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Air Force failed 6 times to keep guns from Texas church shooter before he killed 26, report finds

A rosary hangs on the fence surrounding the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church one week after 26 people were killed inside on Nov. 12, 2017. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The 26 worshipers whom Devin Patrick Kelley shot and killed may not have seen him coming.

But the Air Force did.

The service failed six times to submit records to the FBI that would have barred the troubled former airman from buying the guns he used in the November 2017 massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., a Pentagon inspector general’s report concluded.

On at least four occasions during and after criminal proceedings against Kelley concerning domestic violence, the Air Force should have submitted the former service member’s fingerprints to the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division, the 131-page report concludes. On two other occasions, it should have submitted to the FBI the final disposition report — which states the results of a case, after proceedings occur.

In each instance, it did not.

If the Air Force had followed protocol, Kelley’s criminal history would have been recorded in the Interstate Identification Index, and would in turn have surfaced in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. That background system is used by federally licensed firearm dealers to determine whether a customer is prohibited from buying a firearm.

Because of these oversights, Kelley’s name never showed up in NICS, even though he was convicted in 2012 in a general court-martial of assaulting his wife and stepson. He legally bought four firearms, three of which he used to kill 26 people and wound nearly two dozen more during the attack at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

The inspector general’s report outlines all six protocol missteps by the Air Force. Factors that led to the breakdown included “inexperienced special agents, individual personal issues at the time, leadership gaps and a high operations tempo,” according to the report. Agents and security forces lacked sufficient training in fingerprint collection.

The final report states that these factors “provide context” for but “do not excuse the failures.” The report concludes there was “no valid reason” for the Air Force’s blunders.

But the failures in Kelley’s case were not unique. As part of the report, the inspector general’s office audited 70 investigations that had been conducted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Detachment, including 25 that were investigated in the same time frame as Kelley’s case. In 45 of those cases, fingerprints and the final disposition should have been sent to the FBI. Air Force investigators collected fingerprints from 45 of the 49 subjects, but 10 of them — or 20 percent — were not submitted.

Fifteen, or 33 percent, of the final disposition reports also were never submitted.

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the report was provided to relevant commanders to determine whether anyone will be disciplined for the failures. But she declined to identify the ranks or duties of personnel who might be found at fault.

“We are just beginning that process,” she said Friday.

Church gunman, able to buy weapons because of Air Force mistake, was having ‘domestic dispute’

The extensive report outlines the disciplinary actions Kelley faced during his time as an active-duty member of the Air Force, which he joined in January 2010. It traces how Kelley came to be a dangerous threat and how the Air Force repeatedly failed to follow policies meant to prevent someone like Kelley from hurting himself or others.

Between June 2011 and March 2012, according to the report, Kelley accumulated 13 separate administrative punishments for behavior that varied in seriousness, including wearing headphones while in uniform, texting during class, failing to perform basic job duties and lying to a female supervisor about calling her a derogatory name.

In the same period, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began investigating Kelley for possible child abuse after his 11-month-old stepson was hospitalized twice in one week with conditions that alarmed medical staffers, according to the report. The details of what prompted the boy’s first hospitalization are redacted in the report, but he was admitted a second time after Kelley and his wife, Tessa Kelley, took him to a hospital with bruising on his left cheek that “appeared to be a hand print.”

In an interview, Kelley claimed he did not know how the boy was hurt and suggested to special agents that perhaps he had been injured during a fall while crawling or playing in his crib. At the end of the interview, Kelley’s fingerprints and a DNA sample were taken — but were never submitted to the FBI. This was the Air Force’s first misstep in protocol, the report states.

The boy was placed in foster care. Soon after, Kelley voluntarily visited the mental-health clinic on his base, telling a staff psychologist that he was unable to cope with work stress because Child Protective Services had taken his stepson away. From September 2011 to February 2012, Kelley was treated 17 times at the mental-health clinic, but psychologist notes did not flag any alarming behavior, the report states.

Kelley’s wife left him in February 2012 and told investigators that he had abused her emotionally and physically for months. A no-contact order was issued. Investigators tried to interview Kelley about the abuse allegations, but he declined to speak and requested legal counsel. This was the Air Force’s second missed opportunity to collect and submit his fingerprints, the report states.

Air Force and Defense Department policy dictates that when a law enforcement official determines that there is probable cause that a person committed an offense, the person’s fingerprints should be collected and sent to the FBI. But no probable cause determination was made, according to records, despite the photographs Tessa Kelley provided of her bruises.

Later that month, Kelley voluntarily entered inpatient care at a mental-health facility and was given a diagnosis of “an adjustment disorder with depressed mood.” Kelley told medical staffers that he felt suicidal and planned to shoot himself because of his wife’s allegations, the report states. Two weeks later, Kelley was discharged.

Then in mid-March, according to the report, Tessa Kelley watched her husband put a single bullet in a .38-caliber revolver and pull the trigger three times before he pointed the gun at her. A month later, he pulled a gun on Tessa Kelley again while the couple was driving to the airport. He placed it against her temple, according to the report, and then put the muzzle in his own mouth before admitting to slapping Tessa Kelley’s son and hitting him on multiple occasions.

During another stint at the inpatient mental-health facility in 2012, a staff member reported that he saw Kelley looking at a website “related to guns,” the report stated. According to the facility’s records, it was not clear whether Kelley had already purchased a gun or was trying to buy one. The next day, Kelley left the facility without permission and was later found at a Greyhound bus station.

Those incidents prompted his commander to order Kelley into pretrial confinement on grounds that he had become a flight risk and danger to himself and others. He was picked up by the 49th Security Forces Squadron and taken to a confinement facility. There, according to Air Force Corrections System policy, Kelley should have been fingerprinted when he was processed into the facility — generating a record to be submitted to the FBI after he was sentenced.

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But the inspector general could not determine whether he was fingerprinted because the facility closed in May 2016 and all its records appear to have been destroyed — as is Air Force policy. What investigators did determine, according to the report, was that the fingerprints were never sent to the FBI on Kelley’s sentencing. In the report, this incident is not listed as one of the four missed opportunities to file Kelley’s fingerprints with the FBI. The reason is unclear.

The third protocol violation, according to the report, occurred during an interview at the confinement facility. According to the interview record, contained in his case file, special agents collected Kelley’s fingerprints when they were finished speaking. But the inspector general’s office did not find his fingerprints in the case file, and it determined that the FBI never received Kelley’s fingerprints.

On Nov. 7, 2012, Kelley was convicted of assaulting his wife and stepson, reduced in rank to airman basic, sentenced to 12 months confinement and given a bad-conduct discharge. He was reprocessed into the confinement facility where he had stayed before his trial — an act that should have triggered facility personnel to collect his fingerprints and submit them, along with his final disposition report, to the FBI.

That did not happen — for the fourth time. It is unclear whether the facility collected the fingerprints, because the case file was destroyed, but the FBI never received the information, according to the report.

When Kelley’s case was closed in December 2012, the Air Force had a final opportunity to ensure that his fingerprints and final disposition made it into the FBI CJIS Division database. Once again, it failed.

The special agent overseeing the investigation certified in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations database that Kelley’s fingerprint cards and final disposition report were submitted to the FBI. “This was not accurate,” the report states.

In fact, the fingerprint cards were left in the investigative file and the checklist for closing cases was left incomplete.

Read more:

A stark, white room: Sutherland Springs still struggles with church massacre

Who is Devin Patrick Kelley, the gunman officials say killed churchgoers in Sutherland Springs?

Read Devin P. Kelley’s assault and domestic violence court documents