U.S. troops describe ‘miraculous’ escape at Iraqi base attacked by Iran

By John Davison

AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops at the Iraqi air base that bore the brunt of Iran’s first direct missile attack against U.S. forces said they were shocked by its intensity and grateful to emerge unscathed.

The scale of the damage at the Ain al-Asad base showed Iran’s destructive capability at a time when U.S. officials say they are still concerned that Iran-backed groups across the region could wage attacks on the United States.

“It’s miraculous no one was hurt,” Lt Col Staci Coleman, the U.S. air force officer who runs the airfield, told reporters on Monday at the vast base deep in the western Anbar desert in Iraq, where 1,500 Americans were deployed.

“Who thinks they’re going to have ballistic missiles launched at them … and suffer no casualties?”

The Jan. 8 attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should expect retaliation over the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq the previous week.

The killing raised fears of a new Middle East war, but the United States, Iraq and other countries with troops at the base said no one was hurt. U.S. military leaders have said that was thanks to commanders on the ground, not Tehran’s goodwill.

At one site, a cruise missile had left a large crater and incinerated living quarters made from shipping containers.

Heavy concrete blast walls were knocked over and the shipping containers were smashed and charred along with contents including bicycles, chairs and other furniture. Several soldiers said one of their number had come very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.

Almost a dozen missiles hit the air base, where U.S. forces carried out “scatter plans” to move soldiers and equipment to a range of fortified areas apart from one another.

The United States did not have Patriot air defenses at the base, putting the onus on local commanders to protect their troops.

“We’d got notification there could be an attack a few hours prior so had moved equipment,” said U.S. Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell.

‘IT’S LIKE TERROR’

Lt Col Coleman said that by 10pm all the staff she manages were ready to take cover. “People took this very seriously,” she said.

Three and a half hours later the missiles started arriving. Several soldiers said they continued for two hours.

Staff Sgt Armando Martinez, who had been out in the open to watch for casualties, said he could not believe how easily one missile leveled the concrete blast walls.

“When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror,” he said.

“You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.”

One missile landed on the tarmac of a parking and servicing area for Blackhawk helicopters helping to ferry equipment in the fight against Islamic State insurgents.

The helicopters had been moved but it destroyed two light hangars and badly damaged portacabins nearby.

“We must have been in the bunkers for more than five hours, maybe seven or eight,” said Kenneth Goodwin, Master Sgt in the U.S. Air Force. “They knew what they were aiming at by targeting the airfield and parking area.”

It was the latest strike against an air base that has figured prominently in high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Iraq.

“After these missile attacks, when we hear of possible militia rocket attacks, we tend to think, ‘Oh only rockets … that’s a change’,” Coleman said, describing the common feeling when the missile attacks were over as “sheer relief”.

On Sunday the Iraqi military said four people had been wounded in an attack on Balad air base in northern Iraq, which also houses U.S. personnel. Military sources identified the wounded as Iraqi soldiers.

(Reporting by John Davison; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Goodman)

Exclusive: Air Force to push Congress for military housing tenant bill of rights

FILE PHOTO: Assistant Secretary of Defense For Sustainment Robert McMahon; Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment Alex Beehler; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment Phyllis Bayer; Assistant Secretary of Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy John Henderson testify before Senate Armed Services subcommittees on the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in Washington, U.S. February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

By M.B. Pell and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Aiming to grant military families far greater say to challenge hazardous housing, the U.S. Air Force told Reuters Monday it will push Congress to enact a tenant bill of rights allowing families the power to withhold rent or break leases to escape unsafe conditions.

The proposed measure, outlined in an interview at the Pentagon by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein, follows complaints from military families who say they are often powerless to challenge private industry landlords when they encounter dangerous mold, lead paint and vermin infestations.

“Clearly there are areas where we have issues,” Goldfein said.

Added Secretary Wilson: “That could put a little more leverage into the hands of the renters.”

The Air Force push adds to a drumbeat of reforms to emerge in recent weeks following a Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, that documented shoddy housing conditions at bases nationwide and described how military families are often empowered with fewer rights than civilian tenants.

Wilson said they are working with the Army and Navy to push a tenant bill of rights that would give military families a stronger hand in housing disputes. She wants to strengthen the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law that includes active duty housing protections. As one example, Wilson proposed expanding the act to allow base families to end their lease or withhold rent if their landlords fail to correct health and safety problems.

Beyond that effort, she said wing commanders of each U.S. Air Force base have been directed to inspect all 50,000 privatized family housing units in the force’s portfolio by March 1. She cited housing breakdowns at Air Force bases including Tinker in Oklahoma, Maxwell in Alabama, MacDill in Florida and Keesler in Mississippi.

In addition, she said, the inspector general’s office will launch a review of how Air Force bases respond to housing health and safety complaints.

Last week, the U.S. Army vowed to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting residents. And on Friday, the Army issued a letter directing senior commanders to conduct inspections of all housing within the next 30 days.

The military action plans follow a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this month in which members of Congress sharply questioned private industry landlords and Defense Department leaders over conditions at U.S. bases.

Wilson said the Air Force is also considering working with Congress to renegotiate its contracts with housing companies to allow the service to withhold all incentive fees from low-performing landlords.

(Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

U.S. Air Force missed four chances to stop Texas shooter buying guns

People gather to enter a memorial in the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church where a memorial has been set up to remember those killed there, in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Herskovitz

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force missed four chances to block the shooter in 2017’s deadly church attack in Texas from buying guns after he was accused of violent crimes while in the military, a report by the Department of Defense’s inspector general said on Friday.

Because the Air Force failed to submit Devin Kelley’s fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the former airman was able to clear background checks to buy the guns he used to kill 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

A Reuters investigation last year found that the Air Force missed multiple chances to submit Kelly’s fingerprints into the FBI’s criminal databases after the November 2017 attack.

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of Braunfels, Texas, U.S., involved in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is shown in this undated Texas Department of Safety driver license photo, provided November 6, 2017. Texas Department of Safety/Handout via REUTERS

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of Braunfels, Texas, U.S., involved in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is shown in this undated Texas Department of Safety driver license photo, provided November 6, 2017. Texas Department of Safety/Handout via REUTERS

Kelley, who was 26, was shot by a bystander as he fled and was found dead soon after, having shot himself in the head.

According to the inspector general’s report, the first missed chance came in June 2011, after the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began investigating a report of Kelley beating his stepson while Kelley served at a base in New Mexico.

The second chance came in February 2012, after the Air Force learned of allegations that Kelley was also beating his wife, the report said.

The third was in June 2012, when Kelley confessed on video to injuring his stepson, the report said.

The fourth was after Kelley’s court-martial conviction for the assaults in November 2013.

“If Kelley’s fingerprints were submitted to the FBI, he would have been prohibited from purchasing a firearm from a licensed firearms dealer,” the inspector general’s report said.

Each missed instance was a breach of Department of Defense policy, the report said. Multiple Air Force officials involved in Kelley’s case did not understand these policies or were unable to explain why they were not followed in interviews with the inspector general’s office.

The inspector general recommended that the Air Force improve its training of staff on how to submit fingerprints and to examine whether officials involved in Kelley’s case should face discipline for the lapses.

The Air Force did not respond to a request for comment on Friday morning but confirmed last year it had failed to share Kelley’s information with the FBI.

The inspector general found four occasions after Kelly’s conviction and a subsequent bad-conduct discharge from the military where Kelley bought guns from licensed dealers required to use the background check system.

At least some of those guns were the ones he took to the First Baptist Church, the report said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by David Gregorio)

Exclusive: U.S. military looking at deploying anti-missile system in Germany – sources

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency. U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

By Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) – The U.S. military has held preliminary discussions about moving a powerful missile defense system to Germany to boost European defenses, according to two sources familiar with the issue, a move that experts said could trigger fresh tensions with Moscow.

The tentative proposal to send the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Europe predates U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, and comes amid a broader push to strengthen Europe’s air and missile defenses.

While Europe and the United States are at odds over the fate of the nuclear agreement, they share concerns about Iran’s continued development of ballistic missiles.

Iran’s Shahab 3 missiles can already travel 2,000 km, enough to reach southern Europe, and its Revolutionary Guards have said they will increase the range if threatened since the range is capped by strategic doctrine, not technology constraints.

U.S. European Command has been pushing for a THAAD system inEurope for years, but the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord has added urgency to the issue, said Riki Ellison, head of the non-profit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

A senior German military official cited the need to add more radars across Europe to better track and monitor potential threats, and cue interceptors if needed.

The U.S. Defense Dept said no such action had been decided.

“There are currently no plans to station THAAD systems in Germany. We do not discuss potential future military planning, as we would not want to signal our intent to potential adversaries. Germany remains among our closest partners and strongest allies,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.

Deploying another U.S. defensive system to Europe could reassure NATO allies in southern Europe already within striking range of Iran’s missiles, said one military official from that region.

Talk of deploying a THAAD system in Europe also comes against the backdrop of rising tensions between the West and Russia.

NATO has long insisted that its missile defense program is not directed at Russia, but the alliance has adopted a tougher tone toward Moscow in the wake of the poisoning of a Russian former spy in England.

Moscow denies any involvement in the poisoning, and blames the tensions on NATO’s military expansion eastward, and its assembly of a ballistic missile shield with a key site inRomania that was declared combat-ready in 2016.

Moving THAAD to Germany could plug a radar gap caused by a two-year delay in completion of a second Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Poland that was initially due to open this year.

The issue may be raised in a new Pentagon missile defense review expected in early June. The review may draw a closer connection between missile defense and a need to deter Russia that was highlighted in the new U.S. national defense strategy, said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MESSAGE TO EUROPEAN ALLIES

One U.S. military official said there had been preliminary talks with German military officials on moving a THAAD system to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, headquarters for the U.S. Air Force in Europe and NATO Allied Air Command.

“It would be a further political message to the Europeans that we’re serious about protecting our allies,” said the official. “The initial assessment is that Germany would very likely not have a problem with a THAAD deployment,” U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. EuropeanCommand, last week said he was seeking more troops and equipment to deter Russia, but declined further comment.

A second source said German officials were open to the move as a way to better protect civilian populations.

The German defense ministry is working to rebuild its own short- and medium-range missile defenses after years of cuts.

Starting later this year, it also plans to review territorial missile defense needs in a conceptual study that will also look at THAAD and the Arrow 3 anti-missile system built by Israel and the United States, a spokesman said.

The German foreign ministry, which oversees foreign troops stationed in Germany, said it could not confirm sending any signals about a possible THAAD deployment to the United States.

Washington does not need Germany’s permission to move such equipment under existing basing contracts, but the sources said a formal notification would be sent before any move to proceed.

The THAAD system is built by Lockheed Martin Corp <LMT.N>with a powerful Raytheon Co <RTN.N> AN/TPY-2 radar, to shootdown short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Phil Stewart in Washington and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Tim Hepher and Toby Chopra)

Family sues retailer for sale of gun used in Texas church massacre

Crosses are seen placed at a memorial in memory of the victims killed in the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) – The family of a woman and two children killed when a gunman opened fire in a rural Texas church has sued the store that sold the assault rifle used in the deadliest mass murder in the state’s history, lawyers said on Friday.

The lawsuit filed this week in a state district court in San Antonio seeks at least $25 million from Academy Sports Outdoors, accusing it of being negligent in allowing the sale of the Ruger AR-556 used to kill 26 people at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church on Nov. 5.

The retailer was not immediately available for comment and has previously told media it conducted all the required background checks.

The suit was brought by relatives of Joann Ward, who was fatally shot along with her daughters Emily Garcia and Brooke Ward.

The lawsuit claims that when the gunman, Devin Kelley, purchased the weapon in a San Antonio store, he entered an address in Colorado Springs on the federal Firearms Transaction Record form that needs to be completed before a firearm can be sold.

He obtained the weapon in Texas but it should have been sent to his Colorado residence, where he had been stationed with the U.S. Air Force, the lawsuit said.

“The Ruger should have never been placed in Kelley’s hands in Texas,” Houston Attorney Jason Webster, lead attorney on the case, said in a statement.

Kelley had a court-martial conviction for assault, which should have permanently disqualified him from legally obtaining a gun.

But the Air Force has acknowledged it failed to enter Kelley’s 2012 domestic violence offense into a U.S. government database used by licensed gun dealers for conducting background checks on firearms purchasers.

Another family, several of whose members were killed in the shooting, has filed a negligence claim against the U.S. Air Force over its failure to enter the name into the database.

(Reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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)

 

Texas church shooter sent threatening messages to mother-in-law before rampage

Neighbours who live next to the site of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs are pictured, Texas, U.S. November 6, 2017.

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garcia

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – A man court-martialed by the U.S. Air Force on charges of assaulting his wife and child sent threatening messages to his mother-in-law who sometimes attended the rural Texas church where he fatally shot 26 people, officials said on Monday.

Gunman Devin Patrick Kelley injured another 20 people when he opened fire in the white-steepled First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday. The attack ranks among the five deadliest mass shootings carried out by a single gunman in U.S. history.

As he left the church, Kelley, 26 was confronted by an area resident who shot and wounded him, authorities said. Kelley fled and the resident waved down a passing motorist and they chased the suspect at high speeds.

“This good Samaritan, our Texas hero, flagged down a young man from Seguin, Texas, and they jumped in their vehicle and pursued the suspect,” said Freeman Martin, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Kelley called his father during the chase to say he had been shot and might not survive, officials said. He later crashed his vehicle, shot himself and died, they added. It was not clear if he died of the self-inflicted wound or those sustained in the gunfight, officials said.

Kelley was involved in a domestic dispute with the family of Danielle Shields, a woman he married in 2014, and the situation had flared up, according to officials and official records.

“There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws,” Martin told reporters outside the church on Monday. “The mother-in-law attended the church … she had received threatening text messages from him.”

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said the family members were not in the church during Kelley’s attack.

“I heard that (the in-laws) attended church from time to time,” Tackitt said. “Not on a regular basis.”

Kelley at times had attended services at the church, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters at the scene.

“My understanding is that this depraved madman had worshipped at this church before,” Cruz said.

The attack came about a month after a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas in the deadliest shooting by a lone assailant in modern U.S. history.

The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years.

Ten of the wounded in Texas remained in critical condition on Monday morning, officials said.

 

‘VIOLENT TENDENCIES’

Wearing a black bullet-proof vest and skull mask, Kelley used a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle in the attack, authorities said. They recovered two other weapons, both handguns, from his vehicle.

In rural Texas and in other states, gun ownership is a part of life and Republican leaders for years have balked at gun control, arguing that responsible gun owners can help deter crime.

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott told CBS News there was evidence that Kelley had mental health problems and had been denied a state gun permit.

“It’s clear this is a person who had violent tendencies, who had some challenges,” Abbott said.

A sporting goods chain said Kelley passed background checks when he bought a firearm in 2016 and a second gun in 2017.

Abbott and other Republican politicians said the mass shooting did not influence their support of gun ownership by U.S. citizens – the right to bear arms protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This isn’t a guns situation. I mean we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon,” U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters while on a trip to Asia. “Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise … it would have been much worse.”

Democrats renewed their call to restrict gun ownership.

“How many more people must die at churches or concerts or schools before we stop letting the @NRA control this country’s gun policies,” Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.

Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter that he will travel to Sutherland Springs on Wednesday to meet with victims’ families and law enforcement.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child, and given a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. He was discharged in 2014.

The attack stunned Sutherland Springs, a community of about 400 people with just one blinking yellow traffic light. One family, the Holcombes, lost eight people from three generations in the attack, including Bryan Holcombe, an assistant pastor who was leading the service, a relative said.

John Stiles, a 76-year-old retired U.S. Navy veteran, said he heard the shots from his home about 150 yards (137 m) away: “My wife and I were looking for a peaceful and quiet place when we moved here but now that hasn’t worked out.”

 

(Additional reporting by Jane Ross in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)

 

Texas gunman’s in-laws sometimes attended church, sheriff says

The playground at the site of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 6, 2017.

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garcia

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – A man thrown out of the U.S. Air Force for beating his wife and child shot and killed 26 people in a Texas church where his in-laws had sometimes worshipped before shooting himself, officials said on Monday, in the latest in a string of U.S. mass shootings.

The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, walked into the white-steepled First Baptist Church in rural Sutherland Springs carrying an assault rifle and wearing black tactical gear, then opened fire during a Sunday prayer service. He wounded at least 20 others, officials said.

After he left the church, two local residents, one of whom was armed, chased him in their vehicles and exchanged gunfire, and Kelley crashed his car and shot himself, dying of his wounds, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CBS News in an interview on Monday morning.

“At this time we believe that he had a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Tackitt said.

Tackitt said Kelley’s in-laws sometimes attended services at First Baptist, which was cordoned off by yellow crime-scene tape on Monday morning.

“I heard that they attended church from time to time,” Tackitt told Reuters. “Not on a regular basis.”

The attack came a little more than a month after a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas in the deadliest shooting by a sole gunman in U.S. history.

The initial death toll matched the fatalities at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a man shot and killed 26 children and educators and his mother before taking his own life in December 2012. Those attacks now stand as the fourth deadliest by a single gunman in the United States.

 

‘POWDER KEG’

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott told CBS there was evidence that Kelley had mental health problems and that he had been denied a Texas gun permit.

“It’s clear this is a person who had violent tendencies, who had some challenges, and someone who was a powder keg, seeming waiting to go off,” Abbott said.

Abbott and other Republican leaders were quick to say that the attack did not influence their support of gun ownership by U.S. citizens – the right to bear arms protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This isn’t a guns situation. I mean we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon to go into it,” U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters while on trip to Asia. “But fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise … it would have been much worse. But this is a mental health problem at the highest level.”

Democrats renewed their call to restrict gun ownership following the attack.

“How many more people must die at churches or concerts or schools before we stop letting the @NRA control this country’s gun policies,” Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.

The victims in Sutherland Springs, a community of fewer than 400 people, located about 40 miles (65 km) east of San Antonio, included the 14-year-old daughter of church pastor Frank Pomeroy, the family told several television stations.

A woman prays after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 5, 2017. Nick Wagner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN via REUTERS

A woman prays after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 5, 2017. Nick Wagner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN via REUTERS

One couple, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, told the Washington Post they lost eight extended family members, including a pregnant granddaughter-in-law and three of her children.

In rural areas like Sutherland Springs, gun ownership is a part of life and the state’s Republican leaders for years have balked at gun control, arguing that more firearms among responsible owners make the state safer.

John Stiles, a 76-year-old retired U.S. Navy veteran, said he heard the shots from his home about 150 yards (137 m) from the church.

“The wind was blowing and there was a bang, bang, bang. It was the gunshots,” Stiles said. “My wife and I were looking for a peaceful and quiet place when we moved here but now that hasn’t worked out.”

Kelley served in its Logistics Readiness unit at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014, according to the U.S. Air Force.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child, and given a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

Kelley’s Facebook page has been deleted, but cached photos show a profile picture where he appeared with two small children. He also posted a photo of what appeared to be an assault rifle, writing a post that read: “She’s a bad bitch.”

 

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Phil Stewart in Washington, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jeffrey Benkoe)

 

SpaceX rocket lifts off on first launch for U.S. military

SpaceX rocket lifts off on first launch for U.S. military

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Florida on Monday, carrying the company’s first satellite for the U.S. military, and breaking a 10-year monopoly held by a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The 23-story tall rocket took off from its seaside launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT.)

It will put into orbit a classified satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an agency within the Defense Department that operates the nation’s spy satellites.

Nine minutes after takeoff, the rocket’s main section touched down on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA’s spaceport.

Last month, Space Exploration Technologies Corp flew its first recovered booster on a second mission, a key step in company founder Elon Musk’s quest to cut launch costs.

The National Reconnaissance Office bought SpaceX’s launch services via a contract with Ball Aerospace, a Colorado-based satellite and instrument builder. The terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Musk battled for years to break the monopoly on the military’s launch business held by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force in 2014 over its exclusive multibillion-dollar contract with United Launch Alliance. The company later dropped the suit after the military agreed to open more launch contacts to competitive bidding.

SpaceX has since won two launch contracts from the Air Force to send up Global Positioning System satellites in 2018 and 2019.

Monday’s launch was the 34th mission for SpaceX and the fifth of more than 20 flights planned for this year.

The privately owned firm, based in Hawthorne, California,  has a backlog of more than 70 missions, worth about $10 billion.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)