is gone,” Sherri Pomeroy said. “Our building is probably beyond repair, and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday. As senseless as this tragedy was, our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with all the family she lost yesterday.”
She added: “Please don’t forget Sutherland Springs.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Eva Ruth Moravec, Mark Berman