Texas officials identify victims of church massacre as investigators seek answers on gunman's phone
Authorities in Texas on Wednesday identified the 26 victims of the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, three days after a black-clad gunman stalked through the pews of First Baptist Church and killed or wounded nearly every member of the congregation during services.
The attack tore through the small community outside San Antonio, with the shooter targeting children, a pregnant woman and senior citizens alike. Among the victims in the church were eight men and 17 women. Seven of those killed were 14 or younger. Officials said the toll of 26 dead included the unborn child of Crystal Marie Holcombe, who was pregnant. The other victims were between 1 and 77 years old.
Some of those killed in the massacre had already been identified, their painful stories related by friends, relatives and public officials. The full list captured the full scale of an attack in which mothers threw themselves atop children to protect them, and one family - the Holcombes - suffered losses spanning three generations.
Investigators have spent the days since the shooting probing the background of Devin P. Kelley, the 26-year-old gunman, who left behind a volatile, sometimes violent life riddled with warning signs before entering the church.
Kelley, who killed himself after the rampage Sunday, had a string of troubling incidents in recent years, including a conviction for domestic assault, an escape from a mental health facility and reports that he made death threats against his military superiors.
Law enforcement officials in Texas, while not publicly identifying a motive for the attack, said it occurred while Kelley was having a conflict with his relatives, particularly his mother-in-law, who attended the church but was not there during the rampage. Kelley had sent her threatening text messages, said Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Martin said more information about the dispute might be found on Kelley's phone, which was recovered after the shooting, but so far, investigators say they have been unable to see what is on the device.
The FBI said they have taken the phone to their facility in Quantico, Virginia, but have been unable to unlock it. According to people familiar with the matter, Kelley had an iPhone, the same type of phone that was at the center of a protracted fight between the FBI and Apple over encryption after a previous shooting rampage.
In the wake of the December 2014 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 people and wounded 22 others, the FBI said it was unable to access an iPhone used by one of the two shooters. The federal government sought to force Apple to help unlock the phone but the tech giant refused, and the dispute boiled over into a very public and, at times, remarkablybitter back and forth about encryption and security.
That particular fight was resolved not by the courts, but when the bureau said an outside group helped them access the phone's data using a tool that then-FBI Director James Comey said would work on only a fraction of iPhones. Now the FBI and Apple are bracing for another potential fight, although the people familiar with the case said it could take weeks for the FBI to determine whether it can access the device's data without Apple's assistance.
While authorities struggle to find out what was on Kelley's cellphone, a local schoolteacher said Kelley's mother-in-law said she was shocked by what had happened and thought the familial tensions were easing. She pointed to Kelley going with his family to the church just five days before the attack, attending a fall festival, an event conceived as an alternative to Halloween.
"She said that she did not think he would do anything like this," Tambria Read, 59, said Tuesday. "She said they were having family issues, and they thought things were getting better, that there was improvement in the relationship in the family because he had taken the children to the fall festival."
Before the attack, Kelley had repeatedly come to the attention of local and military authorities in Texas and New Mexico, where he served in the Air Force. While he was in the Air Force, Kelley was court-martialed and convicted of abusing his wife and stepson; he pleaded guilty to both counts, including to beating the child "with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm," military documents show.
Kelley served a year behind bars and was discharged in May 2014. But while that conviction should have prevented him from buying or obtaining guns, he was able to buy one firearm each year between 2014 and 2017, federal officials said.
The Air Force said it failed to follow policies requiring it to alert federal law enforcement about this conviction, which apparently allowed Kelley to buy guns and pass background checks. The Pentagon launched a review of how this happened and will also investigate whether records from other cases across the Defense Department were properly reported.
New questions were raised about Kelley's time in the Air Force after it emerged Tuesday that in 2012, while in the service, he escaped from a mental-health facility after getting caught sneaking guns onto the base and "attempting to carry out death threats" against military superiors, according to a police report.
In the police report, officers in El Paso wrote that they were told Kelley "was a danger to himself and others" and "was also facing military criminal charges." The escape happened the same year he was court-martialed and convicted of domestic abuse.
In recent years, Kelley was also accused of sexual assault, a case police said remains open and under investigation. Officers were also summoned to his home after a report of abuse, though Kelley's then-girlfriend denied that anything happened and police said they found no evidence of abuse. He had also complained right up until the church attack about lingering neck and head pain from a 2014 motorcycle crash.
His anger exploded Sunday when authorities say he methodically and purposefully targeted the church. Officials, witnesses and survivors of the attack have relayed chilling accounts of the carnage that unfolded inside.
Authorities said Kelley - wearing all black, a tactical vest and a black mask with a skull on it - first opened fire at the outside of the church before entering and shooting those inside. When the gunfire stopped, 26 people had been fatally wounded and 20 others injured, accounting for nearly everyone inside.
So far, officials say they are unable to say how many shots were fired inside, but they noted that Kelley appeared to empty 15 magazines, which could have meant he fired hundreds of shots. One survivor of the attack told her son that Kelley fired at the churchgoers who tried to flee, firing round after round into those cowering or wounded on the church's floor.
Terrie Smith, who runs a small Mexican food kitchen inside the Valero gas station near the church, said she and her fiance had just walked inside Sunday when they heard gunshots shatter the Sunday morning calm.
"We walked outside to see what was happening and that's when we saw him," said Smith, 54, who has lived in the area for 10 years.
Kelley was about 50 yards away, standing beneath a 15-foot-tall blue sign that reads "First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs." Smith said Kelley continued to fire as he circled the church, his body seemingly being jolted by the power of his rifle.
"It was like he was shooting a machine gun in a movie," she said. "He looked prepared to do what he was doing."
After Kelley circled the church, there was a pause in the shooting, and then when it resumed the sound was slightly muffled, Smith said. Kelley had entered the church and was killing people inside, she said.
"All I could think about was that my friend Joann was in there with her kids," Smith said. "I knew everybody in there. They were all my customers and friends."
Author Information: Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country. Peter Holley is a technology reporter at The Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.