SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — A few dozen families gathered in the yard of the First Baptist Church on Tuesday, Oct. 31, their children dressed as Dalmatians and pirates as they ran through a bounce house and crowded around a metal tub to fish for rubber duckies.
The modest “fall fest” gathering aimed to provide an alternative to Halloween — an attractive innovation in a deeply conservative region.
For Michelle Shields, the event included a positive development: Her son-in-law, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, was in the crowd. There’d been recent tension in the family, so she hoped Kelley’s appearance with her granddaughter meant things were on the upswing.
The next night, Kelley and his wife, Danielle, seemed fine as they joined another couple for dinner at the other family’s home.
“He was happy, laughing, giggly, holding his kids, holding my kids. Smacking his wife on the butt, you know, ‘I love you, baby’ kind of stuff,” said the husband, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he and his wife have received threats. “I have no clue as to what really happened.
“He was fine, and that was Wednesday.”
On Sunday, Kelley returned to the church, this time dressed in all black, wearing body armor and a mask and carrying an assault-style rifle. He shot the associate pastor, and the church secretary, and children as they cried for their parents. He killed about half the people in the church and shot many of the rest. His intention, according to his own declaration during the rampage, was to kill everyone.
Authorities have not offered an official explanation of Kelley’s motive but have revealed that he was in the midst of a domestic quarrel with, and had sent threatening text messages to, his mother-in-law. But she wasn’t even there that day.
The mass murder came at the end of a turbulent period for Kelley, whose adulthood was filled with marriages and children but also troublesome signs of mental health problems, domestic violence, a stint in jail and a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force.
Some friends who interacted with Kelley recently said he’d become erratic. He’d told at least one friend that he had begun taking a panic disorder drug and wanted to borrow money to pay for a psychiatrist.
His final Facebook posts consisted of complaints of headaches and gripes about lingering neck and head pain from a motorcycle accident in 2014.
“Damn, my heads been hurting for three days now,” he wrote in one of his last posts.
“Ah f---. I’m a wreck,” he added in another, ultimately his final public statement before he headed to the church, where many of the same families and the same children who had attended the fall fest gathered to pray, where he would commit one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
This account of Sunday’s mass shooting is based on interviews with witnesses, survivors, law enforcement officials and a review of other news accounts.
No one knows precisely how many people live in Sutherland Springs, a tiny town outside of San Antonio, only that there are fewer now. There are maybe 600 people within a half a mile or so of the crossroads of U.S. Highway 87 and Farm Road 539, the center of town, with a Valero gas station on one corner, the post office on another, and the First Baptist Church just a couple hundred feet off U.S. 87, buffered by a grassy field that hasn’t been mowed in a long time.
Terrie Smith, 54, and her fiance, Lorenzo Flores, 56, had just walked into the Valero gas station that houses the small Mexican food kitchen that she runs and where he works as a cook.
When they’d parked next to gas pump No. 3, just a few moments before, the soft singing of a hymn was drifting across the street from the church. Now, the singing had gone silent. The sharp sound of gunshots pierced their ears.
They ran outside, and that’s when they saw him: Kelley, dressed in all black, carrying a long rifle and standing across the street, beneath the tall, blue sign that reads “First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.”
A few houses away, Kevin Jordan was changing the oil on his Ford Focus when he heard the gunshots. He stood up and turned his head, spotting a man wearing body armor, a vest and a mask walking down the sidewalk toward the church.
Jordan, 30, ran into his house and grabbed his son as he screamed to his wife to take cover. As they all hid in the bathroom, Jordan dialed 911.
When he reached the church, Kelley began moving rapidly around the exterior in a crouch, like a “G.I. Joe” character. For about two minutes he quickly circled the building, firing through its walls, wielding his weapon just below his chest as the horrified worshipers inside began to scream and duck beneath pews as bullets burst through sanctuary windows.
Kelley’s body shook as he sprayed the outside of the church. Smith and Flores scrambled on all fours back into the gas station, screaming to the few customers there to find cover.
Then, for a moment, the shooting stopped. Kelley walked into First Baptist. Then the gunfire started anew.
Bryan Holcombe, 60, the church’s associate pastor, had just walked up to the pulpit to begin preaching when he was struck. His wife, Karla, 58, was also hit. By the time the shooting stopped minutes later both of them, along with six other family members and a pregnant woman’s unborn child, would be dead.
Most in the sanctuary tried to hide, and Kelley shot at those who ran. Then he made his way up and down the aisle through the small room, firing into prone bodies. When the children clustered near the front of the sanctuary began to wail, he fired at them. If Kelley saw someone reaching for a cellphone he’d shoot at it.
Farida Brown, 73, a member of the church for the past decade, was struck four times in her legs as she lay hiding in the back row. Four shots hit the woman to her right. Brown held her hand, assuring her that it would be over soon, that she was headed to heaven.
“With every shot, she was crying,” David Brown, Farida’s son, said of the woman. “She was just staring at my mom while she tried to comfort her.”
Lying a few pews away, all Rosa Solis could see was the stalk of the killer’s black boots. Next to her lay a young boy who had been shot and was crying out for his mother. But she didn’t speak. She held her breath, hoping the man in the mask would think she was already dead.
“He was mostly shooting at the children,” recounted Sue Soto, Rosa’s sister, who drove Solis — who had a gaping shoulder wound — and Joaquin Ramirez, Solis’s boyfriend, to the hospital.
A single, blood-covered man emerged near the side of the church and sprinted across a grassy lot to the gas station, desperately pounding on the glass door.
“He started killing everybody,” the man blurted out, collapsing to his knees. “My family’s in there.”
They all looked out the window. No one else was leaving the church.
“All I could think about was that my friend Joann was in there with her kids,” Smith recalled. “I knew everybody in there. They were all my customers and friends.”
Smith’s friend, Joann Ward, was among those killed. She’d shoved her eldest daughter away from the shooting before throwing herself on top of her three youngest children. Two of them died there with her. The third, her 5-year-old son Ryland, was shot in the stomach, groin and arm and remains hospitalized.
There had been between 50 and 60 worshipers that morning. The number who remained unharmed when the gunfire finally stopped could be counted on one hand.
Kelley turned his back on the bloody carnage and walked out the front door.
Stephen Willeford, 55, was at his home on Fifth Street, a block from the church, when his daughter told him she could hear gunfire. A certified shooting instructor, Willeford grabbed an assault-style rifle and ran out of the house so fast that he didn’t have time to put on shoes. He approached the church on Farm Road 539, barefoot, just as Kelley was exiting.
The two men made eye contact.
“It was surreal to me. It couldn’t be happening. I could not believe it,” Willeford, still shaken a day later, said in a TV interview with a local Texas station.
Willeford, a former NRA instructor, took up a protective position behind a pickup truck and fired at Kelley, hitting him twice. Kelley returned fire, then dropped his rifle and got into his Ford SUV, using a handgun to fire another couple of rounds at Willeford through his side window. Willeford kept firing. Kelley sped away, northeast on 539, through the blinking light at the crossroads.
Johnnie Langendorff, 27, had been on his way to visit his girlfriend when he spotted a barefoot man in what looked and sounded like a shootout with a man in all-black clothing. As Kelley drove away, Willeford ran up to Langendorff’s white pickup truck and jumped directly into the passenger seat.
“He just shot up the church!” Willeford shouted. “We have to get him!”
“Let’s go,” Langendorff replied.
The strangers sped behind Kelley, calling 911 and staying on the line with the dispatcher.
“We blew through this intersection, we were doing about 90, 95, going up 539,” Langendorff said later. “I was trying to calm the gentleman, stay on the phone with dispatch and keep up with this other guy.”
When they finally caught up to Kelley, about 11 miles away, his SUV had veered off the road and crashed into a ditch.
Both men jumped out of the truck.
“Get out! Get out!” Willeford screamed at the gunman. There was no movement. Willeford’s hands clutched tightly around his rifle as Langendorff waved his arms to try to keep other vehicles away from the scene.
There was no movement in Kelley’s car. At some point during his final flight he’d called his father. He’d been shot, he said. He wasn’t going to make it. Then Kelley shot himself in the head. He was dead by the time police arrived.
Ted Montgomery had skipped church that morning because his wife, First Baptist’s Sunday school director, wasn’t feeling well. When he heard about the shooting he rushed to the sanctuary, helping carry seven or eight of the wounded children out on stretchers.
A single bloody body lay in the church’s front yard and another to the side of the building, both eventually covered with yellow tarps. Wounded churchgoers wandered the lot, drying blood covering their arms and legs. Some victims were being whisked away in the back of helicopters.
“I haven’t seen anything like this since I left Vietnam,” Montgomery told reporters at a vigil on Sunday night. “It was a slaughter.”
David Casillas, 55, who lives nearby, said he raced to the scene immediately after the shooting and was horrified. People were dazed: “Most of them couldn’t even talk.”
Church leaders began discussing what comes next. Pastor Frank Pomeroy had been in Oklahoma City that morning when his phone began ringing. His 14-year-old daughter was among the dead. Updating the church website with information would have to wait — the webmaster was in the hospital taking care of his daughter. They’d both been shot.
It’s unclear if what remains of First Baptist’s sanctuary will ever host another worship service.
“My gut instinct says that probably ought to become a memorial site and we build a new sanctuary elsewhere,” said Mark Collins, 57, who spent 12 years as the associate pastor before moving on to his own church six years ago.
Tambria Read, 59, a high school art teacher who is heavily steeped in town history, would like people to know that Sutherland Springs is a beautiful place with a proud past. “We don’t want the world to remember Sutherland Springs for this,” she said.
Read had raced into action when she heard about the shooting. She opened the town’s historical museum so that first responders could use the copier machine. Then she drove to the community center, a modest building two blocks from the church. Inside, family members of people killed or wounded were meeting with police.
As Read stood outside next to two county officials, Michelle Shields, Kelly’s mother-in-law, emerged from the community center’s front door. Shields’ own mother, Lula White, 71, the church secretary, had been slain.
Shields saw Read and approached, and the two embraced in a tight hug.
Then, Read recalled, Shields looked at her, then at the two county officials, and declared: “I know who did it.”
Holley, Rosenberg and Achenbach reported from Texas; Lowery reported from Washington. Abigail Hauslohner and Eva Ruth Moravec in Texas and Samantha Schmidt, Mark Berman and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.