By Erik De la Garza/Courthouse News
SAN ANTONIO (CN) – Investigators are examining a “domestic situation” as a motive for the largest mass shooting in Texas history that left 26 people dead, including an 18-month-old child, and injured dozens more inside a small Baptist church near San Antonio.
“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs, there was a domestic situation going on with the family and in-laws,” Freeman Martin, the regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Monday.
Law enforcement officials offered more information at a news conference Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the attack on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where the dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. All bodies have been removed from the crime scene to be autopsied at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The names of those killed will be released as soon as next of kin is notified. As many as 14 children and a pregnant woman are said to be among the dead.
Twenty people were injured and transported to San Antonio hospitals, and 10 remain in critical condition. They range in age from 5 to 73 years old.
“The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church. We know that he had made threatening texts and we can’t go into detail into that domestic situation that is continuing to be vetted and thoroughly investigated,” Martin said.
Officials say 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley drove from his home in New Braunfels to the church some 50 miles away wearing all black “tactical-type gear” and a ballistic vest.
The white gunman exited his vehicle at about 11:20 am and began firing from his Ruger assault-style rifle at the church, turned his attention to shooting the right side of the church, and then entered and continued to fire rounds.
Investigators remain tight-lipped about how the grisly shooting unfolded inside the place of worship some 30 miles southeast of downtown San Antonio, but a Texas Rangers spokesman said Monday that a video recording is being analyzed by law enforcement.
“There was some length in time the subject spent inside that church in the shooting event,” according to the spokesman. “He moved around freely inside the church.”
When the gunman walked out of the church, a man armed with his own assault rifle who lives across the street and heard the chaos, exchanged gunfire with him. That man, described by investigators as a “Texas hero,” flagged down a second Good Samaritan and they both followed Kelley’s Ford Expedition through the quiet community home to about 600 people.
“I did what I thought I needed to do,” Johnnie Langendorff, one of the men who pursued the gunman told San Antonio news station KABB/WOAI. “They said that there’s a shooting. I pursued and I just, just did what I thought was the right thing to do.”
The chase ended when the gunman lost control of his vehicle and police found his lifeless body in his crashed car. Investigators are still determining exactly how he was killed, but it is believed he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Kelley called his father during the chase to say “he didn’t think he would make it,” according to law enforcement who briefed reporters Monday.
The local residents who chased him were not injured.
An Air Force veteran, Kelley received a bad conduct discharge for assaulting his spouse and child, and was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement after a 2012 court-martial. He served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge, Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek said.
Fred Milanowski, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said a dishonorable discharge from the military “in general” prohibits an individual from possessing or purchasing firearms.
The gunman possessed a private security license, but had no license to carry. Three weapons used by him have been recovered by investigators, a rifle at the church and two handguns in his vehicle, Milanowski said.
Kelley’s social media posts are also being examined by investigators, including one that appeared to show an AR-15.
“It’s something we all say doesn’t happen in small communities, well we found out today it does,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told reporters Sunday.
Among the dead is the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, Annabelle Renee Pomeroy, her family said Monday.
“We’ve had a long night with our children and grandbabys that we have left,” said Frank Pomeroy, who has been the church’s pastor for 15 years, before his wife, Sherri, addressed reporters.
“We lost more than Belle yesterday, and one thing that gives me a sliver of encouragement is the fact that Belle was surrounded yesterday by her church family who she loved fiercely and vice-versa,” Sherri Pomeroy said.
“Now most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday. As senseless as this tragedy was, our sweet Belle would not have been able deal with losing so much family yesterday,” she added. “Please don’t forget Sutherland Springs.”
Led by the Texas Rangers, multiple area law enforcement and emergency agencies are assisting in the investigation, which has been described as “a complex puzzle” that will take a significant amount of time to piece together.
The church is a white, wood-framed building with a double-door at the entrance and a Texas flag on a pole at the front area, according to its website, which was down shortly after the shooting.
The website says the church schedule was for a fellowship breakfast on Sunday mornings, followed by Sunday School. A morning worship service was scheduled for 11 a.m. The first news reports of the shooting were between noon and 12:30 p.m.
Megan Posey, a spokeswoman for Connally Memorial Medical Center, which is in Floresville and about 10 miles from the church, said “multiple” victims were being treated for gunshot wounds. She declined to give a specific number but said it was less than a dozen.
A woman who lives about 10 minutes away from Sutherland Springs in Floresville and was monitoring the chaos on a police scanner and in Facebook community groups, said that everyone knows everyone in the sparsely populated county.
“This is horrific for our tiny little tight-knit town,” said Alena Berlanga. “Everybody’s going to be affected and everybody knows someone who’s affected,” she said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that President Donald Trump called him from his trip to Asia where he was monitoring the situation. He later tweeted about the tragedy.
“May God be with the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas,” the president said. “The FBI and law enforcement are on the scene.”
Abbott said, “The tragedy is of course worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship, where these people were innocently gunned downed…We don’t know if that number will rise or not, all we know is that’s too many.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.