Wednesday 18 July 2018

Mike Pence to visit victims of Texas church massacre

Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (AP)
Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (AP)

The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law before the attack, which appeared to have been driven by domestic tensions, authorities said.

A day after the deadliest mass shooting in state history, investigators also revealed that the gunman had been confronted about domestic violence at least twice in the last five years, including an assault on his ex-wife and a child that ended his Air Force career and another report of violence against a girlfriend who became his second wife.

In the tiny community of Sutherland Springs, population 400, grieving townspeople were reeling from their losses. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years old and included multiple members of some families.

President Donald Trump, who was in Japan, called the shooting an "act of evil", branding the gunman "a very deranged individual".

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, announced they pln to travel to Texas on Wednesday to meet with those affected by the shooting.

Announcing his travel plans in a tweet, Mr Pence said he will visit family members of those killed, those injured in the attack, and first responders in Sutherland Springs.

"We are with you Texas," Mr Pence tweeted.

The attack appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said.

Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Devin Patrick Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by armed bystanders and crashed his car.

The 26-year-old also used his mobile phone to tell his father that he had been shot and did not think he would survive, authorities said.

Kelley, dressed in black tactical gear, had fired an assault rifle as he walked down the centre aisle during worship services. He turned around and continued shooting on his way out of the building, officials said.

About 20 other people were wounded, 10 of whom were still in a critical condition in hospital.

The investigation showed that Kelley had displayed a pattern of violence spanning years.

In 2014, sheriff's deputies went to his home to check out a domestic violence complaint involving him and his then-girlfriend. People in the house said there was no problem, and no arrests were made. Kelley married the girlfriend two months later.

That same year, Kelley was discharged from the Air Force for assaulting his previous wife and a child and had served 12 months of confinement after a 2012 court-martial.

He was also charged with misdemeanour animal cruelty in 2014 in Colorado and was the focus of a protective order in that state in 2015.

The gunman's family relationships at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs were uncertain. The sheriff said Kelley's former in-laws sometimes attended services at the church but were not there on Sunday.

Mr Martin said the text messages were sent to the gunman's mother-in-law, who attended the church. It was unclear if they were referring to the same people. Once the shooting started, there was probably "no way" for congregants to escape, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D Tackitt Jr said.

Authorities said Kelley lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of the church. Investigators were reviewing social media posts he made in the days before the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.

Less than two months ago, Kelley had started a job as an unarmed security guard at a nearby resort.

He "seemed like a nice guy" and did not cause any problems, said Claudia Varjabedian, manager at the Summit Vacation Resort in New Braunfels.

In the Air Force, Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his 2014 discharge, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

On Sunday, Kelley pulled into a petrol station across from the church, about 30 miles (48.28 km) south east of San Antonio. He crossed the street and started firing the rifle at the church, then continued firing after entering the white wood-frame building, Mr Martin said.

Twenty-three of the dead were found in the church. Two were found outside and one died after being taken to a hospital, Mr Martin said.

A local resident, armed with a gun, confronted Kelley when he emerged from the church. He had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened.

The man exchanged fire with the gunman, then asked to get in Mr Langendorff's truck, and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.

"He jumped in my truck and said, 'He just shot up the church. We need to go get him.' And I said 'Let's go,'" Mr Langendorff said.

The pursuit reached speeds up to 90mph. The gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed. The armed man walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn, and the suspect did not move. Police arrived about five minutes later, Mr Langendorff said.

"There was no thinking about it. There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later," he said.

Among those killed was the church pastor's 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy. Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were both out of town when the attack occurred, Sherri Pomeroy wrote in a text message.

Church member Nick Uhlig, 34, who was not at Sunday's service, said that his cousin, who was eight months' pregnant, and her in-laws were among those killed. He later told the Houston Chronicle that three of his cousin's children were also slain.

Three weapons were recovered. A Ruger AR-556 rifle was found at the church, and two handguns were recovered from the suspect's vehicle, according to officials.

AP

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