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At least 26 dead in South Texas church shooting, officials say

Authorities said several people were killed in a shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in South Texas on Nov. 5. (Video: Patrick Martin, Elyse Samuels, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)
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SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — A lone gunman stormed a small community church here on Sunday and fatally shot more than two dozen people before a local resident engaged him in a gun battle as the shooter exited the church. He fled at high speed with the civilian in pursuit before running off the roadway, where he was found dead, authorities said.

Witnesses said a white man in his 20s dressed in all black and wearing a tactical vest started shooting with an assault rifle as he approached First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Police said the gunman killed two people outside before entering the church and spraying bullets at the congregation during morning worship in the country town about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. Dozens of people were hit with bullets, and the 26 dead ranged in age from 5 to 72, authorities said. One family reported the death of a year-old child. Most were shot in the pews as they worshiped.

After the exchange of gunfire, the armed civilian jumped into the truck of a second resident who had stopped at the scene and the two took off after the shooter.  It was “act now, ask questions later,” said the truck’s driver, Johnnie Langendorff. By the time they caught up with him, however, the fleeing man had crashed his SUV into a ditch. “He might have been unconscious from the crash or something like that, I’m not sure,” Langendorff told reporters.

“The local citizen pursued him,” said Freeman Martin, a regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety. “We don’t know if it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound or if he was shot by our local resident who engaged him in a gunfight.”

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Two law enforcement officials told The Washington Post that the shooter has been identified as Devin Kelley, 26, a Texas man who lived in a nearby county. Only fragments of Kelley’s background emerged in the hours after the shooting, among them that he was court-martialed in 2012 while serving in the U.S. Air Force and sentenced to a year in military prison for assaulting his spouse and child. He was reduced in rank and released with a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.

Nor had authorities speculated publicly about a possible motive as of early Monday morning with the investigation in its very early stages.

President Trump, at a news conference Monday afternoon in Tokyo, said that he thought “mental health” was the problem. “Based on preliminary reports,” he said, the shooter was “a very deranged individual, a lot of problems for a long period of time.” Trump did not provide the basis for his statement, saying “it’s a little bit soon to go into it.”

“ . . . This isn’t a guns situation,”  he added. “Fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction” or it “would have been much worse.”

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But residents of this small, out-of-the-way town said they were rattled and dumbfounded at becoming yet another U.S. community victimized by a mass shooting.

The killings left massive and in some instances multigenerational gaps in some families. Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all at once, a total of eight extended family members, the couple said in a phone interview with The Post.

Their son, Bryan Holcombe, 60, and his wife, Karla Holcombe, 58, were killed. Bryan was associate pastor for the church and walking to preach at the pulpit when he was shot, Joe Holcombe told The Post.

Among the dead was also their granddaughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, who was pregnant. She died along with her unborn child and three of her children, Emily, Megan and Greg, according to Joe Holcombe. She had been at church with her husband, John Holcombe, who survived along with two of her other children.

Their grandson, Marc Daniel Holcombe and his infant daughter, who is about a year old, also died, Joe and Claryce Holcombe said.

Neighbors said they became aware of the shooting when they heard loud bangs — and even had bullets spray into their homes — shortly after 11 a.m. on Sunday. Local authorities said the first calls of an active shooter came in about 11:20 a.m., after the gunman opened fire with a Ruger assault-style rifle.

Kevin Jordan, 30, was changing the oil in his Ford Focus ahead of a family road trip when he heard the pops of gunfire. When he stood up and turned his head, he saw a man wearing body armor, a vest and a mask walk down the sidewalk toward the church about 50 yards from his home.

“He was just spraying at the front of the church,” Jordan said. “He was shooting outside at first, and then he walked to the door and started shooting inside.”

Authorities said that at least 23 of the slain were killed inside the church. They said that two people were shot and killed outside and that one died at a hospital.

Authorities said they found multiple weapons in the gunman’s vehicle.

After spotting the shooter, Jordan said, he ran inside his home, scooped up his son, alerted his wife and rushed his family into their bathroom, where they crouched and hid while calling 911. He said the shooter spotted him as he fled and took a shot that went through his front window, nearly hitting his 2-year-old son.

“I looked at the shooter, and he looked right at me,” he said. When the shooting stopped, Jordan, who works as a medical assistant, ran to the church, hoping to help.

“I walked inside and just walked out. I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “It was bad. A lot of blood and bodies. The pews were knocked over. I’m a medical assistant and medical assisting does not prepare you for this.”

Tucked a few hundred yards off Highway 87 amid scrubby farmland, the dusty and usually quiet streets of Sutherland Springs, lined with modest one-story family homes and trailers, were swarming with law enforcement Sunday evening. A town with few streetlights that typically goes dark after sundown flashed red and blue with police lights on almost every block.

Federal authorities, including from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene. The Texas Ranger Division of the state’s DPS also is involved in the investigation.

The shooting Sunday came more than a month after a masked gunman stormed into a small community church outside of Nashville and shot seven people, including the pastor, killing one. Authorities said the suspect in that shooting, Emanuel Kidega Samson, might have been motivated by a desire for revenge for a 2015 shooting that targeted black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. — an attack that left nine people dead.

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It also came just more than a month after 58 people were killed at a Las Vegas country music festival, in what was the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history; the assailant, Stephen Paddock, killed himself after a lengthy shooting spree from his 32nd-floor Mandalay Bay hotel suite.

Few details were immediately available about Kelley, and attempts to reach his family were unsuccessful Sunday. Kelley had at one point been in the military, enlisting in 2010 and serving as a logistical readiness airman stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, who also confirmed Kelley’s 2012 court-martial.

It was unclear Sunday how Kelley obtained the weapon he used or why he targeted the church. Neighbors said the gunshots they heard were thundering.

The scene after a shooting in a Texas church

Rev. Van Jordan, of Port Arthur, Tex., leads a group prayer while setting up crosses to honor the shooting victims along the edge of a field next to Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Diana Segura, 69, was in the shower Sunday morning at about 11 a.m. when she was startled by a series of bangs so loud she thought a truck’s engine had exploded on the highway behind her home. Minutes later, sirens burst onto her quiet street. She walked outside and saw multiple bodies on the ground outside the First Baptist Church, where she occasionally attends weeknight services.

Standing outside her home down the street from the church, Segura stared at the throng of police cars and emergency vehicles, her head shaking in disbelief.

“This is a small town and nothing never happens here,” she said. “We are family here, and that church is always filled with friends.”

Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church, told ABC News that he was not present during the church service but that his teenage daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, 14, was among the dead.

“She was very quiet, shy, always smiling, and helpful to all,” Cynthia Rangel, 50, a resident of nearby Stockdale, said of the teenager. Rangel, a local emergency medical technician, said she knew three individuals who were hospitalized after the shooting and were undergoing surgery. “This just all seems like it’s not real.”

Dana Fletcher, who owns a business a quarter-mile from the church, said she and her family just moved to Sutherland Springs. She said she was first alerted to the shooting by a call from a reporter.

“My husband and I both are still in shock,” she said. “It’s a little tiny church that was targeted. It’s shocking. It’s a bit frightening because it’s a little bit close to home.”

Carrie Matula, who works at a gas station near the church, told MSNBC she ran out to see what was happening after hearing gunshots.

“I never thought it would happen here,” she said. “This is something that happens in a big city. I would have never thought this would have taken place here. It’s just too tight a community. It doesn’t make sense.”

The church is a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with about 15 million members. First Baptist reported an average estimated attendance of 100 in 2015. The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, considered one of Texas’s more theologically conservative groups of Southern Baptists.

Kathy Forton, 65, who has lived much of her life in the rural area of Wilson County, said the town has suffered an economic downturn since the county seat was moved to Floresville after a fire many years ago.

“The church helped out in so many ways, “ Forton said. “Just the most precious, loving people. The people from the church used their own money to provide turkeys for the community at Thanksgiving and presents for kids at Christmas. The loss of these people is going to devastate that community.”

Trump first addressed the shooting while traveling in Asia early Monday, sending his thoughts and prayers to the victims and families.

“This act of evil occurred as the victims and their families were in their place of sacred worship,” he said. “We cannot put into words the pain and grief we all feel, and we cannot begin to imagine the suffering of those who lost the ones they so dearly loved. Our hearts are broken, but in dark times — and these are dark times — such as these, Americans do what they do best: We pull together. We join hands. We lock arms, and through the tears and through the sadness we stand strong — oh, so strong.”

Authorities reported multiple people are dead and the gunman is "down" after a shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., near San Antonio, on Nov. 5. (Video: Reuters)

The church is a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with about 15 million members. First Baptist reported an average estimated attendance of 100 in 2015. The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, considered one of Texas’s more theologically conservative groups of Southern Baptists.

Phillips and Lowery reported from Washington. Mary Lee Grant in San Antonio and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Ed O’Keefe, Alex Horton, Samantha Schmidt and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.

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