Charleston mass shooting victims can sue U.S. over gun purchase: court

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof sits in the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Survivors of a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church can sue the U.S. government over its alleged negligence in allowing Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-Americans, a federal appeals court said on Friday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was not immune from liability under either the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) or the Brady Act to prevent handgun violence.

Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel revived 16 lawsuits that challenged lapses in how the government vetted prospective gun purchasers, including the FBI’s management of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William Wilkins, a former chief judge of the 4th Circuit representing the victims, said Congress had charged the FBI with adopting procedures “to stop people like Roof who could obtain assassins’ weapons” from doing so.

“The government has to do what the law requires,” Wilkins said in an interview. “It failed to do that in this case.”

Roof, a white supremacist, had been admitted to a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, where he then used his .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol in the shooting.

Victims said a proper background check would have shown that Roof had recently admitted to drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the gun from a federally licensed dealer two months earlier.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court that no one disputed that a proper check would have stopped Roof.

But he said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston was wrong to dismiss the lawsuits on immunity grounds in June 2018, even as Gergel faulted the government’s “abysmally poor policy choices” in managing the background check system.

Gregory said the case turned on the NICS examiner’s alleged negligence in disregarding mandatory procedures. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.

Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee partially dissented, saying the government was not immune from Brady Act claims, but that Gergel properly dismissed the FTCA case.

Roof, now 25, was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on 33 federal counts related to the shooting, including hate crimes. He pleaded guilty three months later to state murder charges, and was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms without parole.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

Five dead, four wounded in shooting at Catholic cathedral in Brazil

General view of the Catholic cathedral where a gunman opened fire to the faithful, in Campinas, Brazil, December 11, 2018 REUTERS/Ricardo Lima

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – A gunman entered a Catholic cathedral in the Brazilian city of Campinas on Tuesday and fatally shot four people attending midday mass before killing himself at the altar, fire department officials said.

Four elderly people were seriously wounded by the man, who began shooting at the congregation with two guns, according to a spokesman with the fire department in Campinas, an industrial city 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Sao Paulo, where the shooting took place.

“It was frightful,” witness Alexandre Moraes told the GloboNews channel. “He entered and shot randomly at people. They were all praying.”

The wounded were taken to a hospital in Campinas.

Firemen at the scene said they had not identified the gunman.

Brazil had nearly 64,000 murders last year – more than any other country, according to the United Nations. However, random mass shootings are relatively rare, with few American-style shootings in schools or other public areas.

(Reporting by Tatiana Ramil and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Bill Trott)

Texas church reopens as solemn memorial to shooting victims

Texas church reopens as solemn memorial to shooting victims

By Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – The modest Texas church where a gunman massacred more than two dozen worshipers last week reopened as a memorial on Sunday, giving the public its first glimpse of the site where one of the most shocking mass shootings in U.S. history unfolded.

Signs of the rampage that officials said took 26 lives and wounded 20 others were muted at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs after a weeklong effort to transform its devastated sanctuary into a shrine honoring the deceased.

All the pews, carpets and church equipment had been removed, and the floors were still sticky from fresh coats of paint. The windows were painted over in swirling watercolors.

White, wooden folding chairs were placed in no regular pattern throughout the church, with each marking the precise spot where a victim’s body was found. A single rose, decorated with white ribbon, graced every seat, with the victim’s name written in gold cursive script on its back along with a cross painted in red.

As members of the media were escorted four at a time through the chapel, a recorded voice could be heard reading verses of scripture. Outside, as a steady rain fell, about 100 family members and others waited to pay their respects.

Construction crews worked around the clock for 72 hours to make the church “presentable to those families,” Associate Pastor Mark Collins said.

Earlier, Pastor Frank Pomeroy led a gathering of about 500 in Sunday services held in a tent erected in a muddy athletic field, a short walk from the church.

“We have the freedom to take that building that was attacked, transform it through the love of God and into a memorial to remind everyone so that we will never forget – love never fails,” the pastor said.

Pomeroy was out of town at the time of the attack, but his 14-year-old daughter was among those killed by Devin Kelley, a former U.S. Air Force officer thrown out of the service after his conviction in 2012 for assaulting his wife and stepson. After the massacre, Kelley killed himself.

“The media is amazed that we are not angry, that we are not calling for this or that,” Pomeroy told congregants with an air of defiance mixed with visible grief. “Folks, we have the freedom to choose, and rather than choose darkness, as one young man did that day, I say we choose light.”

The congregation gave thunderous applause. Some waved Bibles in the air. Near the back stood a dozen bikers from a nearby chapter of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders.

The members of the church will make a decision “in the far future” about whether to demolish the structure, Collins said. Some families have said they never want to step foot in the building again, he said.

In the meantime, it will serve as a memorial open to the public on Monday through Friday. Regular Sunday services will resume in a temporary structure set up somewhere on church property.

(Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Frank McGurty; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

In grieving Texas town, faith sustains those left behind

A member of the media walks inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

By Tim Reid

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – Joe Holcombe and his wife, Claryce, lost eight members of their family in the Texas church shooting last Sunday, including their son, grandchildren, a pregnant granddaughter-in-law and a great- granddaughter who was still a toddler. But they are serene.

Chairs and roses mark where worshipers were found dead at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

Chairs and roses mark where worshipers were found dead at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“It’s just not a problem to us,” said Holcombe, 86, adding that he and 84-year-old Claryce believe their dead family members are now alive again in heaven.

“We know exactly where the family is, and it’s not going to be long until we’ll both be there,” he said. “And we’re really sort of looking forward to it.”

Chairs and roses show where Joann and Brooke Ward and others were found dead at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

Chairs and roses show where Joann and Brooke Ward and others were found dead at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The Holcombes were upbeat and full of good humor during a telephone interview, and they are not an exception in this deeply evangelical part of Texas.

What is so striking about relatives and friends of the 26 victims of the church shooting in tiny Sutherland Springs is that they all believe good will come from this act of evil and that their loved ones are now safe for eternity, and breathing again, with God.

Psychologists say such deep faith can help families deal with such a ghastly event. Even so, they warn that leaning too heavily on one’s religious beliefs can stunt the natural grieving period and result in post-traumatic stress later.

A cross with a crown of thorns and a Bible open to the book of Proverbs are seen at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

A cross with a crown of thorns and a Bible open to the book of Proverbs are seen at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“I can see potentially it could be some form of denial, a delayed traumatic reaction, and if you don’t have some kind of negative feelings, it can catch up with you,” said clinical psychologist and trauma expert Bethany Brand.

Gina Hassan, a psychologist in northern California, said Sutherland Spring’s faith was invaluable in the wake of the shooting, “but if it’s relied upon in a rigid way, then it’s going to be a problem down the line and come back to bite you later on.”

Local veterinarian George Hill, a relative of the Holcombes, said an evangelical belief in Christ was the only way to deal with such a tragedy.

“We haven’t lost hope,” he said. “They are not gone. They are just gone ahead. And we know we’ll see them again.”

He expressed faith that evil would not prevail. “It looks like evil won, but it didn’t,” he said. “Good is going to win.”

Pastor Mike Clements of the First Baptist Church in Floresville, a small city 14 miles from Sutherland Springs, is officiating over the funeral services for the extended Holcombe family on Wednesday.

The dead include Bryan Holcombe, Joe and Claryce Holcombe’s son, and his wife Karla. Their son Danny Holcombe was killed as well, along with his 18-month-old daughter, Noah. Crystal Holcombe, who was 18 weeks pregnant, was Bryan and Karla Holcombe’s daughter-in-law.

Also shot and killed were Emily, Megan and Greg Hill, three children from Crystal’s first marriage, which had ended with her husband’s death.

Under Texas law, Crystal’s unborn child is also being counted as a victim, making a death toll of nine for the family.

People in Sutherland Springs are truly grieving, Clements said. But evangelicals accept Christ into their lives in a very real way, and because of that, their faith is incredibly liberating, especially at a time of such great tragedy.

Most fundamentally, he said, they believe people who have accepted Christ will go to heaven.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Clements said over lunch near his church. “There is nothing better than heaven when you are a believer.”

 

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Pastor may demolish Texas church where massacre took place

Workers make repairs and paint the site of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 9, 2017

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – The pastor of a rural Texas church sprayed with gunfire in a shooting rampage that killed 26 people is considering demolishing the building and putting a memorial in its place, a Southern Baptist Convention official said on Thursday.

Devin Kelley, the 26-year-old gunman, stormed into the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church on Sunday and opened fire on worshipers with a semi-automatic assault rifle in the deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history. Authorities said the attack stemmed from a domestic dispute.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy met with Southern Baptist Convention leaders, who came to help console victims, and “expressed his desire to raze the building,” convention spokesman Roger Oldham said in a telephone interview.

The white-steepled church, located about 40 miles east (65 km) of San Antonio, was riddled with bullets.

The building can hold about 75 people. Pomeroy said using it again could be emotionally painful, according to Oldham.

After making a statement on the shooting on Monday, Pomeroy has declined requests to speak with the media.

Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were out of town during the shooting, which killed their 14-year-old daughter. The pastor is considering planting a memorial garden on the site, Oldham said.

A worship service will take place on Sunday in Sutherland Springs behind a community center not far from the church, Sherri Pomeroy posted on Facebook on Thursday.

The service will “show the world that we may be knocked down temporarily but WE ARE NOT DEFEATED,” she wrote. “Please come help us honor their lives doing what they died for: worshipping our sovereign God!”Authorities have said Kelley, found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after a failed attempt to make his getaway, was embroiled in a domestic dispute involving the parents of his second wife.

One of the women killed at the church, Lula Woicinski White, 71, was reported to be the gunman’s grandmother-in-law.

Kelley is a former Air Force airman who was convicted in 2012 by court-martial for assaulting his first wife and infant step-son. He served a year in military detention.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Texas Governor Greg Abbott were among those who attended a prayer vigil on Wednesday evening at a high school football stadium in nearby Floresville.

 

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in San Antonio; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Air Force missed at least two chances to stop Texas shooter buying guns

Crosses are seen placed at a memorial in memory of the victims killed in the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 8, 2017.

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force missed at least two chances to block the shooter in last weekend’s deadly church attack in Texas from buying guns after he was accused of a violent offense in 2012, according to current and former government officials and a review of military documents.

A third opportunity to flag shooter Devin Kelley was lost two years later by a twist of bad luck when a Pentagon inspection of cases narrowly missed the former airman.

The Air Force said on Monday it had failed to provide information as required about Kelley’s criminal history to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s criminal databases. It gave few other details about the omission.

A review of Department of Defense procedures by Reuters shows that the military twice should have flagged Kelley, then serving at a New Mexico base, after he was accused of repeatedly beating his wife and stepson.

If Pentagon rules had been followed, the Air Force should have put Kelley into national criminal databases used for background checks soon after he was charged.

The Air Force should then have flagged Kelley, 26, again later that year after his court-martial conviction for assault, which permanently disqualified him from legally getting a gun.

When presented with this account of how the FBI was not alerted about Kelley, Air Force officials confirmed the procedures that should have happened.

“That is what the investigation is looking at now,” Brooke Brzozowske, an Air Force spokeswoman, said. The FBI confirmed it never received Kelley’s records.

Kelley bought guns from a store in Texas in 2016 and 2017, although it is not clear whether these were the weapons he used last Sunday to attack churchgoers in Sutherland Springs before killing himself. Authorities said he killed 26 people, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child.

If the Air Force had flagged Kelley to the FBI either when he was charged and convicted, he would have been unable to get a gun legally.

Reuters has been unable to determine exactly how or why Kelley’s records were not shared.

Kelley also narrowly slipped through the system in 2014 when the Pentagon’s inspector general told the Air Force it was routinely failing to send criminal records to the FBI, and urged them to correct this in some old cases like Kelley’s

The then inspector general, Jon Rymer, raised the alarm with the military.

He looked at 358 convictions against Air Force employees between June 2010, and October 2012. In about a third of those cases, fingerprints and court-martial outcomes were wrongly not relayed to the FBI, the inspector general’s report said.

Rymer recommended that the Air Force send what missing fingerprints and records it could from his sample period to the FBI, and the Air Force agreed. But Kelley was convicted in November 2012, a week after the sample period ended, and it appears that his case was never looked at again.

The inspector general’s office said it was investigating what happened with Kelley’s file, and suggested that the military should have done more after its report to correct errors in sharing information.

“Our recommendations, while directed at the period that was reviewed and future investigations, also applied to the entire system,” said Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office.

 

FIRST MISTAKE

According to statements from the Air Force and FBI and a review of Defense Department rules, the first mistake came when the Air Force failed to send along Kelley’s fingerprints.

The military makes it mandatory to collect fingerprints when someone is accused of a serious crime such as assault, as Kelley was in June 2012.

By then, the U.S. military had recently switched to using the FBI’s automated records-submission system for all fingerprints, which digitally scans prints and adds them to FBI databases.

It was not clear what happened to Kelley’s fingerprints. The Air Force said it was investigating whether they were even taken.

Entering his fingerprints and other information in the FBI’s so-called Interstate Identification Index (III) would have been enough to flag Kelley as needing further investigation in 2016 when he tried to buy a gun at a San Antonio store.

“When they hit on a record like that they delay the transaction,” said Frank Campbell, a former Justice Department employee who helped develop the FBI’s background check system that licensed gun dealers must consult before a potential sale.

The FBI would then have asked the Air Force the outcome of Kelley’s case. The airman was convicted of a crime involving domestic violence that carries a maximum penalty of more than one year in prison, both of which disqualify a person from buying guns and ammunition under federal law.

The FBI could have then added Kelley’s name to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Indices (NICS Indices), which would mean he would instantly fail future background checks.

Instead, Kelley cleared the background check and walked out of the store with a gun, and returned the following year, passed another background check and bought a second one, the store said.

According to Defense Department rules, the Air Force should have caught its error after Kelley’s court-martial ended when it was obliged to notify the FBI that Kelley had been convicted, and that his crime involved domestic violence

The FBI said on Wednesday it had no record in its three databases for background checks, including the III database and the NICS Indices, of ever receiving information from the Air Force about Kelley’s conviction.

Air Force officials said it was the responsibility of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the force’s law enforcement agency, to take fingerprints and share any necessary information with the FBI, and it was not immediately clear why it had not.

 

(Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Alistair Bell)

 

FBI may have lost critical time unlocking Texas shooter’s iPhone

FBI may have lost critical time unlocking Texas shooter's iPhone

By Stephen Nellis and Dustin Volz

SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For about 48 hours after a deadly rampage at a Texas church, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies did not ask Apple Inc to help them unlock the gunman’s iPhone or associated online accounts, a person familiar with the situation told Reuters on Wednesday.

A cellphone belonging to Devin Kelley – accused of killing 26 people on Sunday before taking his own life – was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Quantico, Virginia, crime lab because authorities could not unlock it, Christopher Combs, head of the FBI’s San Antonio field office, said on Tuesday.

Combs did not specify what kind of phone Kelley had during the attack in Sutherland Springs, Texas, but a second person familiar with the situation confirmed to Reuters that it was an iPhone.

The first source said that in the 48 hours between the shooting and Combs’ news conference, Apple had received no requests from federal, state or local law enforcement authorities for technical assistance with Kelley’s phone or his associated online accounts at Apple.

The delay may prove important. If Kelley had used a fingerprint to lock his iPhone, Apple could have told officials they could use the dead man’s finger to unlock his device, so long as the phone had not been powered off and restarted.

But iPhones locked with a fingerprint ask for the user’s pass code after 48 hours if they have not been unlocked by then.

Officials also could have asked for data from Kelley’s iCloud online storage account if he had one. If Apple receives a warrant or court order, it will give law enforcement authorities iCloud data, as well as the keys needed to decrypt it.

If an iPhone user backs up an iPhone using iCloud, the online data can contain texts, photographs and other information from the phone.

The first Reuters source said the FBI had yet to ask as of Wednesday for assistance unlocking the device. It could not be learned whether Apple had received a court order to turn over iCloud account data. It also could not be learned whether the FBI had tried to use Kelley’s fingerprint and failed to unlock his phone despite not contacting Apple.

The FBI declined to comment when asked about the type of phone used by Kelly. A spokeswoman referred to Combs’ news conference on Tuesday.

The FBI has criticized Apple for how difficult it is to obtain data from its devices when they are locked. The phones contain a so-called “secure enclave” that makes it difficult to crack their encryption, and too many errant attempts to unlock an iPhone can erase all data.

The FBI challenged Apple in court over access to an iPhone after a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, in which a couple authorities said was inspired by Islamic State killed 14 people. The couple died in a shootout with police hours after the massacre. An iPhone 5C, recovered by authorities, did not have a fingerprint sensor.

The legal issues in the case were never settled because the FBI found third-party software that allowed it to crack the device.

But federal authorities were accused of missteps in unlocking the San Bernardino phone.

Last year, Apple executives who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity criticized government officials who reset the Apple identification associated with the phone, which closed off the possibility of recovering information from it through the automatic cloud backup.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco and Dustin Volz and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Weber, Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)

Pence pays tribute to fallen and heroes from Texas massacre

Pence pays tribute to fallen and heroes from Texas massacre

By Jon Herskovitz

FLORESVILLE, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence traveled on Wednesday to rural southeastern Texas, where he paid tribute to the victims and heroes from a church massacre that stands as the deadliest gun violence ever committed in a U.S. place of worship.

Pence and his wife, Karen, were welcomed with cheers and applause from as many as 2,000 people who filled half of a high school football stadium in Floresville, Texas, for the prayer vigil, about 13 miles from the scene of Sunday’s carnage in the town of Sutherland Springs.

“We gather tonight to offer our deepest condolences, and I offer the condolences of the American people to all those affected by the horrific attack that took place just three days ago,” Pence told the crowd.

The vice president was joined by a group of dignitaries that included Governor Greg Abbott, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Pence was called upon to fill the role of America’s “consoler-in-chief” in the absence of President Donald Trump, who has been out of the country on a state visit to Asia since before the shooting rampage.

“President Trump wanted to come to Texas tonight to tell all of you, ‘We are with you, the American people are with you,’ and as the president said Sunday from halfway around the world, ‘we will never leave your side,'” Pence said to rousing applause.

Earlier, he met with wounded survivors and family members of the victims. Authorities have put the death toll at 26, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who was among those killed. The number of children slain at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs otherwise stood at eight.

“Whatever animated the evil that descended on that church last Sunday, if the attacker’s desire was to silence their testimony of faith, he failed,” Pence said to cheers.

The killer, Devin Kelley, 26, dressed in black and wearing a human-skull mask, stormed into the church sanctuary and opened fire on worshipers with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Kelley himself was shot twice by another man, Stephen Willeford, who lived nearby and confronted the assailant with his own rifle when the gunman emerged from the church.

Kelley managed to flee the scene in a getaway vehicle but shot himself to death and crashed in a ditch as Willeford and a passing motorist who was flagged down outside the church, Johnnie Langendorff, gave chase in Langendorff’s pickup truck.

Pence saluted the police, emergency personnel and doctors who had tended to the wounded, as well as the bravery of “those Texas heroes” – Willeford and Langendorff – who “pursued the attacker in a high-speed chase and saved the lives of Americans as a result.” Pence said he had met Willeford and Langendorff before Wednesday’s memorial service.

Preceding Pence to the microphone, Governor Abbott also praised Willeford, drawing a standing ovation when he declared, “Thank God there was a neighbor who helped save lives on that day.”

The comments from both politicians were enthusiastically received by the crowd.

“It was beyond good. People were hungry for what they were saying,” Beverly Perez, a retiree from nearby Adkins, Texas. “The community is rallying around those who are hurting. We hurt with them.”

No mention by name was made of Kelley, a former Air Force Airman who was convicted by court-martial and served a year in military detention for assaulting his first wife and infant step-son in 2012. Police records show he also escaped briefly from a mental hospital in New Mexico while facing those charges.

Authorities have said Kelley was more recently embroiled in a domestic dispute involving the parents of his second wife and threatening messages he had sent to his mother-in-law.

One of the women killed at the church, Lula Woicinski White, 71, was reported to be the gunman’s grandmother-in-law.

Reflecting lingering tensions in the aftermath of Sunday’s rampage, police were called to a park in Floresville about 2 1/2 hours before the prayer vigil by an unconfirmed report of a man with a gun. But a search of the park and adjacent cemetery by about 15 officers turned found no sign of an actual threat.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sam Holmes)

A Texas school is devastated by church shooting

A Texas school is devastated by church shooting

By Lisa Maria Garza and Jon Herskovitz

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – It was heartbreaking for Jennifer Berrones to explain to her 7-year-old daughter Kaylee that her friend and classmate Emily was not coming back to school after Sunday’s church massacre in rural Texas.

“At first my daughter didn’t understand what had happened. She asked me if Emily was sleeping and I had to tell her that she was never going to wake up,” said Berrones, 36, an assistant at Floresville South Elementary School where her daughter and Emily Garcia were in second grade. “I told my daughter that Emily is now with God in heaven.”

Floresville is about 11 miles (18 km) southwest of the small town of Sutherland Springs, where Devin Kelley opened fire on a Baptist congregation on Sunday, killing 26 people and wounding 20 in Texas’ deadliest mass shooting. Nine of the dead were children, including one unborn, Texas officials said on Wednesday.

Many of Sutherland Springs’ children go to school in Floresville, and no school was harder hit than Floresville South Elementary, which lost two students and had three wounded, according to Floresville’s school superintendent.

On the school’s Facebook page, smiling students wearing black T-shirts saying “Strength through Hope” in comic-book script put on defiant superhero poses next to their teachers.

But inside the school the mood has been grim.

“The first few days were rough. Teachers, students and the principal were crying,” Berrones said on Wednesday.

Schools have brought in counselors to help children and staff deal with the grief and trauma. Some students like Alison Gould, 17, have been unable to face going back to school.

“I have been taking it really hard. I am trying to get this sunk in. It is really hard to think that your best friend is gone,” said Gould, after her friend Haley Krueger, 16, was killed.

Floresville High School hosted a memorial service on Wednesday evening for the victims attended by Vice President Mike Pence.

It was part of a long and painful healing process for a group of tightly knit rural communities about 40 miles (64 km)southeast of San Antonio.

Sutherland Springs lost about 5 percent of its population of 400. The town’s children go to school in nearby communities.

The official release of the names of the dead on Wednesday changed rumors to facts and brought more pain, residents said.

“We may need more grief counselors,” Stockdale Independent School District Superintendent Daniel Fuller said.

Mary Beth Fisk, chief executive of the San Antonio-based Ecumenical Center, has brought about 20 counselors to Sutherland Springs.

“It will be a long process of recovery. Often people take one step forward and three steps back,” Fisk said.

Sandy Phillips knows that process. Her daughter Jessica was one of 12 people killed when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012.

Phillips set up a support group for survivors of mass shootings and plans to visit Sutherland Springs next week to help families.

“What they don’t understand is that their whole community has been damaged and traumatized,” said Phillips, who traveled to Las Vegas and Orlando in the wake of mass shootings in those cities.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Garza; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Grant McCool)

Texas church gunman escaped mental facility in 2012 while facing court-martial

Texas church gunman escaped mental facility in 2012 while facing court-martial

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – The former U.S. serviceman who committed the deadliest mass shooting on record in Texas escaped from a mental hospital in 2012 as he faced court-martial on domestic violence charges for which he was later convicted, a police report revealed on Tuesday.

The report also disclosed that police who were alerted to Devin Kelley’s escape were advised that he posed a “danger to himself and others” after being “caught sneaking firearms” onto the U.S. Air Force base in New Mexico where he was stationed.

The person who reported the escape, according to the report, further warned that Kelley, then aged 21, had been “attempting to carry out death threats” against his military commanders and “suffered from mental disorders.”

He was apprehended without incident at an El Paso, Texas, bus station shortly after he had run off, according to a police report filed in that city.

Kelley’s troubled Air Force background has been a focus of investigators in the tiny Texas town of Sutherland Springs since he stormed into a church there on Sunday with a semi-automatic assault rifle and opened fire on worshipers.

Authorities have said 26 people were killed in the assault, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who was among the dead. Another 20 people were wounded, half of them still listed in critical condition as of Tuesday.

Officials said Kelley, 26, killed himself during a failed getaway attempt after he was wounded by an armed civilian who tried to stop him. Two handguns belonging to the killer also were recovered.

A major sporting goods dealer in San Antonio later confirmed that Kelley twice passed a required criminal background check when he bought guns there during the past year, despite having a criminal record that should have prevented those purchases.

Kelley was found guilty by court-martial in 2012 of assaulting his first wife and a stepson while serving at Holloman Air Force Base, where he was assigned to a logistics readiness unit, the Pentagon reported on Monday.

But the Air Force also acknowledged it inexplicably failed to enter his conviction into a government database that all licensed firearms dealers are required to use to screen prospective gun buyers for their criminal history.

Federal law prohibits anyone from selling a gun to someone who has been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, called the failure to transmit Kelley’s record into the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) system an “appalling” lapse.

The Air Force has opened an inquiry into the matter, and the U.S. Defense Department has requested a review by its inspector general to ensure other criminal cases have been reported correctly, Pentagon officials said.

Two U.S. senators, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, said they planned to co-sponsor legislation aimed at ensuring that anyone convicted of domestic violence, whether in civilian or military court, would be blocked from legally purchasing a gun.

Firearms experts said the case involving Kelley, who spent a year in military detention before his bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014, exposed a previously unnoticed weak link in the system of background checks.

BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS AS STUDENT

Texas public school records also showed Kelley had numerous behavior problems as a student, including nine suspensions for such issues as drugs, insubordination, profanity, skipping classes and dishonesty between sixth grade and high school graduation.

His private adult life appears to have likewise been marked by turbulence.

After divorcing the woman he was convicted of assaulting, Kelley remarried in 2014, but authorities have said he became embroiled in some unspecified domestic dispute with her parents that involved him sending threatening text messages to his mother-in-law.

Kelley’s in-laws occasionally attended services at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs but were not there when he attacked worshipers during Sunday prayers, authorities said.

“We have some indication of what the conflict was between the family,” Freeman Martin, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told a Tuesday news conference. It was not clear what role, if any, the dispute played as a motivating factor in Sunday’s violence.

Kelley’s cell phone was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab at Quantico, Virginia, but specialists were not immediately able to gain electronic access to the device, said Christopher Combs, the FBI’s special agent in charge in San Antonio.

The massacre, which ranked as the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in Texas history, and one of the five most lethal ever in the United States, rekindled an ongoing debate over gun ownership, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Guns are part of the fabric of life in rural areas.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters he believed stricter reviews of gun purchases would not have stopped Sunday’s rampage.

“There would have been no difference,” Trump said during a visit to South Korea. He added that stricter gun laws might have prevented the man who shot Kelley from acting as he did. “You would have had hundreds more dead.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New York, Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Idrees Ali traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)