As Texas Town Mourns, Details Emerge On Gunman’s Methodical Tactics In Church Massacre

 

Laura Torres, right, and Sonia Yanez visit a line of crosses before a vigil for the victims of Sunday’s First Baptist Church shooting on Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Tex. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

NEW BRAUNFELS, Tex. — Authorities worked on multiple fronts Tuesday seeking a fuller portrait of the gunman who left at least 26 people dead at a Texas church and how a breakdown in military protocols failed to flag a domestic violence conviction that should have blocked him from buying firearms.

Even as tiny Sutherland Springs began funerals and mourning that touch nearly every family, more chilling details emerged of how the black-clad attacker, Devin P. Kelley, methodically tried to take as many victims as possible as he stalked the pews.

David Brown, whose mother Farida survived the carnage, said she described Kelley taking aim at churchgoers on Sunday as they tried to flee and then walking “up and down the aisle” firing at people cowering or wounded on the ground in the church, about 35 miles south of Kelley’s home in New Braunfels.

The gunman fired four shots into the torso of the woman on Farida Brown’s left, her son said.

“With every shot, she was crying,” Brown said of the woman. “She was just staring at my mom while she tried to comfort her.” As he fired rounds into the woman, Brown held her hand, telling her she was heading to heaven.

Farida Brown had sustained shots to her legs, but expected she would be the next target of the gunman. “Then she thought that it was her turn,” David Brown told The Washington Post. “She just started praying.”

What triggered Kelley’s rampage remains unclear. A regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Freeman Martin, has said only that it appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated.

But it has brought sharp attention to the deep-rooted gun culture in parts of rural Texas and how many believe that open access to weapons and greater citizen vigilance is the best deterrent to gun violence. Such views are deeply at odds with those calling for stricter gun controls in the United States.

President Trump staked out a position Tuesday squarely on one side, asserting that tougher gun laws would not have stopped the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs. Speaking in Seoul, Trump further claimed “hundreds more” may have died had another man not been able to “neutralize” the alleged killer with a gun of his own.

Asked during a news conference here whether he would support “extreme vetting” on guns — the same phrase Trump has used to encourage deep scrutiny into visa applications — he said “it would have made no difference three days ago.”

Trump praised as a “hero” a local man, Stephen Willeford, who exchanged fire with Kelley outside the church. Police found Kelley dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a high-speed car chase.

How Kelley obtained the weapons also has become a source of a separate investigation.

The Air Force on Monday says it failed to follow policies for alerting federal law enforcement about Kelley’s violent past when he served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Kelley should have been barred from purchasing firearms and body armor because of his domestic violence conviction in 2014. Kelley was sentenced to a year in prison and kicked out of the military with a bad conduct discharge following two counts of domestic abuse against his wife and a child, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

“Initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database,” Stefanek said in a statement released Monday. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have directed an investigation of Kelley’s case and “relevant policies and procedures,” she said.

Kelley purchased two weapons from a gun retailer, Academy Sports, after clearing federal background checks this year and in 2016. It remains unclear whether those were the same weapons used in Sunday’s massacre, but his ability to purchase guns at all highlights the Air Force’s failure to follow Pentagon guidelines for ensuring certain violent offenses are reported to the FBI.

Police and court records in three states paint the picture of a young former U.S. airman with a sometimes violent private life. In briefings Monday, local officials — who emphasized that the investigation is ongoing — said that at least one of Kelley’s relatives attended First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, and that the shooting was proceeded by a “domestic situation.”

Kelley graduated from New Braunfels High School in 2009, a spokeswoman for the school district said. His senior photo was the only image of him in the yearbook.

“We are shocked to hear that a graduate of our lone high school is allegedly responsible for this tragedy,” read a statement from spokeswoman Rebecca Villarreal. “This senseless act of violence is something that is hard to understand and has definitely shaken our community. We grieve with those that suffered a loss and offer our deepest condolences.”

According to court-martial documents released Monday evening by the Air Force, Kelley was found guilty of domestic violence. Prosecutors alleged that on June 21, 2011, and April 27, 2012, he unlawfully struck, choked, kicked and pulled the hair of his wife and struck her young child “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.”

Court records in nearby Alamogordo, N.M., show that in May 2012, Tessa K. Kelley filed for divorce from her husband, who she said was in jail at the time.

After his prison sentence, Kelley was reduced in rank and released from the military with a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.

The military sentence raises key questions for investigators about how Kelley obtained his weapons. Officials said they recovered at least four guns from Kelley’s vehicle, but also said that Kelley had sought and failed to obtain a permit allowing him to carry a concealed weapon. Officials with the Air Force said Monday that his conviction — which should have prevented him from purchasing weapons — had not been properly flagged for the FBI and that they would launch an internal investigation.

A Teddy bear lies under police tape at a makeshift memorial for those killed in the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland, Tex. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

In August 2014, Kelley was charged with a misdemeanor count of mistreatment, neglect or cruelty to animals in nearby El Paso County, Colo., where he lived at one point, records show. Sheriff’s deputies responded to a call about a man who was punching a dog, police records indicate. Four witnesses told deputies that they saw a man matching Kelley’s description yelling at and chasing a white-and-brown husky.

“The suspect then started beating on the dog with both fists, punching it in the head and chest,” a deputy wrote in the incident report. “He could hear the suspect yelling at the dog and while he was striking it, the dog was yelping and whining. The suspect then picked up the dog by the neck into the air and threw it onto the ground and then drug him away to lot 60.”

Kelley was charged with animal cruelty and the dog was transferred to the Humane Society for a full medical evaluation.

This summer, Kelley worked briefly as an unarmed night security guard at a Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, the company said. He passed a Texas Department of Public Safety criminal background check before beginning work there, a spokeswoman said, though she added that Kelley was fired in July — as the season was reaching its peak — because he was “not a good fit.”

He was also able to pass a background check that allowed him to work for HEB, a Texas grocery chain, in New Braunfels. Company spokeswoman Dya Campos said he worked there for two months in 2013 and quit; she was unsure of his position there.

Records indicate that Kelley lived for some period on a property valued at about $800,000 owned by his parents in New Braunfels. The secluded home sits on 28 acres of wooded farmland, separated from the nearest main road by a long private driveway.

Neighbors told local news media that Kelley lived in a barn behind the 3,700-square-foot home with his current wife and 2-year-old son. They said the family had lived there for more than a decade.

Dave Ivey, who identified himself as Kelley’s uncle, apologized to the shooting victims in an interview with NBC News.

“I never in a million years could have believed Devin could be capable of this kind of thing,” Ivey said. “My family will suffer because of his coward actions.”

Mark Moravitz, who lives across the street from the Kelley family, also said he frequently heard gunfire coming from the property, often at 10 or 11 p.m.

“We hear a lot of gunfire,” he told KSAT, “but we’re out in the country.”

A Facebook page bearing Kelley’s name showed a photo of a Ruger assault-style rifle — the kind of weapon police say was used in the shooting. The page was taken down on Sunday.

Former high school classmates of Kelley took to their own Facebook pages in shock, describing him as a social outcast whom some had blocked or deleted from their social networking because he sent inappropriate or aggressive messages.

“I was close with Devin Kelley from middle school through high school . . . and I had always known there was something off about him,” Courtney Kleiber wrote on Facebook.

“He use to be happy at one point, normal, your average kid,” she wrote. “Over the years we all saw him change into something that he wasn’t. To be completely honest, I’m really not surprised this happened, and I don’t think anyone who knew him is very surprised either.”

Horton and Berman reported from Washington. Joel Achenbach in New Braunfels, Bob Moore in Alamogordo, N.M., and Brian Murphy, Wesley Lowery, Sandhya Somashekhar, Derek Hawkins, Julie Tate, Scott Wilson and Travis Andrews in Washington contributed to this report.

Source: Google Alerts

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