Texas church shooting leaves at least 26 dead

Ages of wounded, killed range from 5 to 72
An FBI vehicle outside First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Sunday.
An FBI vehicle outside First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Sunday.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — A gunman clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26 people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the scene of the country’s newest mass horror.

The gunman was identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, according to two law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. Kelley, who lived in New Braunfels died shortly after the attack.

He had served in the Air Force at a base in New Mexico, but was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and received a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014, according to Ann Stefanek, chief of Air Force media operations.

The motive of the attack was unclear Sunday, but the grisly nature of it could not have been clearer: Families gathered in pews, clutching Bibles and praying to the Lord, were murdered in cold blood on the spot.

Kelley started firing at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs not long after the Sunday morning service began at 11 a.m. Central time, officials said. He was armed with a Ruger military-style rifle, and within minutes, many of those inside the small church were either dead or wounded. The victims ranged in age from 5 to 72, and among the dead were several children, a pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter.

It was the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history. At least 20 more were wounded.

“It’s something we all say does not happen in small communities, although we found out today it does,” said Joe Tackitt, the sheriff of Wilson County, which includes Sutherland Springs.

Tackitt and other officials said the gunman first stopped at a gas station across Highway 87 from the church. He drove across the street, got out of his car and began firing from the outside, moving to the right side of the church, the authorities said. Then he entered the building and kept firing.

The authorities received their first call about a gunman at about 11:20 a.m.. Officials and witnesses said Kelley appeared to be prepared for an assault, with black tactical gear, multiple rounds of ammunition and a ballistic vest.

“He went there, he walked in, started shooting people and then took off,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas congressman who represents the region and who was briefed by law enforcement officials.

When Kelley emerged from the church, an armed neighbor exchanged gunfire with him, hitting Kelley, who fled in his vehicle. Neighbors apparently followed him, chasing him into the next county, Guadalupe County, where Kelley crashed his car. Kelley was found dead in his vehicle. Officials said it was unclear how Kelley had died.

At the church, he left behind a scene of carnage. Of the 26 fatalities, 23 people were found dead inside the church, two were found outside and one died at a hospital.

In nearby Floresville, hours after the attack, Scott Holcombe, 30, sat with his sister on the curb outside the emergency room at Connally Memorial Medical Center. They were both in tears. Their parents, Bryan and Karla Holcombe, had been at the church and had been killed.

“I’m dumbfounded,” Holcombe said. “This is unimaginable. My father was a good man and he loved to preach. He had a good heart.”

His sister, Sarah Slavin, 33, added: “They weren’t afraid of death. They had a strong faith, so there’s comfort in that. I feel like my parents, especially my mom, wasn’t scared.”

A parishioner, Sandy Ward, said that a daughter-in-law and three of her grandchildren were shot. Her grandson, who is 5, was shot four times and remained in surgery Sunday night. She said she was awaiting word on her other family members.

Ward said she did not attend services Sunday because of her troubled knees and a bad hip. “I just started praying for everybody who was there” when she learned of the shooting, she said.

At a news conference Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he and other Texans were asking “for God’s comfort, for God’s guidance and for God’s healing for all those who are suffering.”

President Donald Trump, who was in Japan on a trip to several Asian countries, called it a “horrific shooting.” He ordered flags flown at half-staff at the White House and all federal buildings through Thursday.

In a time of crisis, he said, “Americans will do what we do best: we pull together and join hands and lock arms and through the tears and sadness we stand strong.”

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were helping in the investigation, which was being led by the Texas Rangers.

The shooting unfolded on the eighth anniversary of the attack in 2009 on Fort Hood in Texas, when an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people in one of the deadliest mass shootings at a U.S. military base. Hasan carried out his attack in an attempt to wage jihad on American military personnel.

The death toll Sunday also exceeded the number killed in 1966 by a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Charles Whitman, who opened fire from the school’s clock tower in a day of violence in that ultimately killed 17.

And the shooting Sunday occurred more than two years after Dylann S. Roof opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, killing nine people, including the pastor. The motive in that attack was racial hatred — Roof, a white supremacist, plotted an assault on a black congregation — but no motive has been established by the authorities in the shooting in Sutherland Springs. The First Baptist Church is predominantly white, and Kelley is white.

The authorities said Kelley used an Ruger AR-15 variant — a knockoff of the standard service rifle carried by the U.S. military for roughly half a century.

Almost all AR-15 variants legally sold in the United States fire only semi-automatically, and were covered by the federal assault weapons ban that went into effect in 1994. Since the ban expired in 2004, the weapons have been legal to sell or possess in much of the United States and sales of AR-15s have surged.

Ruger’s AR-15s made for civilian markets sell for about $500 to $900, depending on the model.

Kelley grew up in New Braunfels, in his parents’ nearly $1 million home, and was married in 2014. He had been married at least once before, and was sued for divorce in 2012 in New Mexico, the same year he was court-martialed on charges of assaulting his wife and child.

Why he chose to attack a church 30 miles away from his home is one of the questions that remained unanswered.

Sutherland Springs in Wilson County is about 34 miles east of downtown San Antonio, in a slow-paced region where churchgoing is a common part of the Sunday routine. The church marquee Sunday needed updating from last week, reading, “Join Us, Fall Fest, Oct. 31, 6 to 8 PM.”

The unincorporated community has a population that numbers in the low hundreds — the 2000 census was 362, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The preliminary death toll would amount to about 7 percent of that population.

Joseph Silva, 49, who lives about 5 miles northeast of Sutherland Springs, said the police had instructed his family and neighbors to stay indoors. He described Sutherland Springs as “a one-blinking-light town.”

“There is a gas station and a post office,” he said. “That’s about all there really is.”

Silva said he had been approached by a woman who said she had two loved ones at the church who were shot. “There are a number of individuals just weeping and just wanted to know what’s happened to their loved ones,” he said. “Everybody is pretty grief-stricken. Everyone’s worried.”

On Sunday night, a few minutes down a pitch-black road, victims’ families gathered at another house of worship, the River Oaks Church. Its parking lot was full of about 50 large trucks, and parents walked into the building holding their children’s hands.

The police kept tight control over the scene, refusing to allow any reporters to enter. One man in a cowboy hat was also turned away. “They said they’re gathering to inform the families, but they’ll only let immediate family in, only if you have a wristband,” he said. A short while later, a young man rushed out to his truck, visibly upset, and raced away.

The First Baptist Church, the scene of the shooting, was also sealed off, with yellow police-line tape posted around the church grounds.

First Baptist is a little church, albeit a tech-savvy one. The service at the church last Sunday was posted on YouTube, one of several posted there. Videos posted online show lyrics to the hymns appearing on television screens with parishioners playing electric guitars and a sign language interpreter translating the songs.

The video of last Sunday’s service begins with a rendition of a song called “Happiness Is the Lord.” Then the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, told his parishioners — 20 to 30 were visible in the video — to walk around the room and “shake somebody’s hand.”

“Tell them it’s good to see them in God’s house this morning,” Pomeroy said.

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