Friday 23 August 2019

Texas church gunman 'shot babies at point-blank range'

Prayers are said in front of some of the crosses placed in a field in Sutherland Springs, Texas (AP)
Prayers are said in front of some of the crosses placed in a field in Sutherland Springs, Texas (AP)

Jim Vertuno, Will Weissert and Paul J Weber

The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church went aisle to aisle looking for victims and shot crying babies at point-blank range, a couple who survived the attack said.

Rosanne Solis and Joaquin Ramirez were sitting near the entrance to the First Baptist Church on Sunday when they heard what sounded like firecrackers and realised someone was shooting at the tiny wood-framed building.

In an interview with San Antonio television station KSAT, Ms Solis said congregants began screaming and dropped to the floor. She could see bullets flying into the carpet and fellow worshippers falling down after getting hit.

For a moment, the attack seemed to stop, and worshippers thought police had arrived to confront the gunman, but then he entered the church and resumed "shooting hard" at helpless families, she added.

Gunman Devin Kelley killed himself after the church attack. Photo: Texas Department of Public Safety via AP
Gunman Devin Kelley killed himself after the church attack. Photo: Texas Department of Public Safety via AP

The gunman checked each aisle for more victims, including babies who cried out amid the noise and smoke, Mr Ramirez said.

The couple survived by huddling close to the ground and playing dead. Ms Solis was shot in the arm, and Mr Ramirez was hit by shrapnel.

About 20 other people were wounded.

Investigators collected at least 15 empty magazines that held 30 rounds each at the scene, suggesting the assailant fired at least 450 rounds.

The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic violence that spanned years before the attack and was able to buy weapons because the Air Force did not submit his criminal history to the FBI as required by military rules.

If Kelley's past offences had been properly shared, they would have prevented him from buying a gun, the Air Force acknowledged.

Investigators also revealed that Kelley sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, a member of the church, before the attack, and that officers responded to a domestic violence call in 2014 at his home involving a girlfriend who became his second wife.

Later that year, he was formally ousted from the Air Force for a 2012 assault on his ex-wife in which he choked her and struck her son hard enough to fracture his skull.

President Donald Trump was asked if he would support "extreme vetting" for gun purchases in the same way he has called for "extreme vetting" for people entering the country.

He responded by saying stricter gun control measures might have led to more deaths in the shooting because a bystander who shot at the gunman would not have been armed.

"If he didn't have a gun, instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead," Mr Trump said.

In the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, grieving residents reeled from their losses. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years and included multiple members of some families.

Kelley's mother-in-law sometimes attended services there, but the sheriff said she was not at church on Sunday.

The massacre 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 Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed, and crashed his car.

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

While in the military, 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.

He was discharged for the assault involving his previous wife and her child and had served a year of confinement after a court-martial. Under Pentagon rules, information about convictions of military personnel for crimes such as assault should be submitted to the FBI's Criminal Justice Investigation Services Division.

In 2014, he was charged with animal cruelty in Colorado after a neighbour reported him for beating a dog. He denied abusing the animal but complied with an order to pay almost 370 dollars in restitution.

Kelley lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of the church, and had recently started a job as an unarmed security guard at a nearby resort.

As he left the church, he was confronted by an armed resident - later identified as Stephen Willeford - who had grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with Kelley.

Mr Willeford had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened.

The armed resident 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.

PA Media

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