Worshippers had filed in for their weekly song and prayer service at First Baptist Church on Sunday when a man clad in black, wearing a tactical vest and carrying an AR-15-style assault rifle, pulled into the parking lot, got out and opened fire. Soon the man made his way inside, and kept shooting, and shooting, and shooting.
But this was Texas. As the gunman exited the church, a neighbor with a gun opened fire on him, forcing the attacker to drop his weapon and flee in his SUV. The neighbor and another bystander in a truck followed in hot pursuit until the gunman drove off the side of the road, mortally wounded — perhaps by one of the neighbor’s bullets, or perhaps by his own.
It was too late. Back in Sutherland Springs, a rural suburb 35 miles southeast of San Antonio, 26 churchgoers were dead and 20 more were wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in the modern history of Texas.
The victims included women and children who were targeted without remorse, including the daughter of the church’s preacher. The victims’ ages ranged from 18 months to 72 years old.
The gunman was identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, a resident of Comal County, Texas, with a history of domestic violence but no other immediate sign of a possible motive.
“I’ve been talking to some community members. They think there was a relative there. It was not random,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who was briefed by investigators. “There’s going to be some sort of nexus between the shooter and this small community. … Somebody in that church will help us find answers.”
The attack reopened the emotional wounds of a nation only five weeks removed from the Las Vegas massacre of Oct. 1 that left 58 dead, with the two tragedies seemingly showing that there’s no city too big or too small to become a potential target.
Sunday’s mass shooting surpassed Texas’ previous deadliest, a 1991 massacre in Killeen that left 23 dead. The top five deadliest shootings in modern American history have now all come in the past 10 years.
President Donald Trump, who was briefed on the attack on his trip to Asia, called it a “horrific shooting” in a “place of sacred worship.”
In a time of crisis, he said, “Americans will do what we do best: We pull together and join hands and lock arms, and through the tears and sadness we stand strong.”
Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt was more blunt. “We need your support,” he said at a news conference. “And media, don’t blow it out there that it should have never happened, because it does happen. And we sincerely feel sorry for all the people who are involved.”
According to a sketchy police account of the incident, two people were killed outside the church, 23 people were killed inside and one person died after being taken to the hospital.
The deaths were a devastating shock to a community with only a few hundred residents. “I know at least five people who were killed,” said Chris Taylor, 59, who owns a gas station near the church.
“I lost a niece who was pregnant and three of her babies,” said 60-year-old George Hill, who lives in nearby Floresville.
Hill said his niece’s oldest son was spared because he was sick and stayed home from church. “This is evil, but all things work for good for those who love the Lord,” Hill said. “We’ll pull together, this community will pull together.”
Kelley was in the U.S. Air Force from 2010 to 2014 but left with a “bad conduct” discharge and was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement after he was convicted of assaulting his wife and their child, according to an Air Force representative.
A Facebook profile under the gunman’s name featured a photo of an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. In recent months, Kelley was adding strangers as friends on Facebook from “within 20 minutes” of the Sutherland Springs area and starting Facebook fights with them, according to area resident Johnathan Castillo.
Castillo accepted Kelley’s friend request a couple of months ago, thinking that maybe he or his friends had met Kelley but hadn’t remembered him. But Kelley soon proved to be troublesome.
“A lot of people were deleting him” for “starting drama” on Facebook, including sending insulting Facebook messages, Castillo said.
“It’s like he went looking for it, you know what I mean?” Castillo said. “You can tell people who are defending their opinions versus someone who’s looking to start something.”
Castillo said he was angry with the gunman, noting the picture of the rifle on Kelley’s Facebook page, “making the rest of us who actually hunt look bad.”
A typo-riddled LinkedIn profile under Kelley’s name featured Kelley in a photo with a baby and said that he was a “management consulting professional” from the San Antonio area who was in the Air Force. “I am a hard working dedicated person,” the profile said. “I live by the core values on which the Air Force go by.”
The profile said Kelley taught “children ages 4-6 at vocational (vacation) bible schools helping their minds grow and prosper” at the Kingsville First Baptist Church.
His interests on LinkedIn included “Animal Welfare,” “Children,” “Civil Rights and Social Action” and “Human Rights.”
Investigators have not given any possible motive for the attack.
“The details of this horrific act are still under investigation,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement before he headed to join local, state and federal officials at the scene. “I want to thank law enforcement for their response and ask that all Texans pray for the Sutherland Springs community during this time of mourning and loss.”
Those killed in the shootings included the daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, who was in Oklahoma when the shooting happened. Annabelle Renee Pomeroy was “one very beautiful, special child,” Pomeroy told ABC News, adding that the dead were all close friends of his.
At least 10 victims, including four children, were being treated at the University Health System in nearby San Antonio, the hospital said in a tweet.
Four members of one family were injured. Joann Ward and her three children were hurt, according to a family friend, Gracie Crews, of nearby Stockdale, Texas, who was at the hospital with the family.
Ward was unconscious when officials responded to the scene, and two of the children had to be flown by helicopter to a local hospital, Crews said in a telephone interview. Crews estimated the children were between the ages of 5 and 8, and said that Saturday was Ward and her husband’s anniversary.
“We got a call once we heard everything that went down. We rushed to the hospital immediately,” Crews said.
Other community members also hurried to help as news of the shooting spread by telephone, social media, “everything,” she said. “The community really rushed out.”
Eight patients with gunshot wounds were taken to Connally Memorial Medical Center in Floresville, according to spokeswoman Megan Posey.
Four of the eight patients, including one in critical condition, were subsequently transferred to University Hospital, a major trauma center in San Antonio. Three were discharged, and one was listed as stable.
Families gathered outside the church and held hands as they cried and waited for news about the injured and the dead.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., called the reports of the shooting “devastating.”
“The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now,” he said in a tweet.
The small church posted its Sunday services regularly on YouTube, and last Sunday’s was built around a chapter from the Book of Proverbs and the theme, “You don’t need training wheels, you need Christ!”
The service consisted of songs backed by an electric guitar and bass, and a long sermon by Pastor Pomeroy. As the service began, congregants milled about, hugging one another and shaking hands. They were all white, a mix of ages, and it appeared clear they were close. As they greeted one another, the three-person band sang: “God is good, all the time, through the darkest night his light will shine. … If you’re walking through the valley, and there are shadows all around, do not fear, He will guide you, He will keep you safe and sound.”
The church is small, and the video showed that on this Sunday, it was dominated by Pomeroy’s Harley-Davidson motorycle, parked in front of the pulpit. Pomeroy explained in the video that it was there to illustrate his sermon, which was about “leaning into God” the way a biker leans into a curve, trusting that he won’t fall. Pomeroy described recent rides with his daughter, Annabelle, who is believed to have died in the shooting.
“It’s been neat lately … Annabelle’s been wanting to ride with me, and going with me here and there,” he said.
He described going out for a ride that morning, when it was 34 degrees out. “She was a trouper; she did not complain. … She rode, and we had a good time coming in; it was a beautiful ride. Yes, it was a little chilly, but … the sun was just coming up as we were riding down (County Road) 467 and we saw the sun starting to break over — that is a beautiful time to be on a motorcycle. … We had a good ride.”
(Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Savage from Sutherland Springs. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo, Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles, David Cloud in Washington and special correspondent Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta contributed to this report.)
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