Gunman Kills at Least 26 in Attack on Rural Texas Church
Read the latest on the Texas shooting with Monday’s updates.
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — A gunman clad in all black, with a
ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle
in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at
a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26
people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the
scene of the country’s newest mass horror.
The gunman was identified by the Texas Department of Public
Safety as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26. Mr. Kelley, who lived in New
Braunfels, Tex., died shortly after the attack.
He had served in the Air Force at a base in New Mexico but was
court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and
child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and received a
“bad conduct” discharge in 2014, according to Ann Stefanek, the
chief of Air Force media operations.
The motive for the attack was unclear on Sunday, but the grisly
nature of it could not have been clearer: Families gathered in
pews, clutching Bibles and praying to the Lord, were murdered in
cold blood on the spot.
Mr. Kelley started firing at the First Baptist Church in
Sutherland Springs not long after the Sunday morning service
began at 11 a.m., officials said. He was armed with a Ruger
military-style rifle, and within minutes, many of those inside
the small church were either dead or wounded. The victims ranged
in age from 5 to 72, and among the dead were several children, a
pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter. It was the
deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history. At least 20 more
“It’s something we all say does not happen in small communities,
although we found out today it does,” said Joe Tackitt, the
sheriff of Wilson County, which includes Sutherland Springs.
Sheriff Tackitt and other officials said the gunman first
stopped at a gas station across Highway 87 from the church. He
drove across the street, got out of his car and began firing
from the outside, moving to the right side of the church, the
authorities said. Then he entered the building and kept firing.
The authorities received their first call about a gunman at
about 11:20 a.m. Officials and witnesses said Mr. Kelley
appeared to be prepared for an assault, with black tactical
gear, multiple rounds of ammunition and a ballistic vest.
“He went there, he walked in, started shooting people and then
took off,” said Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas
congressman who represents the region and who was briefed by law
When Mr. Kelley emerged from the church, an armed neighbor
exchanged gunfire with him, hitting Mr. Kelley, who fled in his
vehicle. Neighbors apparently followed him, chasing him into the
next county, Guadalupe County, where Mr. Kelley crashed his car.
Mr. Kelley was found dead in his vehicle. Officials said it was
unclear how Mr. Kelley had died.
At the church, he left behind a scene of carnage. Of the 26
fatalities, 23 people were found dead inside the church, two
were found outside, and one died later at a hospital.
Speaking at a news conference in Japan, the first stop on his
tour of Asia, President Trump called the shooting a “mental
health problem at the highest level” and not “a guns situation,”
adding the gunman was a “very deranged individual.” He also
ordered flags flown at half-staff at the White House and all
federal buildings through Thursday.
In Floresville, Tex., hours after the attack, Scott Holcombe,
30, sat with his sister on the curb outside the emergency room
at Connally Memorial Medical Center. They were both in tears.
Their father, Bryan Holcombe, had been guest preaching at the
church, they said, and he and their mother, Karla Holcombe, were
“I’m dumbfounded,” Mr. Holcombe said, also noting that his
pregnant sister-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, had been killed. “This
is unimaginable. My father was a good man, and he loved to
preach. He had a good heart.”
His sister, Sarah Slavin, 33, added: “They weren’t afraid of
death. They had a strong faith, so there’s comfort in that. I
feel like my parents, especially my mom, wasn’t scared.”
A parishioner, Sandy Ward, said that a daughter-in-law and three
of her grandchildren were shot. Her grandson, who is 5, was shot
four times and remained in surgery Sunday night. She said she
was awaiting word on her other family members.
Ms. Ward said she did not attend services on Sunday because of
her troubled knees and a bad hip. “I just started praying for
everybody who was there” when she learned of the shooting, she
At a news conference on Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott said that he
and other Texans were asking “for God’s comfort, for God’s
guidance and for God’s healing for all those who are suffering.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were helping in the
investigation, which was being led by the Texas Rangers.
The shooting unfolded on the eighth anniversary of the attack in
2009 on Fort Hood in Texas, when an Army psychiatrist, Maj.
Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people in one of the deadliest mass
shootings at an American military base. Major Hasan carried out
his attack in an attempt to wage jihad on American military
The death toll on Sunday also exceeded the number killed in 1966
by a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Charles
Whitman, who opened fire from the school’s clock tower in a day
of violence that ultimately killed 17. It also exceeded the
number killed during a rampage at a restaurant in Killeen in
1991 in which a gunman fatally shot 23 people and then took his
And the shooting on Sunday occurred more than two years after
Dylann S. Roof opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist
Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, killing nine
people, including the pastor. The motive in that attack was
racial hatred — Mr. Roof, a white supremacist, plotted an
assault on a black congregation — but no motive has been
established by the authorities in the shooting in Sutherland
Springs. The First Baptist Church is predominantly white, and
Mr. Kelley is white.
The authorities said Mr. Kelley used an Ruger AR-15 variant — a
knockoff of the standard service rifle carried by the American
military for roughly half a century.
Almost all AR-15 variants legally sold in the United States fire
only semiautomatically, and they were covered by the federal
assault weapons ban that went into effect in 1994. Since the ban
expired in 2004, the weapons have been legal to sell or possess
in much of the United States, and sales of AR-15s have surged.
Ruger’s AR-15s made for civilian markets sell for about $500 to
$900, depending on the model.
Mr. Kelley grew up in New Braunfels, in his parents’ nearly $1
million home, and was married in 2014. He had been married at
least once before and was sued for divorce in 2012 in New
Mexico, the same year he was court-martialed on charges of
assaulting his wife and child.
Why he chose to attack a church 30 miles away from his home is
one of the questions that remained unanswered.
Sutherland Springs in Wilson County is about 34 miles east of
downtown San Antonio, in a slow-paced region where church-going
is a common part of the Sunday routine. The church marquee on
Sunday needed updating from last week, reading, “Join Us, Fall
Fest, Oct 31, 6 to 8 PM.”
The unincorporated community has a population that numbers in
the low hundreds — the 2000 census was 362, according to the
Texas State Historical Association. The preliminary death toll
would amount to about 7 percent of that population.
Joseph Silva, 49, who lives about five miles northeast of
Sutherland Springs, described Sutherland Springs as “a one-
“Everybody is pretty grief-stricken,” Mr. Silva said.
On Sunday night, a few minutes down a pitch-black road, victims’
families gathered at another house of worship, the River Oaks
Church. Its parking lot was full of about 50 large trucks, and
parents walked into the building holding their children’s hands.
The police kept tight control over the scene, refusing to allow
any reporters to enter. One man in a cowboy hat was also turned
away. “They said they’re gathering to inform the families, but
they’ll only let immediate family in, only if you have a
wristband,” he said. A short while later, a young man rushed out
to his truck, visibly upset, and raced away.
The First Baptist Church, the scene of the shooting, was also
sealed off, with yellow police-line tape posted around the
First Baptist is a little church, albeit a tech-savvy one. The
service at the church last Sunday was posted on YouTube, one of
several posted there. Videos posted online show lyrics to the
hymns appearing on television screens with parishioners playing
electric guitars and a sign language interpreter translating the
The video of last Sunday’s service begins with a rendition of a
song called “Happiness Is the Lord.” Then the pastor, Frank
Pomeroy, told his parishioners — 20 to 30 were visible in the
video — to walk around the room and “shake somebody’s hand.”
“Tell them it’s good to see them in God’s house this morning,”
Pastor Pomeroy said.
Correction: November 5, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a
Wilson County commissioner. He is Albert Gamez Jr., not Gamaz.
David Montgomery reported from Sutherland Springs, Christopher
Mele from New York, and Manny Fernandez from Houston. Reporting
was contributed by Susan Anasagasti and Shannon Sims from
Sutherland Springs; Natalie Kitroeff from New Braunfels, Tex.;
Maggie Astor, Christina Caron, Matthew Haag, Anemona Hartocollis
and William K. Rashbaum from New York; Adam Goldman from
Washington; John Ismay from Arlington, Va.; Julie Hirschfeld
Davis from Tokyo; C.J. Chivers and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. Jack
Begg contributed research.