Two days after a man entered a rural church service dressed in military-style gear and opened fire, killing 26 and wounding 20, local, state and federal law enforcement investigators and residents of Sutherland Springs continued the essentially impossible task of trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
The accumulation of details began to add a little clarity to the mystery of why someone would terrorize a tight-knit community gathering to worship less than an hour from where he grew up and attended high school.
On Tuesday, residents recalled that five days before he arrived at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs dressed in black tactical garb and carrying a semi-automatic assault weapon, Devin Patrick Kelley had attended the same church’s annual fall festival with his children. That evening, he mingled with community members, some of whom saw his attendance as promising evidence he was emerging from a personal rough patch.
Kelley was estranged from his wife, whose mother was a member of the church. Neither his wife nor her parents were at the church on Sunday.
Details trickling out of the horrific scene inside the church on Sunday morning, too, defied comprehension. Joaquin Ramirez and Rosanne Solis, a longtime couple who lived near the church, had been sitting in their regular seats, in the fourth row of pews on the left side. The service was just getting underway when they first heard gunshots.
“Everybody started running and screaming,” Solis told the American-Statesman, adding that the shots appeared to be coming from the roof. After a second round of shots, they heard the church’s front doors open.
“‘Everybody dies, motherf——,’” Kelley yelled as he moved down the middle aisle, shooting to either side, Ramirez said. After reaching the stage at the front, Kelley returned toward the doors, continuing to fire.
In an interview with San Antonio TV station KSAT, the couple also said Kelley appeared to be targeting children in particular. Ramirez and Solis described Kelley singling out and shooting crying children. At least six children were killed, the youngest 18 months old.
One woman, Joann Ward, reportedly died as she lay atop three of her children, trying to shield them from the bullets. The account came from 9-year-old Rihanna Garza, a daughter who survived. Two others did not.
Investigators scouring Kelley’s background for any clues into the attack have been unable to unlock his cellphone, said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio division. Combs declined to release the make or model of the phone.
Still, information seeping out from agencies in and around Texas that had encountered Kelley in the past began drawing the portrait of a troubled man whose anger previously had landed him in serious trouble.
In June 2012, a month after his wife had filed for divorce, Kelley had escaped from an El Paso-area psychiatric facility. He’d been confined to the Peak Behavioral Center in Santa Teresa, N.M., after being caught trying to smuggle firearms onto the nearby Holloman Air Force Base and issuing death threats to his Air Force superiors. An employee of the facility told police that Kelley, who was later found at a bus station, suffered from mental disorders.
In fact, Kelley had been sent to Peak Behavioral after he’d been charged by Air Force investigators with assault for beating and choking his wife and hitting her son’s head so hard it had caused a skull fracture. He subsequently served a year in confinement, and he was forced to leave the military with a bad conduct discharge, which should have prevented him from legally purchasing a gun, but didn’t.
After moving back to live in a converted apartment on his parents’ sprawling property in New Braunfels, Kelley soon ran into more trouble. On Tuesday, Comal County released documents showing that he had been the subject of a sexual assault investigation in 2013. “The alleged sexual assault investigation stalled sometime in October 2013 for reasons yet to be determined,” the statement said.
It added that Comal County authorities had also responded to a call for service to Kelley’s residence in February 2014 that had not generated an offense report. Newspaper reports stated that Kelley’s then-girlfriend — and, later, his second wife — complained he’d abused her, but that the incident was dismissed.
A year after that, during a brief residency in Colorado Springs, Colo., Kelley pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to animals for mistreating his dog. He returned to Texas soon after.
Material from staff writer Sebastian Herrera, The Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, New York Post and KSAT.