Texas gunman may have been targeting in-laws

Majority of victims were women and children, including an 18-month-old and a pregnant mother of three

Ramiro and Sofia Martinez attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017.   REUTERS/Sergio Flores
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A pregnant mother, the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter and three generations of a single family.

Details of the tragic toll in America’s worst church shooting emerged on Monday as police closed in on a possible motive to explain what led a 26-year-old man to dress in black tactical gear, drive 50 kilometres from his home and open fire on a congregation at prayer, killing 26 people.

Law enforcement officers said Devin Kelley’s estranged wife and parents-in-law worshipped occasionally at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, although they were not present on Sunday.

Freeman Martin, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law. "There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws," he said.

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of Braunfels, Texas, U.S., involved in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is shown in this undated Texas Department of Safety driver license photo, provided November 6, 2017.    Texas Department of Safety/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
An undated driver's licence photo of Texas church gunman Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, that was released by authorities on November 6, 2017. Texas Department of Safety via Reuters

The US Air Force confirmed Kelley had served at a base in Mexico before being court-martialled for assaulting his wife and child.

His actions brought America’s epidemic of gun crime to Sutherland Springs, Texas, and left a tight-knit community in mourning.

The massacre killed about four per cent of the town's population, according to Joe Tackitt, the local sheriff. No one inside the church was spared.

“I think nearly everyone had some type of injury,” he told reporters, adding that most of the dead were women and children – as many as 14.

They had no way to escape, he added, describing how Kelley walked calmly down the centre aisle firing an assault rifle before walking back out.

Another 20 people were wounded.

The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77. They included Crystal Holcombe, who was eight months pregnant, according to her cousin, Nick Uhlig.

Her three children and her parents-in-law also died, he told the Houston Chronicle.

“She doesn't even drink, smoke or nothing,” he said. “She just takes care of kids; she raises goats and makes homemade cheese. That kind of thing, you know? They don't go out dancing or anything like that. They're real old-fashioned, down-to-earth.”

In a town of one post office, two churches and a convenience store, everybody is affected by the deaths.

Another victim was Annabelle Pomeroy, the 14-year-old adopted daughter of the church pastor. He and his wife were away for the weekend but she attended the intimate family service as normal.

“Heaven truly gained a real beautiful angel this morning along with many more," the girl's uncle, Scott Pomeroy, wrote on on his Facebook page, beside a photograph of the smiling girl beside a swimming pool.

The terrible toll will bring fresh calls for tighter gun control, particularly in a state known for its relaxed laws.

Three of America’s five most deadly mass shootings in its modern history occurred in the past 17 months, including the deadliest of all in Las Vegas last month when 58 people were shot dead.

President Donald Trump called the church shooting “an act of evil” but said guns were not to blame.

“We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, but this isn't a gun situation,” he said, describing the gunman as “deranged”.

However, questions will be asked about how a man with a violent history was apparently able to buy a deadly weapon.

“How many more people must die at churches or concerts or schools before we stop letting the [National Rifle Association] control this country's gun policies,” asked Elizabeth Warren, a senior Democratic senator, referring to the country’s most powerful gun lobby group.

Police were alerted to the unfolding disaster at 11.20am on Sunday morning when Kelley, wearing body armour, was seen opening fire from in front of the neat, whitewashed church.

Officials said he continued shooting as he moved to the right hand side of the building. He then entered, firing as he went.

The attack only ended when he was challenged by a resident armed with a rifle. He dropped his own weapon – later identified as a Ruger AR-556 assault rifle, based on the armed forces’ M-16, and which retails for about $850 (Dh3,122) – and fled in his white SUV.

He was pursued by two locals before his car ran off the road. He was found dead inside the vehicle, which was loaded with more weapons.

Officials said they believe he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Johnnie Langendorff happened to be driving past the church when he saw an armed resident exchanging fire with the gunman. As Kelley fled, the second man, who has not been identified, jumped into Mr Langendorff's pickup truck as they gave chase.

“I was strictly just acting on what's the right thing to do,” he told a local TV station.

Kelley reportedly lived on his parents’ property in a suburb of San Antonio, about 50km distant. Neighbours said they had no inkling of his plan but said they had heard the sound of intense gunfire in recent days.

He had been married twice and divorced once, according to public records.

A spokeswoman for the air force said Kelley served 12 months' confinement after his court-martial in 2012.

He ultimately received a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank.

He served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014, responsible for moving passengers, cargo and personal property in military transportation.


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