SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — Another senseless act of violence. Another investigation to determine a motive for gun-related massacre that has ripped apart another community.
Barely a month after a lone gunman killed 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, another individual shot up a house of worship in a rural community in southern Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.
While law enforcement in Nevada is still looking for a motive in the Las Vegas shooting, the Texas Department of Public Safety said the apparent motive behind the shooting in this rural town 35 miles east of San Antonio was domestic in nature.
The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, sent threatening texts on his cellphone to his mother-in-law before he methodically walked through First Baptist Church here and shot congregants where she worshiped, law enforcement officials said Monday.
The woman was not in the church when the masked gunman attacked, but Freeman Martin, a Texas DPS regional director, said the incidents were connected.
“There was a domestic situation going on in this family,” Martin said.
The Department of Public Safety, which is leading the investigation, has ruled out racial or religious motives in the mass shooting. An FBI agent assisting the investigation also said “at this time we do not have a terror investigation open.”
Law enforcement officials said Kelley was dressed in tactical armor and wearing a mask with a skull face when he walked down the aisle at the church firing an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. He then turned around and continued shooting on his way out of the building, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said at a news conference Monday.
As shots rang out, a local resident responded with a semi-automatic rifle and “they engaged in a shootout at the church,” Martin said.
Kelley was shot in the exchange and a high-speed chase ensued. Martin said Kelley used his cellphone to tell his father he was shot and that he didn’t think he would “make it.” The chase ended when Kelley crashed his car.
The cause of death will be determined by a pathologist, Martin said, but evidence at the scene suggests the cause was “self-inflicted.”
2012 court martial
A native of the San Antonio suburb of New Braunfels, Kelley graduated from high school in 2009, according to a district spokeswoman. He enlisted in the Air Force the following year and was assigned to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He got married in 2011.
But according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, Kelley faced a court-martial in 2012 on allegations that he abused his wife and a child. According to court-martial documents the Air Force released Monday, Kelley was accused of choking his wife, pulling her hair and kicking her. He also hit the child on the head and body, according to the documents. The Air Force’s former chief prosecutor, Don Christensen, told The New York Times that Kelley fractured the child’s skull.
Kelley was sentenced to 12 months of confinement and ultimately removed from the military with a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction of rank.
Despite his dishonorable discharge in 2014, Kelley purchased four weapons over the past four years — two in Colorado and two in Texas.
The Air Force acknowledged Monday that it didn’t enter Kelley’s criminal history into the federal database used to conduct background checks on citizens looking to purchase a firearm. The lapse prompted the Pentagon to announce a review of whether the problem has gone undetected in other cases across the military.
Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said three of the four weapons Kelley purchased were found on him — a Glock 9-mm handgun, a Ruger .22-caliber handgun and a Ruger semi-automatic assault rifle.
Milanowski said Kelley’s military record and gun purchases were part of the probe.
“We are early in the investigation,” he said.
Kelley’s wife, Tessa Kelley, filed for divorce in 2012, the same year as the court-martial. The divorce was finalized in October 2012.
Kelley also was charged with animal cruelty in Colorado Springs, Colo., after witnesses said he jumped on a dog and began hitting it around the face and neck.
Another community grieves
As in Nevada a month earlier, this rural community is now trying to come to grips with an unexplained tragedy that left mothers, parents and neighbors grieving for loved ones and friends lost in the carnage.
The victims ranged in age from 18 months to 77, and as many as 14 were children, according to law enforcement officials. One family lost eight members.
About 20 other people were wounded. Ten of them were still hospitalized Monday in critical condition.
One of the deceased was 14-year-old Annabelle Pomeroy, daughter of the church pastor, Frank Pomeroy, and wife, Sherri, who were away and not at the church when the shooting occurred.
On Monday they attended to the news conference to ask people to remember all of the victims of the deadly shooting.
“We lost more than ‘Belle yesterday,” Sherri Pomeroy told the news conference. “Most of our church family is gone.”
Church member Nick Uhlig, 34, who was not at Sunday’s service, told the Associated Press that his cousin, who was eight months’ pregnant, and her in-laws were among those killed. He later told the Houston Chronicle that three of his cousin’s children also were slain.
Vice President Mike Pence said he will travel to Texas on Wednesday to meet with victims of the church shooting.
President Donald Trump, in Asia, called the killer “deranged” and said it wasn’t “a guns situation” that was behind the mass shooting
As he did following last month’s Las Vegas massacre of 58 people, Trump resisted any discussion of gun control during a news conference in Tokyo, where he was beginning his first presidential trip to Asia. Instead, Trump characterized the shooting as a “mental health problem at the highest level.”
”This was a very — based on preliminary reports — a very deranged individual. A lot of problems over a long period of time,” Trump said when asked about the shooting as he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a joint news conference.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and local officials also noted the killer’s past record.
“This is a person who had violent tendencies,” Abbott said in an interview with CBS “This Morning.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called Kelley “the kind of evil that would look at a small child and callously murder that child.”
Cruz said Kelley had worshipped in the church before.
The shooting occurred in the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who said his office was working with law enforcement to carry out the investigation. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., whose district includes the Las Vegas Strip where the Nevada shooting took place, reached out to Cuellar to pledge her support.
Titus is also co-sponsor of House legislation that would give the ATF the authority to tightly regulate “bump stocks,” used by Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nevada, to accelerate the rate of fire on semi-automatic rifles used in his Oct. 1 attack.
Texas hero: ‘I know I hit him’
A man some call a hero for engaging in a shootout with the Texas church gunman is a former National Rifle Association instructor.
Stephen Willeford said in an interview with KHBS/KHOG television in Arkansas that he was at home in Sutherland Springs when his daughter heard gunfire at the church.
Willeford says he retrieved his rifle, loaded it and ran barefoot to the church. “I kept hearing the shots, one after another, very rapid shots … and I knew every one of those shots represented someone,” he said.
Willeford said he hid behind a pickup truck and exchanged fire with the gunman, adding, “I know I hit him.”
The gunman, Devin Kelley, got into his vehicle and fled. Willeford said he ran to a pickup truck and asked the driver, later identified as Johnnie Langendorff, to help him.
They sped after the gunman. Kelley’s vehicle hit a road sign and flipped into a roadside ditch.
Willeford said he got out of the truck, perched his rifle on the truck’s rooftop and yelled, “get out of the truck,” but saw no movement. Law enforcement came to the scene. They believe the gunman took his own life.