After Texas church shooting, ‘most of our church family is gone’

AP Photo/ David J. Phillip

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The gunman who killed 26 people inside a small Texas church on Sunday was armed with an assault rifle, 15 loaded magazines and an obsession with a family dispute.

As investigators start to piece together a picture of Devin Patrick Kelley, more clues have emerged over the deadliest shooting in Texas history, in which the gunman massacred parishioners ranging in age from 17 months to 77 years old.

The gunman, who had a record of violence, was obsessed with a domestic dispute, officials said. He sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law and texted her as recently as Sunday morning — not long before he carried out the mass shooting, authorities said.

“There are many ways that he could have taken care of the mother-in-law without coming with 15 loaded magazines and an assault rifle to a church,” Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety said. “I think he came here with a purpose and a mission.”

Latest developments

  • The US Air Force acknowledged it did not relay Kelley’s court martial conviction for domestic assault to civilian law enforcement that could have prevented him from purchasing the firearms used in the shooting. The Air Force and Department of Defense said they are investigating how records of his domestic violence conviction were handled.
  • Kelley, 26, had three gunshot wounds. He was shot in the leg and torso by an armed citizen, and had a self-inflicted shot to the head, authorities said. It wasn’t clear which gunshot Kelley died from, but there’s evidence at the scene “that indicates the subject may have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Martin said. He was found dead in his vehicle.
  • Investigators have reviewed video footage from inside the church, Martin said.
  • Kelley was denied a license to carry a gun, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said. But he passed a background check required for the purchase he made in April 2016 of the Ruger AR-556 rifle he allegedly used in the shooting.
  • Ten of the 20 people wounded remained in critical condition Monday, authorities said. And virtually no one at the church was left unscathed, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said. “I think nearly everyone had some type of injury,” the sheriff told reporters Monday.

Learning more about the shooter

Officials had said there was a domestic situation involving Kelley, but didn’t go into any details.

“This was not racially motivated. It wasn’t over religious beliefs. There was a domestic situation going on with the family and in-laws,” said Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio division.

Kelley had also expressed anger toward his mother-in-law, who attended the church, Martin said. She was not inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs when Kelley sprayed the congregation with gunfire. But his grandmother-in-law was killed during the attack, multiple friends of the woman told CNN. Lula White, was the grandmother of Kelley’s wife and often volunteered at the church, according to friends and her Facebook profile.

Public records as well as those who knew Kelley describe a troubling history.

Christopher Leo Longoria who went to high school with him said Kelley would focus on women’s reactions and that it would “creep out the ladies.” Longoria said he had recently unfriended him on Facebook because Kelley was launching into online personal attacks against his friends.

“He was also posting a lot of non-God beliefs, atheism, a lot of gun violence and a lot of weapons that he was into,” Longoria told CNN’s Don Lemon.

His social media suggested a fascination with mass shootings, said a law enforcement official.

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, with the responsibility of moving passengers, cargo and personal property in military transportation. He got married for the first time 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.

Kelley was involved in “multiple occasions of domestic abuse” against his ex-wife and stepson, said Don Christensen, the former Air Force chief prosecutor when Kelley was sentenced.

He said Kelley “violently” shook the child who suffered fractures and had subdural hematoma, which is a severe head injury in which there’s bleeding between the skull and the brain.

Kelley “admitted to, out of anger, pushing his son down and injuring him,” Christensen said.

Devin Patrick Kelley (CNN photo)

Kelley also was accused of pointing a loaded firearm and an unloaded firearm at the woman, according to the court-martial documents, but he pleaded not guilty to those allegations and they were “withdrawn and dismissed with prejudice after arraignment.”

After being court-martialed in 2012 for assault on his spouse and child, he served a year in military prison and received a bad conduct discharge as well as a reduction of rank, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

His wife, Tessa Kelley, filed for divorce in 2012, the same year as the court-martial. In paperwork associated with the divorce, Tessa Kelley said she was working at Taco Bell for $7.50 an hour while Devin Kelley was in detention.

The divorce was finalized in October 2012.

Kelley’s discharge was complete in 2014, Stefanek said. That February, sheriff’s deputies arrived at his family’s home in New Braunfels just after 10 p.m. one night to investigate another potential domestic violence case.

Citing a sheriff’s office report, Comal County spokesman Paul Anthony said a friend of Kelley’s girlfriend told authorities she received a text message from the girlfriend that indicated “her boyfriend was abusing her.” The report identifies the girlfriend as Danielle Shields and says Shields reported that “her arms were red.” It includes no additional details about what caused them to be red.

Shields said Kelley had “told her to pack a bag,” according to the report.

When sheriff’s deputies arrived, people at the home said there was a “misunderstanding,” according to the report. It doesn’t make clear who spoke to deputies. No arrests were made.

Kelley married Shields two months later.

Kelley registered to vote in Colorado in 2014, with an address traced to a mobile home park in Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and other Air Force installations.

In August of that year, Kelley was arrested on an animal cruelty charge in El Paso County, Colorado, after a witness said he had punched a dog, grabbed it by the neck and dragged the animal. The Associated Press cited one report that stated Kelley jumped on top of the animal and struck it with a closed first several times. He then allegedly grabbed the young husky again, threw it in the air, then onto the ground and dragged it to his camper.

Kelley denied the account, but was given a deferred probationary sentence and ordered to pay $368 in restitution. A protection order was also issued against him in 2015 on behalf of the local Humane Society, according to court records.

He apparently moved back to Texas and sought work as a security guard, obtaining a state private security license in June and getting a job at the Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels. But he was fired after less than six weeks, the water park said in a statement.

He then was hired as a security guard at the Summit Vacation Resort, also in New Braunfels. A manager there, Claudia Varjabedian, told the AP that Kelley “seemed like a nice guy” and didn’t cause her any problems.

Leading up to the shooting, authorities say, Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who attended the church. Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said there was a domestic situation going on within the family.

‘Most of our church family is gone’

Authorities said 4% of the small town’s population was killed in the shooting.

The church’s visiting pastor was among the dead, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said. A family member identified the visiting pastor as Bryan Holcombe.

In all, eight members of the Holcombe family spanning three generations, including a pregnant woman and three of her children, were killed, said Ron Scott, the visiting pastor’s first cousin said.

Standing outside the family farm in Floresville, Texas, Scott Holcombe tearfully spoke about his deceased parents, Bryan and Karla Holcombe, and the rest of the family members lost in the shooting.

He said he had met the gunman and was confident Kelley would have known and spoken to every single person in that church community.

Kelley had emptied 15 magazines — about 450 rounds — at First Baptist Church, leaving such extensive destruction that the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy said: “Most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair.”

As Kelley left the church, he was confronted by a local resident, Stephen Willeford who had run out of his house barefoot with his gun. He was shot twice by Willeford, law enforcement said. Then Kelley fled in a car, chased by Willeford and a witness, Johnnie Langendorff.

After Kelley was shot, he called his father, telling him he didn’t think he was going to make it, Martin said. That’s when Kelley shot himself.

The chase ended with his car in a ditch and the gunman found dead.

The pastor, Frank Pomeroy and his wife had been out of state when the shooting occurred, but their 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was killed in the attack.

In an emotional press conference on Monday, the pastor said: “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”