Texas officials say before massacre, gunman had threatened his mother-in-law, who attended the church

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — The massacre here that killed more than two dozen people — the youngest of them just 18 months old — occurred amid an ongoing “domestic situation” involving the gunman and his relatives, at least one of whom had attended the church, law enforcement officials said Monday.


While authorities have not publicly identified a motive for the attack, they emphasized that the shooting did not appear to be fueled by racial or religious issues, as has been the case involving other rampages at houses of worship. Instead, they said the gunman had sent “threatening texts” to his mother-in-law as part of this ongoing dispute.

“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news briefing. “There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”

While the gunman’s mother-in-law had attended the church, she was not there Sunday when the shooting occurred, officials said.

Investigators have scoured the gunman’s background since he opened fire Sunday morning inside the First Baptist Church outside San Antonio, searching for clues as the stories of those massacred began to emerge.

There were 26 people killed in the church attack, the latest in a seemingly unending series of mass attacks in supposedly safe public spaces. The dead included eight relatives spanning three generations in a single family. While authorities had said Sunday that the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72, they said a day later that those were the people who suffered injuries and were being treated at hospitals.

“Inside the church, the deceased actually ranged from 18 months to 77 years of age,” Martin said. The family that lost eight relatives said one of them was a 1-year-old girl killed in the attack.

Another 20 people were wounded at the church, 10 of whom remained in critical condition Monday, Martin said.

Texas officials early Monday identified the attacker as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley of New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of Sutherland Springs.

They said the former Air Force member shot at the churchgoers with a Ruger assault-style rifle before coming under fire from a local man. Martin praised the efforts of “two Good Samaritans” who responded to the shooting, saying that a resident who lives near the church heard what was happening took his own rifle and began firing at the attacker, hitting him at least once.

Kelley dropped his rifle, jumped in his Ford Expedition and fled, Martin said. “Our Texas hero” flagged down another young Texan, hopped into his vehicle and they chased Kelley, Martin said.

It was “act now, ask questions later,” said the truck’s driver, Johnnie Langendorff.

During the chase, Kelley called his father on his cellphone to say “he had been shot and didn’t think he was going to make it,” Martin said. Kelley shot himself, though the cause and manner of his death will be determined after an autopsy, Martin said.

Joe D. Tackitt Jr., the Wilson County sheriff, said Monday that though Kelley’s in-laws had attended the church, they were not there during services Sunday, and instead came to the scene after the shooting.

Three guns were recovered Sunday, according to authorities: A Ruger rifle and two handguns, one a Glock and another a Ruger, inside Kelley’s vehicle. He had purchased a total of four guns during each of the last four years, officials said.

Precisely how Kelley obtained his guns remained a key question for investigators. Kelley had been court-martialed in 2012 and sentenced to a year in military prison for assaulting his spouse and child, making him the latest mass attacker or suspect with domestic violence in his past. He was reduced in rank and released with a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.

Police records show that the same year, Kelley was charged with animal cruelty after witnesses told sheriff’s deputies in El Paso County, Colo., that they saw a man matching his description beating a dog.

In Texas, Kelley had sought and failed to obtain a permit allowing him to carry a concealed weapon, officials said. He had an “unarmed private security license” akin to what a security guard at a concert would have, Martin said.

In televised interviews, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said it appeared the church was intentionally targeted, rather than chosen at random, but said there were “more unknowns than there are knowns” a day after the attack.

“By all of the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun, so how did this happen?” Abbott said in an interview Monday morning on CNN. “We are in search of answers to these questions.”

Kelley had worked briefly over the summer as an unarmed night security guard at a Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, the company said. He passed a Texas Department of Public Safety criminal background check before beginning work there, a spokeswoman said, though she added that Kelley was fired in July — as the season was reaching its peak — because he was “not a good fit.”

He was also able to pass a background check that allowed him to work for HEB, a Texas grocery chain, in New Braunfels. Company spokeswoman Dya Campos said he worked there for two months in 2013 and quit; she was unsure of his position there.

The attack on Sunday left a staggering hole in a Texas town of fewer than 700 people located about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio.

“Nearly everyone [inside] had some type of injury,” Tackitt said. “I knew several people in there. It hasn’t really hit yet, but it will.”

Tackitt said the inside of the church was “a horrific sight,” adding: “You don’t expect to walk into church and find mauled bodies.” Between 12 and 14 of the people killed or injured in the attack were children, he said.

Wearing a crisp white button-down shirt, jeans and a beige Stetson, Tackitt spent Monday morning speaking to reporters about what happened, which he called “part of the job.” He had been at the scene Sunday, returned home just long enough to shower, check in on his family and return to the scene.

Tackitt said he knew people inside the church but had not begun to mourn yet.

The massacre outside San Antonio added Sutherland Springs to the growing roster of places synonymous with a mass tragedy, and it came just a month after 58 people in Las Vegas were gunned down in the country’s deadliest modern mass shooting.

In recent years, gunfire has cut short scores of lives in shootings at movie theaters, concerts, churches, nightclubs, schools and offices. After the church massacre Sunday, officials in some of the places that have endured their own tragedies — including Aurora, Colo.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando; and Las Vegas — issued public statements of mourning for Sutherland Springs, the newest member of this grim fraternity.

President Trump appeared to try to steer the debate away from gun control after the slayings. At a news conference in Tokyo, Trump said he thought “mental health was a possible motive, adding that it appeared the shooter was “a very deranged individual, a lot of problems for a long period of time.” He did not provide further explanation.

Trump’s reaction contrasted with his unrestrained calls for a death sentence for the Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight people in an apparently Islamic State-inspired attack in Lower Manhattan last week.

Trump said the Texas incident “isn’t a guns situation,” and added: “Fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction” or the rampage “would have been much worse.”

No one inside the church was armed at the time of the attack, the sheriff said Monday, saying he was not surprised by that fact.

“People from this community would never think this could happen,” he said.

Witnesses and officials said the gunman in Texas, dressed in all black and wearing a tactical vest, began firing an assault rifle as he approached the church. Texas state officials said Monday he was also wearing a black mask with a white skull face on it.

He killed two people outside before entering the church and spraying bullets at the congregation during morning worship, police said. Authorities on Monday said that Kelley was inside for some time.

The attack tore apart families in this small community. Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all at once, a total of eight extended family members, the couple said in a phone interview with The Post.

Their son, Bryan Holcombe, 60, and his wife, Karla Holcombe, 58, were killed. Bryan was associate pastor for the church and walking to preach at the pulpit when he was shot, Joe Holcombe said.

Among the dead was also their granddaughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, who was pregnant. She died along with her unborn child and three of her children — Emily, Megan and Greg — according to Joe Holcombe. She was at church with her husband, John Holcombe, who survived along with two of her other children.

Their grandson, Marc Daniel Holcombe, and his infant daughter, who was about a year old, also died, Joe and Claryce Holcombe said.

Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist, and his wife, Sherri, spoke to reporters through tears.

Their 14-year-old daughter Annabelle — known as Belle — was among those killed in her father’s church, although both parents were out of town at the time. But the couple lost much more than their daughter, they said.

“We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and we worshiped together. Now most of church family is gone,” Sherri Pomeroy said. “Our building is probably beyond repair, and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday. As senseless as this tragedy was, our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with all the family she lost yesterday.”

She added: “Please don’t forget Sutherland Springs.”

Berman reported from Washington. Mary Lee Grace in San Antonio; Peter Holley in Sutherland Springs; and Wesley Lowery, Brian Murphy, Kristine Phillips, Alex Horton, Samantha Schmidt and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day.

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