SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — The gunman who killed more than two dozen people inside a Texas church this month lied when he registered as a security guard earlier this year, according to records released this week.
Authorities have said the gunman, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, was able to buy firearms because the Air Force failed to tell the FBI that he was convicted of domestic violence at court-martial. Because the Air Force never otified the FBI, Kelley was able to pass background checks needed to purchase weapons, which should have been prevented by his conviction.
Records released Monday show that Kelley also bypassed an application process that involved asking him to be forthright about his personal history, showing that in some cases involving people who seek firearms or employment, the systems rely in part on their honesty — and that lies are not always easy to catch.
Kelley’s life was full of red flags in the years before he attacked the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, using a semiautomatic assault-style rifle to kill 26 people gathered for Sunday morning services on Nov. 5. According to law enforcement officials and police and military documents, Kelley had threatened military superiors and relatives, escaped from a mental health facility, and had been accused of animal cruelty and domestic assault.
After the attack, Kelley exchanged fire with a local man who responded to the gunfire, then climbed into his car and fled, fatally shooting himself before police arrived.
In June, Kelley applied for an unarmed registration to be a noncommissioned security officer, according to his application. He was seeking work as a night security guard at a Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, Tex., the company said. Kelley passed a Texas Department of Public Safety criminal background check before he was hired, a spokeswoman said.
His employment there was short-lived. Kelley was fired after a little more than five weeks — as the summer season was nearing its peak — because he was “not a good fit,” a spokeswoman said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which released the application, has described Kelley’s job as similar to a security guard at a concert. The duties included patrolling on foot and on a bicycle as well as providing security by standing at a post. The application released Monday shows that Kelley passed his background check, as Schlitterbahn said.
As part of the application, Kelley also was asked several questions about his personal history. Kelley wrote that he was not discharged from the military, which is untrue.
In 2012, Kelley faced an Air Force court-martial after he was charged with abusing his wife and her son, giving the toddler a serious head injury. He was convicted on two charges of domestic assault and served his time at a Navy brig in San Diego. (The Air Force does not operate prisons.) In May 2014, Kelley was given a “bad conduct” discharge with the duty title of “prisoner,” the Air Force said.
Kelley also wrote in his security officer application that he had not been convicted of a felony level offense or a Class A or Class B misdemeanor or equivalent offense. While military law does not classify crimes as felonies or misdemeanors, Kelley’s domestic-assault sentence was functionally a felony conviction, according to Geoffrey Corn, a former Army lawyer and professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
Kelley’s case has highlighted a problem with the FBI background-check system, which is missing millions of records of convictions and mental-health diagnoses that would keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands. As the security guard application also shows, these systems are fallible, asking people to submit honest information and then hoping any lies can be discovered. In Kelley’s application, he pledged that his information was accurate and agreed that he understood “any false statement made on this document or any other supplement . . . may result in criminal prosecution.”
As is the case with many teenagers, Kelley first encountered law enforcement officers through traffic stops. He received two tickets at age 17 for speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign, Comal County records show.
In August, John Donahue, a Comal County deputy constable, noticed an expired registration sticker on Kelley’s white Ford Expedition and pulled him over.
“The sticker had been expired for eight months, and then I found out he was uninsured,” Donahue told The Washington Post. “I towed his vehicle. He wasn’t happy about it, but he was just passive about it. It was kind of unremarkable.”
Donahue said Kelley used his cellphone to call a relative for a ride and declined to wait in the back of the patrol car, despite it being a “hot day in August,” Donahue said. He didn’t recall who picked Kelley up, nor does he know the family, though he lives nearby.
“He was not a happy camper,” Donahue said, “but he didn’t give me any cause for concern — no furtive movements, no verbiage, no threats.”
Donahue said the constable’s office doesn’t have in-car computers, so he would not have been able to see the county’s record that flagged Kelley for having psychiatric issues. Kelley cleared his tickets by bringing in proof of insurance and registration in September.
That Ford Expedition appears to be the same vehicle Kelley used to travel to the church and then flee after the massacre. According to court documents filed last week, after the church attack and the shootout that followed, law enforcement officials found the Expedition off the roadway.
Kelley had apparently toppled over after shooting himself, his head lying on the dirt outside his door while his legs remained on the floorboard inside the car. A pistol was found under his feet, while his iPhone was sitting nearby. Authorities have been unable to unlock the phone, but officials said this week that the FBI appears unlikely to try to make a federal case out of forcing Apple to unlock the device.