Nothing indicated Nov. 5, 2017 would be different from any other Sunday in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas. The 50 or so parishioners that attended services at the First Baptist Church had made their way up the concrete walkway and were milling about inside as usual, greeting one another as children ran amongst the pews of this modest white-painted house of worship.
At approximately 11:30 AM, Bryan Holcombe, the associate pastor, walked to the pulpit to lead the congregation in worship when a black-clad gunman stormed through the rear doors of the church, opening fire with an assault rifle, killing 26 and injuring 20 others.
The assailant, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of nearby New Braunfels, was spotted at a gas station across from the church at about 11:20 AM, wearing tactical gear and a ballistic vest. Witnesses said he drove across the street, got out of his vehicle and began firing at the church with an assault-style rifle before going inside and continuing to fire.
Both Holcombe and his wife were killed along with six other family members, spanning three generations, including an unborn grandchild. Also, the 14-year old daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, who was out-of-town with his wife, died in the rampage.
It was reported Kelley yelled, “Everybody die, motherfuckers,” as he proceeded up and down the aisle shooting at people in the pews. Afterward, police found 15 empty AR-15 magazines capable of holding 30 rounds each. The scene inside was a cascade of blood. The pews riddled, and floor, ceiling and walls desecrated.
As Kelley exited the church, local resident Stephen Willeford, 55, retrieved a rifle and ran out of his nearby house barefoot to confront the shooter. “He saw me and I saw him,” said Willeford, a former NRA firearms instructor, who took cover behind a truck before shooting Kelley twice.
As the suspect drove off in his SUV, Willeford flagged down Johnnie Langendorff, 27, in his pickup truck, and the two men pursued Kelley for 11 miles at speeds up to 95 miles per hour, until Kelley lost control of his vehicle and crashed in a ditch near the county line.
The suspect remained motionless as Willeford and Langendorff held him at gunpoint until police arrived about five minutes later. Kelley was found dead in his vehicle with three gunshot wounds, including a self-inflicted head shot. Two handguns were found in the vehicle, both of which Kelley had purchased.
“There are no words to describe the pure evil that we witnessed in Sutherland Springs today,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
The subsequent investigation revealed the shooting was not motivated by racism, prejudice or terrorism, but was instead a family squabble involving Kelley’s mother-in-law. His current estranged wife and her mother sometimes attended First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, but were not there on this fateful morning. Although his wife’s grandmother was present, and he executed her.
Kelley had a long history of social disobedience and insubordination dating back to high school. After graduation he served in the Air Force, from 2009-2014, from which he was dismissed with a bad conduct discharge after pleading guilty to assaulting his previous wife and his stepson in 2012, having fractured the toddler’s skull. His subsequent behavior and the resulting guilty plea earned Kelley time in a mental facility (which he escaped from), a divorce, and a 12-month confinement by the Air Force as punishment.
Soon after his release Kelley returned to Texas, and trouble followed. He was under suspicion for sexual assault, rape and a physical assault concerning a previous girlfriend, but was never charged. Kelley married again in 2014 (to the woman whose grandmother was killed), and the couple moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where in August of that year he picked up a misdemeanor cruelty to animals charge after beating his malnourished husky. Then in Jan. 2015, a protection order was issued against Kelley by a resident of El Paso County, Colo.
Bells and whistles were going off everywhere around this guy, yet between 2014 and 2017, Kelley purchased four guns at stores in Colorado and Texas. In 2016, he purchased the semi-automatic rifle used in the church shooting at a store in San Antonio, located some 35 miles northwest of Sutherland Springs, where Kelley falsified his ATF Form 4473, indicating he did not have a disqualifying criminal history.
The State of Texas did deny Kelley’s application for a license to carry a handgun, but a license is not required to purchase firearms under Texas state law.
The point being Kelley should have never been able to purchase or possess a firearm due to his domestic violence conviction while in the Air Force. Additionally, individuals discharged under dishonorable conditions, including for bad conduct, are prohibited under federal law to buy or possess a firearm.
Turns out the Air Force failed to record the conviction in the FBI National Crime Information Center database, which is used by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to flag prohibited purchases. This begs the question that if a dangerous individual such as this was missed what else is going unnoticed or mistakenly overlooked in the military, law enforcement and court systems.
This incident is an absolute tragedy on so many levels. Devin Patrick Kelley was only 26, and had notable recorded behavioral and mental health issues taking place for the majority of his life and no one connected the dots. Animal cruelty is always a huge indicator when profiling mass murderers. There were other reports that Kelley purchased pets to use for live target practice. In a world this automated, even with the guy moving around between states, it’s unacceptable that Kelley did not get picked up for closer examination considering all the smoke surrounding him.
A lot of this goes back to how America has consciously chosen to deal with its mentally ill. On the state and federal levels a decision has been made to slash mental health budgets and minimize treatment options, to instead wait for these sick individuals to poke their heads up and either commit enough minor crimes or a felony, to enter the criminal justice system, where our jails and prisons become “in-house treatment facilities” because these come cheaper than hospitals.
The problem being with no budgets or agencies to give guys like Kelley a second look, people slip between the cracks, and now 26 innocents are dead inside a little white church in SE Texas. Think about the lives those 26 people touched and the loss felt by all.