Family that lost 9 in Sutherland Springs files claim against Air Force

  • Mark Wilson
  • American-Statesman Staff
Updated Nov 28, 2017

The Holcombe family, which lost nine members in the Sutherland Springs church massacre earlier this month, has filed a federal claim accusing the U.S. Air Force of negligence for failing to report information about the shooter’s criminal record that could have prevented him from obtaining the weapons used in the shooting.

The claim is a first step toward a possible lawsuit against the Air Force if the service denies responsibility for the Nov. 5 attack, in which former Air Force member Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people and injured 20 others.

Among the dead were Holcombe family members Karla, Bryan, Crystal, her unborn child and five others.

The claim, filed on behalf of Joe and Claryce Holcombe, Bryan Holcombe’s parents, says Bryan, an associate pastor at the church and identified in the document as “JB,” was shot in the back as he walked toward the front of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs to lead the congregation in worship.

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“Incredibly, and quite frankly tragically, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, and others, were aware as far back as 1997, and more specifically in at least 2015, that the U.S. Air Force (as well as other branches of the United States military) routinely failed to report such required criminal arrest and conviction information,” the claim says.

The claim goes on to outline Kelley’s behavior leading up to the shooting, including the domestic violence charge he faced for fracturing his son’s skull and threatening his wife with an unloaded firearm, as well as reports of threats against superiors in the Air Force and the bad conduct discharge that ended his military career.

Kelley was convicted of the domestic violence charge in 2012, and that should have prevented him from owning, possessing or purchasing the weapons used in the attack, but the Air Force admitted shortly after the massacre that the conviction had not been reported to the proper authorities.

“Although the shooter undoubtedly ‘pulled the trigger’ that resulted in the injuries and death of JB Holcombe and others, the failures of the U.S. Air Force, and others, allowed the shooter to purchase, own and/or possess the semiautomatic rifle, ammunition and body armor he used, and it is these failures that were a proximate cause, in whole or in part, of the injuries and the death of the decedent,” the claim says.

The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that the Air Force said its failure to report Kelley’s criminal history was part of a pattern of such lapses, citing failures in training and compliance. The Air Force told the AP it has taken actions to ensure such failures are prevented in the future.

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The Holcombe family is seeking unspecified damages for losses, including “past and future income, support, society, love, grief, consortium, services, guidance, care, comfort, companionship and inheritance of the decedent,” the claim said.

Christopher Foster, a family friend, noted the financial challenges ahead for the surviving members of the Holcombe family in an online fundraising account he set up shortly after the shooting.

“It’s going to take a lot of funds to cover eight funerals, lost wages, perhaps child/adult counseling, and who knows what else,” Foster said in a Facebook message at the time. “No matter what number the (fundraiser) reaches, it will never be enough. But everything helps.”