Sutherland Springs church shooting
|Sutherland Springs church shooting
|Location||First Baptist Church
216 4th Street
Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S.
|Date||November 5, 2017
≈11:20 a.m. (CST)
|Weapon||Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle|
|Deaths||26 (excluding the perpetrator)|
|Perpetrator||Devin Patrick Kelley|
On November 5, 2017, a mass shooting occurred at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the city of San Antonio. The gunman, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley of nearby New Braunfels, killed 26 and injured 20 others. He was shot twice by a male civilian as he exited the church. Fleeing in his SUV, Kelley crashed after a high-speed chase and was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds, including a self-inflicted head shot.
This was the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in Texas, the fifth deadliest mass shooting in the United States, as well as the deadliest shooting in an American place of worship in modern history, surpassing the Charleston church shooting of 2015 and the Waddell, Arizona Buddhist temple shooting of 1991.
Kelley was prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition due to a domestic violence conviction in a court-martial while in the United States Air Force. The Air Force failed to record the conviction in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center database, which is used by the National Instant Check System to flag prohibited purchases. The error prompted the Air Force to begin a review.
At approximately 11:20 a.m. CST, Devin Patrick Kelley exited from a vehicle at a gas station across the street from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs wearing black tactical gear, a ballistic vest, and a black face-mask featuring a white skull, and wielding an AR-15 pattern Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle. He immediately fired in the direction of the church. He crossed the street and approached the building from the right while firing, and continued to fire while entering the church building with worshipers attending regular Sunday service. Inside, he yelled, "Everybody die, motherfuckers," as he proceeded up and down the aisle and shot at people in the pews. Police found 15 empty AR-15 magazines capable of holding 30 rounds each. According to investigators, the shooting was captured on a camera set up at the back of the church to record regular services for uploading online. The footage shows Kelley methodically shooting the victims, pausing only to reload his rifle.
As Kelley left the church, he was confronted by local resident and former NRA firearms instructor Stephen Willeford, armed with an AR-15 pattern semi-automatic rifle. Willeford took cover behind a truck and shot Kelley twice. Kelley dropped his rifle and fled in his Ford Explorer as Willeford fired several rounds through the vehicle's window. Willeford flagged down a passing pickup truck driven by Johnnie Langendorff, and they pursued Kelley at high speed for about five to seven minutes. According to Langendorff, they drove at speeds up to 95 miles per hour (155 km/h). While chasing Kelley, the men called 9-1-1 and reported their location to the operator; they assumed that the police were on their way to the church. During the chase, Kelley called his father to tell him that he was injured and thought that he would not survive. Kelley lost control of his vehicle, and it hit a road sign and flipped before landing in a bar ditch in Guadalupe County, near the city of New Berlin. Willeford and Langendorff observed that he was motionless, and police took over the scene when they arrived. Police found Kelley dead in his car with three gunshot wounds, including a self-inflicted head wound. Two handguns were found in the vehicle: a Glock 9 mm and a Ruger .22-caliber, both of which Kelley had purchased.
The Texas Rangers are leading the investigation, and the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are assisting. Investigators said the shooting was not motivated by racism or prejudice against religion, but by a dispute with Kelley's mother-in-law. There was no indication that anyone other than Kelley was involved in the shooting.
The attack occurred during the church's Sunday service. Twenty-six people were killed and 20 others were injured. The dead comprise ten women, seven men, seven girls, one boy, and an unborn child. Twenty-three died inside the church, two outside, and one in a hospital. The oldest victim was 77 years old. One was the 14-year-old daughter of church pastor Frank Pomeroy, who was not at the church at the time. Nine of those killed were from the same family, including visiting pastor Bryan Holcombe.
|Devin Patrick Kelley|
February 21, 1991|
|Died||November 5, 2017
New Berlin, Texas
|Cause of death||Self-inflicted gunshot wound|
|Residence||New Braunfels, Texas|
|Education||New Braunfels High School|
|Occupation||Security guard (2017)|
|Employer||Summit Resort, New Braunfels|
|Service/branch||United States Air Force|
|Years of service||2009–2014|
Early life and education
At New Braunfels High, Kelley had a lengthy disciplinary record, which included seven suspensions for "falsifying records, insubordination, profanity and a drug-related offense." One former high school classmate described him as "an outcast but not a loner" who was "popular among other outcasts." However, a martial arts instructor who taught Kelley during that time said Kelley signed up for his class because he was being bullied and that he did not fit in. Kelley graduated in 2009 with a 2.32 grade-point average and a ranking of 260 out of 393 students in his class. A close friend from middle school through high school recalled "he wasn't always a 'psychopath' though" and that "over the years we all saw him change into something that he wasn't".
Military service and mental health problems
After graduating, Kelley enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2009 until 2014. He married in April 2011. In October 2012, he was charged with assaulting his wife and fracturing his toddler stepson's skull. In response, Kelley made death threats against the superior officers who charged him, and he was caught sneaking firearms onto Holloman Air Force Base. Around that same time, he made threats of self-harm to a coworker. He was then admitted to Peak Behavioral Health Services, a mental health facility in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.
In June 2012, Kelley escaped from Peak Behavioral Health Services but was soon apprehended ten miles away at a bus terminal in El Paso, Texas. The facility's director of military affairs later recalled that Kelley had stayed at the facility for several weeks, until he was brought to court-martial. While there, he had expressed a desire for "some kind of retribution to his chain of command" and was discovered to have used computers to order "weapons and tactical gear to a P.O. box in San Antonio."
Kelley and his wife divorced in October 2012. In an interview with Inside Edition, his ex-wife said she lived in constant fear of him, as their marriage was filled with abuse. He once threatened her at gunpoint over a speeding ticket, and later threatened to kill her and her entire family.
Kelley was brought before a general court-martial on four charges: assault on his wife, aggravated assault on his stepson, two charges of pointing a loaded gun at his wife, and two counts of threatening his wife with an unloaded gun. In November 2012, Kelley pleaded guilty to two counts of Article 128 UCMJ, for the assault of his wife and stepson. In return, the weapons charges were dropped. He was sentenced to 12 months of confinement and a reduction in rank to Airman Basic. He appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, but was unsuccessful. In 2014, he was dismissed from the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge.
After his release, Kelley returned to New Braunfels, where he lived in a converted barn at his parents' home. Shortly thereafter, he was investigated for sexual assault and rape, and for a physical assault of his then-girlfriend, although these investigations did not lead to charges. On April 4, 2014, he married his then-girlfriend. The couple moved into a mobile home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was charged in August 2014 for misdemeanor cruelty to animals after beating his malnourished husky. He was given a deferred sentence of probation and was ordered to pay restitution and other fees; the charge was dismissed in March 2016, after he completed the sentence. In January 2015, a resident of El Paso County, Colorado received a protection order against him.
Kelley attended the First Baptist Church in Kingsville, Texas, from May to June 2014 and volunteered as a helper for one day of Vacation Bible School. Later on, he stopped volunteering at the summer Bible class and began posting about atheism online. According to some of his former high school classmates, he was constantly "trying to preach his atheism" and describing people who believe in God as "stupid", causing them to delete him as a friend on Facebook for his posts.
At the time of the shooting, Kelley was again living at his parents' property in New Braunfels. He was licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety as a security guard, and was a security worker at the Summit Vacation and RV Resort in New Braunfels. He had previously worked as an unarmed security guard at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Resort in New Braunfels, but was fired after less than six weeks on the job. While he was working at Schlitterbahn, a family who encountered him commented on how "creepy" Kelley had seemed; one member described, "He seemed angry. He seemed annoyed by us, and he seemed like he wanted to exert some authority."
On the night of October 31, less than a week before the shooting, Kelley attended a festival at the First Baptist Church wearing all black. According to two parishioners who were at the festival, he acted so strangely that people had to keep an eye on him. One also examined him to make sure he was not carrying a firearm. According to a former Air Force colleague who temporarily got reacquainted with him online, Kelley claimed he would buy dogs and other animals and use them for "target practice". He also expressed his obsession with mass murders, particularly the Charleston church shooting, and joked about committing one himself. These comments prompted her to block him on Facebook.
Kelley's estranged second wife sometimes attended First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs with her family. Prior to the shooting, he sent threatening text messages to her mother. His wife and her mother were not at the church when the attack occurred, but he killed his wife's grandmother at the church.
Ability to purchase and carry firearms
Kelley purchased four guns at stores in Colorado and Texas between 2014 and 2017. On October 29, a week before the shooting, he posted a photo of what appeared to be an AR-556 rifle on his Facebook profile. An AR-556 rifle was used in the attack, and two handguns were found in Kelley's vehicle.
Kelley purchased the semi-automatic rifle used in the shooting from an Academy Sports + Outdoors store in San Antonio in April 2016. He filled out the required ATF Form 4473 and falsely indicated that he did not have a disqualifying criminal history. In Texas, an FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check is required at the time of purchase for all firearms except for purchasers with a valid license to carry a handgun.
Kelley's general court-martial guilty plea made it illegal for him to own, buy, or possess a firearm. The conviction should have been flagged by NICS and prevented a purchase. Federal law prohibits those convicted of domestic violence–even if it is only a misdemeanor–from possessing firearms. Additionally, federal law does not allow a person discharged "under dishonorable conditions" to buy or possess a firearm. According to the federal form required to record firearms transactions, a discharge "under dishonorable conditions" not only refers to a dishonorable discharge, but also a bad conduct discharge "adjudged by a general court-martial."
The Air Force failed to relay the court-martial convictions to the FBI, saying in a statement, "Initial information indicates that Kelley's domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Crime Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations." One day after the shooting, the Air Force said it had "launched a review of how the service handled the criminal records of former Airman Devin P. Kelley following his 2012 domestic violence conviction." Three days after the shooting, Vice President Mike Pence visited the crime scene, and said, "We will find why this information was not properly recorded in 2012, and we will work with leaders in Congress to ensure that this never happens again."
The shooting brought attention to gaps in reporting to the federal background-check system intended to ban convicted domestic abusers, such as Kelley, from purchasing guns. Since 1996, the Lautenberg Amendment has prohibited the sale of firearms to those convicted of domestic abuse offenses, even misdemeanors, but gaps in reporting continue to exist.
President Donald Trump, in Japan at the time of the shooting, said at a press conference in Tokyo that "I think that mental health is a problem here. Based on preliminary reports, this was a very deranged individual with a lot of problems over a very long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn't a guns situation ... we could go into it but it's a little bit soon to go into it. Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction" or "it would have been much worse". Trump was asked about gun policy while visiting Seoul, South Korea. In response to a proposal for extreme vetting of gun ownership similar to Trump's own call for "extreme vetting" of immigrants, Trump said that this would have made "no difference". He said that stricter gun control measures might have prevented Stephen Willeford from shooting Kelley, and commented, "Instead of having 26 dead, he would've had hundreds more dead." After the shooting, Trump issued a presidential proclamation honoring the victims and ordered the United States flag at half-staff at the White House and all public and military sites until the sunset of November 9.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that the shooting "will be a long, suffering mourning for those in pain." Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proposed that churches employ professional armed security guards, or at least arm more parishioners, to counter church shootings, which he said have happened "forever" and will again. Paxton was criticized by Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party's deputy executive director, who said that "Texans deserve more from their chief law enforcement official than inaction and willful ignorance."
On November 9, the pastor of the church, Frank Pomeroy, announced that the building would be demolished and be replaced with a prayer garden, stating that it would be too painful to the victims to keep the building as is.
Hoaxes and conspiracy theories
Fake news websites and far-right activists published misleading stories and conspiracy stories about the incident. They associated the shooter with a range of people and groups the far-right opposes such as identifying him as a Democrat or a radical Muslim, or claiming that he carried an Antifa flag and told churchgoers, "This is a communist revolution." Some reports falsely claimed that he targeted the church because they were "white conservatives". U.S. Representative Vicente González twice incorrectly named the shooter as "Sam Hyde", a comedian who is often jokingly referred as the perpetrator on social media. González said that he had been given that name by officials.
Conspiracy theories circulated at the hospital where victims were being treated. According to The Washington Post, a group of women who said they knew the victims were overheard discussing the shooting as a false flag operation designed to manipulate the public towards some nefarious end. The Post reporter sought to inquire further, but the women pushed her away, saying, "She [the reporter] is part of it [the conspiracy]," after which the reporter was removed from the hospital by police.
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... his vehicle, second left, partly seen in the background, near the intersection of FM 539 and Sandy Elm Road in Guadalupe County, Texas ....
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