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Texas church gunman escaped mental health facility in 2012 after threatening military superiors

Residents of Sutherland Springs, Tex., grappled with the mass shooting that took 26 lives from the community in November 2017. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

NEW BRAUNFELS, Tex. — The gunman who killed more than two dozen people in a small church outside San Antonio on Sunday had a string of troubling episodes in recent years, including an escape from a mental health facility in 2012 after he was caught sneaking guns onto an Air Force base “attempting to carry out death threats” against military superiors, according to a police report.

Devin P. Kelley’s young life was riddled with warning signs, mounting during and after his time in the Air Force, including a conviction for beating his then-wife and stepson, charges of animal cruelty, mental health concerns, investigations for domestic assault, threats against his family members and a motorcycle crash that left him with lingering physical pain.

Interviews and police and military documents depict Kelley as a distressed — and at-times, violent — man in the years before authorities said he walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and fired round after round into the congregation gathered for Sunday morning services.

The sound of hymns drifted from the country church. Then came gunfire.

Police in El Paso, reported that five years before the church massacre, officers were dispatched to a bus terminal after Kelley escaped from a nearby behavioral facility. Officers wrote they were told Kelley, who was serving in the Air Force, “was a danger to himself and others” at the time and “was also facing military criminal charges.” While it is unclear why Kelley was at the behavioral facility and whether he ever faced military discipline for the threats, he was court-martialed that same year and convicted of abusing his wife and stepson.

But the Air Force has acknowledged that it did not tell federal authorities about the domestic violence conviction, which should have prevented him from buying firearms, and the revelations about Kelley’s stint in a mental health facility and making threats against his superiors raised new questions about the service’s handling of Kelley and his discharge.

Sue Soto drove her wounded sister, Rosa Solis, to the hospital after the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 5, 2017. (Video: Alice Li, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The Air Force is investigating the lack of reporting of Kelley’s conviction to a national crime database, and an Air Force spokeswoman did not immediately provide additional information about the threats and 2012 escape.

Authorities, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), have questioned how it was possible for Kelley to have passed background checks for jobs and gun purchases, checks that should have made it difficult for him to obtain the weapons he used in Sunday’s slaughter. The domestic violence conviction should have raised red flags as he purchased four guns, one in each of the past four years.

The lives lost in the Sutherland Springs church shooting

Domestic concerns appeared to follow Kelley through two marriages. His first marriage ended in divorce after he was jailed for abusing his wife, and authorities said domestic problems involving Kelley’s in-laws — officials said he had been sending his mother-in-law threatening texts — preceded his attack on the church his wife’s family attended.

Kelley’s anger exploded outward on Sunday when Texas law enforcement officials said he targeted the small church outside San Antonio “with a purpose and a mission.”

One woman who was wounded during the carnage said Kelley fired at churchgoers who tried to leave and pumped bullets into those cowering or wounded on the church’s floor. David Brown, whose mother, Farida, was shot in her legs, said she described Kelley firing four shots into the torso of a woman on her left.

“With every shot, she was crying,” Brown said of the woman. “She was just staring at my mom while she tried to comfort her.” As he fired rounds into the woman, Farida Brown held her hand, telling her she was heading to heaven.

Authorities said they were still reconstructing what happened inside the church, and are unable to say how long the gunman fired or how many shots were fired — he reloaded several times and appeared to have emptied 15 magazines, which could mean several hundred shots. They said he spent considerable time firing at churchgoers, first shooting at the front and side of the building before heading inside and continuing his rampage.

“When the first call came in, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office arrived within four minutes,” Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a briefing Tuesday. “I can tell you four minutes is a long time during an active-shooter situation.”

Johnnie Langendorff told The Washington Post how he helped race after the shooter who killed dozens of people on Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, Tex. (Video: Dina Parkinson/The Washington Post)

When the gunfire ended, nearly everyone inside had been injured or killed, Martin said. Officials said the 26 people killed included the unborn child of a pregnant woman who was killed. Another 20 people were injured, and half of them remained in critical condition Tuesday.

Kelley, who was shot twice by a local man who heard what was happening at the church and responded, fled and shot himself in the head about 10 miles from the church, officials said.

Investigators have not publicly identified a motive for the shooting, but they pointed to Kelley’s rage at his own relatives, particularly his mother-in-law, who attended the church but was not there during the massacre. “We know there was conflict,” Martin said. “He was upset with the mother-in-law.”

Kelley’s mother-in-law told a local schoolteacher, Tambria Read, 59, that even with the familial strife, she was shocked by what Kelley had done. Kelley had visited the church with his family five days ahead of the attack, attending a fall festival, an event conceived as an alternative to Halloween. Members of the church and their children appeared at the event in costume.

“She said that she did not think he would do anything like this,” Read 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.”

Attempts to reach Kelley’s mother-in-law have been unsuccessful.

After massacre, some residents call for more guns and not more gun control

Martin said law enforcement officials believe further details about the dispute might be found on Kelley’s cellphone. The FBI said Tuesday that while they have obtained the phone and brought it to their facility in Quantico, Va., they have been unable to access its data.

Federal authorities have been critical of the encryption they say has kept them off of devices crucial to investigations, an issue that notably flared into a lengthy dispute between the FBI and Apple over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., attackers; the bureau later said an outside group helped them unlock that device.

Christopher H. Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio division, said the FBI had never investigated Kelley before Sunday’s attack. But Kelley had repeatedly come to the attention of local and military authorities in Texas and New Mexico.

In June 2012, the El Paso police were called to the Greyhound bus station there in response to a missing person, according to a police report first obtained Tuesday by two Texas television stations, KVIA in El Paso and KPRC in Houston.

Officers wrote that they were told Kelley, at the time serving at Holloman Air Force Base, had escaped from Peak Behavioral Health Services, a facility just over the border in New Mexico, and intended to hop a bus out of town.

That same year, Kelley was court-martialed by the Air Force. He was charged with abusing his wife and her son — including a serious head injury to the toddler — between April 2011 and April 2012 and sentenced in November 2012, according to Air Force documents. Because the Air Force does not operate prisons, Kelley served his sentence at a Navy brig in San Diego.

At the time of Kelley’s May 2014 discharge, his duty title was “prisoner,” according to the Air Force.

Local police also encountered him when he returned to South Texas. Deputies with the Comal County Sheriff’s Office in Texas were called to Kelley’s house 17 times over the years, Sheriff Mark Reynolds said in an interview Tuesday. Most calls were for loose livestock and brush fires, but two of them “raised flags,” the sheriff said.

In June 2013, Kelley was accused of sexual assault, but details of the case are being withheld because it is still open and under investigation — although Reynolds acknowledged there appeared to be little follow-up by investigators after October 2013. In February 2014, officers were again called to the home to investigate a disturbance. A friend of Kelley’s then-girlfriend, who he later married, summoned law enforcement saying that she had received a text alleging abuse at the home. Police found no evidence of abuse and Kelley’s girlfriend denied anything had happened.

“Officers thought, ‘Maybe this is just a misunderstanding and teenage drama,” Reynolds said. “They didn’t see anything that substantiated that type of abuse.”

First Baptist Church pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherri spoke out after a mass shooter killed 26 people inside their church. (Video: KENS 5)

Around the same time as that episode, Kelley was involved in a motorcycle crash that, he wrote on Facebook, left him with neck and head pain up until his final days. He had been riding a 2009 Harley Davidson down a four-lane county road in New Braunfels when 91-year-old Bessie Mulhollan pulled her Buick out in front of him, according to police records.

“She was pulling out of a parking lot and didn’t see him,” said Beth Hawes Mulhollan, the woman’s daughter-in-law, who was not present for the accident but was told about it later by Bessie, who died in 2015. “He ended up running right into the side of her car.”

Police records say Kelley was treated at the scene of the crash but that he declined further medical aid.

The persistent crime that connects mass shooters: Domestic violence

Just days before the shooting rampage, Kelley posted messages on Facebook complaining about lingering neck pain from the crash. The posts were shared with The Post by a Facebook friend of Kelley’s who took screenshots before his page was taken down.

“My motorcycle injury in my neck is acting up again,” Kelley wrote on Facebook last week. “4 years later it still causes me major neck pain.”

In another post, the day before the shooting, he added: “Damn,” with a frowning emoticon. “My heads been hurting for 3 days now.”

On the morning of the shooting, he posted: “I’m a wreck.”

In Comal County’s court records, a little yellow flag is posted on Kelley’s electronic file, denoting that he has psychiatric issues. It was not immediately clear when the flag was added — Cecilia Delgado with the district clerk’s office said the flag dates back to at least 2012, when the courthouse moved to a new computer system. The system is only countywide, and individuals are typically flagged upon entering the county’s jail.

Kelley was flagged by the Comal County Sheriff’s Office, Delgado said, but Reynolds confirmed that Kelley had never entered the jail and was not immediately sure when the flag was added.

“We’re taught to look for the flags,” Reynolds said.

Further reading:

Sutherland Springs pastor: ‘I don’t understand, but I know my God does’

The violent past of the Sutherland Springs attacker

Berman and Lowery reported from Washington. Eva Ruth Moravec in New Braunfels, Tex.; Joel Achenbach and Peter Holley in Sutherland Springs, Tex.; Bob Moore in Alamogordo, N.M.; and Brian Murphy, Samantha Schmidt, Alex Horton and Julie Tate contributed to this report.