A domestic dispute involving an estranged couple might have led to the shooting at a church that left 26 dead, officials said Monday, as they described a wrenching crime scene in which parents used their bodies to shield their children from bullets.
As the toll at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs began coming into focus for the grieving community, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said officials had removed the bodies from the church and were working to formally identify them. One family, the Holcombes, lost eight members spanning three generations.
“Wherever you walked in the church, it was death,” Tackitt said. “It’s hard enough to see an adult. But when you see babies — I’m talking, you know, 3, 4, 5 and 6 years old, 10 years old — it’s just hard.”
An 18-month-old toddler and a 77-year-old were among the dead. They include the daughter of the church’s pastor. Frank Pomeroy, who was out of town Sunday, identified her as 14-year-old Annabelle, whom they called Belle.
Pomeroy addressed reporters through tears during an afternoon news conference, saying, “Our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with all the family she lost yesterday.”
Vice President Mike Pence announced Monday that he and his wife, Karen, will travel to Texas on Wednesday. Pence tweeted that he will meet with families, the injured and law enforcement. President Donald Trump is on his first presidential trip to Asia.
Law enforcement officials said they are still trying to uncover details about what led Devin Kelley, a 26-year-old who had served in the Air Force, to go on the shooting spree. They said his in-laws attended the church. His estranged wife also went there from time to time, they said.
Texas Department of Public Safety regional director Freeman Martin said investigators have learned that before Sunday’s attack, Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law. He did not elaborate on when the messages were sent or what they said.
Officials said that because of that evidence, they have no reason to think the shooting was related to terrorism or religious views.
Gov. Greg Abbott, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” called the shooter a “very deranged individual.”
A Texas Ranger who is helping lead the investigation said during the news conference that Kelley was inside the church “for a length of time” and that “he moved freely inside the church.”
Martin said Kelley was armed with an assault-style rifle and was wearing a ballistic vest with a protective plate in the front during the shooting. On his head, he wore a black face mask with a skull pattern.
The church makes video recordings of Sunday services, but the sheriff said the footage did not yield much additional evidence.
In releasing more detail about what happened in the immediate aftermath, authorities said an armed man confronted Kelley when he left the church and shot him at least once. Kelley took off in a vehicle. The other man flagged down a passing vehicle at a stop sign, and they gave chase.
Tackitt said more shots were fired on the road, but additional details weren’t immediately known, nor was the motive for the attack, now ranked as the deadliest in Texas history.
“We don’t know exactly what actually caused it, but he must have had a reason for coming to the church,” Tackitt said.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the sheriff said it was difficult to tell who was hit and who wasn’t. Everyone who came out of the church was bloody, he said. Though 26 were killed and 20 more were wounded, Tackitt said some people made it out of the building unscathed.
Martin said of the 20 wounded, six were in stable condition, four were still in serious condition and 10 more were in critical condition.
The bodies removed from the church will be taken to San Antonio, where autopsies will be conducted.
Kelley’s body was taken to Travis County for an autopsy, authorities said.
A pathologist will make an official ruling on the cause and manner of Kelley’s death, but preliminary details indicate that he took his own life.
Martin said Kelley used his cellphone to tell his father that he’d been shot and didn’t think he was going to make it as he was being chased from the church.
Martin said Kelley subsequently shot himself.
By noon Tuesday, international media had descended on the town as residents continued to sort out who among those they knew were among the dead.
At the nearby River Oaks Church, some families were preparing for funeral services.
A DPS trooper stood guard at the entrance, saying that the families were requesting privacy.