Texas gunman had texted threats to his mother-in-law, who attended the church he attacked
BRAUNFELS, Texas — The mass shooting at a Texas church that left 26 people dead, including an 18-month-old child, may have involved a domestic dispute with relatives who were in the congregation, officials said Monday, discounting religion as a possible motive.
Devin Patrick Kelley had threatened his mother-in-law — who sometimes attended the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs — over text messages before attacking the church on Sunday.
But she was not in attendance as Kelley, 26, a resident of Comal County, Texas, entered the church during worship services, shooting congregants with a 5.56 mm Ruger semi-automatic rifle while wearing a bullet-resistant vest and a black mask with a white skull on it, officials said.
When Kelley left the building, he was confronted by a neighbor who had armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said at a news conference.
The two had a gunfight that ended when the neighbor shot Kelley, prompting Kelley to drop his rifle and flee in his SUV, with the neighbor and another bystander in pursuit.
As the men chased Kelley out of town, the suspect used his cellphone "to notify his father that he had been shot and that he didn't think he was going to make it," Martin said. "Subsequently, he shot himself." His car drove off the road and crashed. It was unclear whether Kelley shot himself before the crash. Martin said Kelley's cause of death would be formally determined by a medical examiner.
The mass shooting — the deadliest in the modern history of Texas — has launched national scrutiny over how Kelley was able to buy four guns over the last four years in Colorado and Texas after being convicted of domestic violence in a military court.
Earlier Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," referred to Kelley, who served in the Air Force from 2010 to 2014, as "a very deranged individual" who exhibited signs of mental illness long before he was discharged from the military for "bad conduct" after he was court-martialed for assaulting his wife and their child. He was sentenced to 12 months' confinement.
Though Kelley applied for a legal permit to carry a gun in the state of Texas, he was denied that permit, Abbott said. It was after that he obtained an assault rifle, authorities said.
Investigators found a .22-caliber Ruger and a 9 mm Glock in Kelley's crashed vehicle.
Investigators still don't know if Kelley's military discharge should have barred him from buying guns, said Fred Milanowski, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Houston field office.
"In general, if an individual has a dishonorable discharge from the military, they would be prohibited," said Milanowski, adding that the ATF was still awaiting records from the military.
Sutherland Springs is a rural farming community about 35 miles southeast of San Antonio. As the sun rose Monday, throngs of reporters had descended on the church, which was still cordoned off with yellow police tape. A large tent had been set up outside.
Those killed ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years, authorities said Monday. Among the victims was the preacher's daughter, 14-year-old Annabelle Pomeroy. 14.
"We were a very close family," her mother, Sherri Pomeroy — who was out of town with her husband when the attack happened — said of the congregation in a televised news conference Monday.
"We ate together, we laughed together, we cried and we worshipped together," Pomeroy said. "Now most of our church family is gone. Our building is probably beyond repair. ... Our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with losing so much family yesterday."
The 20 others wounded are 5 to 73 years old, officials said. As of Monday, six were stable or had been released from the hospital, four were in serious condition and 10 were in critical condition.
"Right now, our hearts are going out to all the family members that have lost family, or have family in the hospital," said Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt.
The previous evening, at least 100 people, including Abbott, had gathered for a candlelight vigil near the church. They cried, hugged and prayed.
"This is evil, but all things work for good for those who love the Lord," said George Hill, 60, a resident whose pregnant niece and three of her children were killed in the shooting. "We'll pull together."
Despite its pain, the community was resilient and bonded by its deep religious faith, Abbott said Monday after speaking with families of the victims.
"You could feel the weight of the room as I began to speak," he said. "But we talked about what they wanted to hear the most. ... The only thing they wanted to talk about was prayer to God, connecting with God, looking to God for healing and for grace. ... You could tell that this was a community that was coming together."
(Los Angeles Times special correspondent Jarvie reported from New Braunfels, Texas, and staff writer Pearce from Los Angeles.)
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