SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — As Sunday worship services began, a man in black tactical gear parked his Ford Expedition at a gas station, grabbed his assault-style rifle, marched across the street and killed 4 percent of this town’s population and 100 percent of its quaint anonymity.
Devin Patrick Kelley’s first two victims were slain in the parking lot of First Baptist Church, the town’s epicenter and the church attended by his mother-in-law, whom police say he had expressed anger toward and perhaps wanted to kill.
Then the gunman, whose bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force and history of domestic violence should have kept him from purchasing the Ruger AR-556 he gripped, sprayed bullets indiscriminately into the church’s facade.
He entered, according to law enforcement who reviewed the church’s weekly recording of the sermon, intent on killing everyone in the room.
He spent time in the church, the FBI said, as he shot at them, ages 18 months to 77 years old: children, parents, grandparents, a baby in the womb. He slaughtered eight members of the Holcombe family, whose patriarch, Bryan, was the visiting pastor Sunday.
Bryan and his wife, Karla Holcombe. Crystal Holcombe, who was eight months’ pregnant. Crystal’s three children: Megan, Emily and Greg. Pastor Bryan’s son, Marc Daniel Holcombe and his infant son, Noah, the youngest victim of the worst church shooting in U.S. history.
Annabelle Pomeroy, the 14-year-old daughter of Sherry and Frank Pomeroy, First Baptist’s regular pastor, was found among the dead. Grief-stricken and tired from the out-of-town trip that spared them the same fate, Sherry says the physical and psychological damage exacted on the “church family she loved fiercely” would have been too much for her daughter, Belle.
As of Monday, there were 26 dead, 20 wounded, with 10 of those victims still in critical condition. Authorities say the number included Crystal Holcombe’s unborn child.
What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but the gunman left the church, where a man who lived across the street was ready — terrified — but ready.
Stephen Willeford, a 52-year-old plumber with sharp aim, had heard the bedlam, left his house, barefoot but armed with a rifle, and engaged Kelley. The two began shooting at each other.
“I was terrified while it was going on,” Willeford reluctantly told the Dallas Morning News.
That’s when a stranger in a blue Dodge Ram truck named Johnnie Langendorff, 27, took a left turn and saw the two men shooting at each other. Somewhere in the chaos, two of Willeford’s bullets struck Kelley in the leg and torso. The gunman dropped his rifle and fled to his Ford Explorer.
Langendorff says that’s when Willeford came running at him.
“Barefoot, rifle, opened my door. And he’s crawling in when he’s telling me (the gunman) just shot up the church. And I said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Chris Ward, who recently started a job as a truck driver working nights, was asleep when his brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Leslie Ward, rushed into his house to see if he and the kids had gone to church.
He hadn’t, but his wife, Joann, and the kids had.
Ward ran out of the house barefoot, got in his car and sped to the church, Leslie and Michael behind him.
They saw Ryland, 5, outside as first responders began the hell of assessing the human toll. Leslie stayed with Ryland. The men went inside looking for Chris’ daughters and wife, Michael said.
That’s when he saw Brooke.
“She was face down,” Michael said, tears in his eyes, talking about his niece, Chris Ward’s 5-year-old daughter.
Michael says the county judge said Chris’ other daughter Emily, 7, was found beneath Joann’s body, as if her mother were trying to shield the girl.
Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr., who’s looked over this dot on the Texas map for a quarter century, also saw inside the church, which he described as “mounds of death.”
Hundreds of shell casings were recovered during the investigation, authorities confirmed later. All 15 magazines were empty.
“Children,” he said, “That’s the hardest part.”
The two strangers chased Kelley across the intersection and down Farm Road 539 for 11 to 14 minutes, Langendorff said.
Inside the Ford Explorer, Kelley called his father, Mickey Kelley, to tell him he had been shot, that he wasn’t going to make it, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Kelley had been living on his father’s estate in New Braunfels. Neighbors say they often heard rapid-fire gunshots at night. In recent weeks, expensive furniture, recliners and couches and bicycles were place on the curb, where some neighbors snatched them up.
The FBI and DPS haven’t yet disclosed a possible motive, except to say Texas’ worst mass shooting in history wasn’t racially motivated, that “there was a domestic situation ongoing with the family and the in-laws.”
Suddenly, as the two were in pursuit, “He hit a ditch, hit a sign, came back out and I think tried to correct, hit the guard rail, and then went off into the bar ditch and that’s where he stayed. He did not get out of his vehicle or anything,” Langendorff said.
Late Monday, DPS confirmed Kelley appeared to have shot himself in the head with a handgun.
Willeford, reached by the Morning News on Monday, confirmed his involvement but was reluctant to provide details of a gunfight.
“I didn’t want it, and I want the focus to be on my friends,” he said. “I had friends in that church.”