A man in a black tactical uniform and armed with a rifle opened fire inside a church in a small South Texas community, killing 26 people and wounding about 20 in what the governor described as the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history. The ages of the dead ranged from 5 to 72 years.
Authorities have not identified the attacker, but two other officials – one a U.S. official and the other a law enforcement – identified him as Devin Kelly. The US official said that Kelly lived in a suburb of San Antonio and did not appear to be associated with organized terrorist groups. Investigators were looking at social media posts that Kelly had posted in the days leading up to the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.
An Air Force spokeswoman said Sunday night that Devin B. Kelly received a clearance from the Air Force for allegedly assaulting his wife and child, and was sentenced to 12 months in prison after a military trial in 2012. Spokeswoman Anne Stefanick said Kelly served in the logistics readiness division at Holloman Air Force Base In New Mexico from 2010 until his demobilization.
The attacker was described as a white man in his twenties wearing black tactical gear and a bulletproof vest when he broke into a gas station opposite the First Baptist Church around 11:20 am.
Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Safety, said the gunman crossed the street and started firing a Ruger AR rifle at the church, then continued firing after entering the white-wood-framed building, as service was scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. Morning. Martin said that the shooter confronted him as he was leaving an armed resident who “grabbed his rifle and engaged the suspect.” A short time later, the suspect was found dead in his car on the district line.
Several weapons were found inside the vehicle, and Martin said it was unclear whether the attacker succumbed to his wounds or if he was shot by the occupant who encountered him. He said investigators were not prepared to discuss a possible motive. Martin said 23 of the dead were found in the church, two were found outside and one died after being hospitalized.
In a speech to the press conference, Governor Greg Abbott described the attack as the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
“There are no words to describe the pure evil that we witnessed in Sutherland Springs today,” Abbott said. “Our hearts are burdened with pain in this small town, but at a time of tragedy, we see the best of Texas. May God consolate those who lost loved ones, and may God heal the harm in our communities.”
Among the dead was Annabelle Pomeroy, 14-year-old daughter of the church’s priest. Sherry Pomeroy wrote in a text message to the AP that Reverend Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherry were out of town in two different states when the attack happened.
“Today we lost our 14-year-old daughter and many friends,” she wrote. “None of us have returned to town after seeing the devastation in person. I am at Charlotte airport trying to get home as quickly as possible.”
Federal law enforcement authorities swept through the small rural community of a few hundred residents 30 miles southeast of San Antonio after the attack, including ATF investigators and members of the FBI’s evidence-gathering team.
Hospital officials said that at least 16 wounded were taken to hospitals, including eight who were taken by helicopter to Brook Army Medical Center. Spokeswoman Megan Bossi said eight other victims were taken to the Connally Memorial Medical Center in Floresville, about 10 miles from the church, including four who were later transferred to University Hospital in San Antonio to receive higher-level care.
Hunter Green, 16, usually attends church with his girlfriend but they both skip Sunday after a late date night. He attended a candlelit vigil hours later, describing the building as having only small exits on the side and in the back making it extremely difficult to escape from the shooter entering the front door.
“They had nowhere to go,” Green said.
Alina Perlanga, a Florisville resident who has been observing the chaos on a police scanner and in Facebook community groups, said everyone knows everyone in the sparsely populated county.
“This is horrific for our small, close-knit town,” Berlanga said. “Everyone will be affected, and everyone knows who will be affected.
Regina Rodriguez, who arrived at the church two hours after the shooting, approached the police checkpoint and embraced someone she was accompanying. She said her 51-year-old father, Richard Rodriguez, attends church every Sunday, and she was unable to reach him. She said she feared the worst.
Church member Nick Oleg, 34, was not, but he said his cousins were in the church and that his family had been told that at least one of them, a woman with three children and pregnant with another, was among the dead.
“We just gathered to bury their grandfather,” he said, shaking his head. “This is the only church here. We have Bible study, Men’s Bible study, Bible school leave. Someone got in and started shooting.”
Later, two pickup trucks for the mayor were parked outside the cattle fence gate surrounding the listed address of Kelly in the western rural suburbs of New Brownville, north of San Antonio, preventing a group of waiting journalists from entering. Officials from the mayor’s office of Komal County and Texas Rangers declined to comment or say whether they had raided his home.
Ryan Albers, 16, who lives on the other side of the road, said he had heard heavy gunfire coming from this direction in recent days.
“He had to come from very close,” Albers said. “It was definitely not just a gun or someone hunting. It was someone who used automatic fire.”
The church posted videos on its YouTube channel, increasing the likelihood that the shooting was videotaped.