By Peter Holley, Kristine Phillips and Mark Berman
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – Names, faces and grieving family stories began to emerge Monday from the carnage at the First Baptist Church – including eight relatives spanning three generations – even as investigators struggled to grasp why a lone gunman dressed himself in black commando gear and opened fire on the pews.
The death toll stood at 26 people after Sunday’s massacre, but the figure could shift. Authorities initially reported the range in ages among the dead as between 5 and 72. A family, however, said a 1-year-old girl also was killed – part of a group of eight family members lost in the deadly spray from the attacker’s Ruger assault-style rifle.
The gunman – described as a former member of the Air Force – then came under fire from a local man and fled in car chase before running off the roadway, where he apparently took his own life.
“There was some gunfire exchanged, I believe, on the roadway also, and then [the gunman’s vehicle] wrecked out,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CBS News. “At this time we believe that he had a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after he wrecked out.”
The attack left a staggering hole in a Texas town of fewer than 700 people and, for some, reinforced a sense of unease that no place could be considered immune from possible violence after a concert ground in Las Vegas, a Walmart in Colorado, a Nashville church and a bike path in New York all became scenes of death and bloodshed over the past six weeks.
President Trump appeared to try to pre-emptively steer the debate away from gun control after the Texas slayings, which authorities say was carried out by a 26-year-old former Air Force member who was court-martialed in 2012 and sentenced to a year in military prison for assaulting his spouse and child. The suspect, identified as Devin Kelley, was reduced in rank and released with a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.
At a news conference in Tokyo, Trump said he thought “mental health” was a possible motive. “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.”
Trump’s reaction contrasted with his unrestrained comments calling for the “death penalty” after the apparent Islamic State-inspired attack in Lower Manhattan on Halloween, when an immigrant from Uzbekistan plowed a rented truck into cyclists and others, killing eight people.
Sunday’s assault in Sutherland Springs appeared planned well in advance.
Witnesses said the gunman – dressed in all black and wearing a tactical vest – started shooting with an assault rifle as he approached the church. 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.
After the exchange of gunfire with an armed civilian, the gunman drove away with two local men in pursuit. 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.”
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, Carla 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.
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.”
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. A town with few streetlights that typically goes dark after sundown flashed red and blue with police lights on almost every block.
In late September, 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.
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.
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.
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.”