Nation

Texas church gunman once escaped from mental health center

On Tuesday, mourners visited a temporary memorial outside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where an unborn child and 25 others died in a massacre.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
On Tuesday, mourners visited a temporary memorial outside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where an unborn child and 25 others died in a massacre.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The gunman who carried out the massacre of 26 people at a Texas church briefly escaped from a mental health center in New Mexico in 2012 and got in trouble for bringing guns onto a military base and threatening his superiors there, police reports indicate.

Devin Patrick Kelley was also named as a suspect in a 2013 sexual assault in his hometown of New Braunfels, 35 miles from the church attack.

Records that emerged Tuesday add up to at least three missed opportunities for law enforcement to stop Kelley from having access to guns long before he slaughtered much of the congregation in the middle of a Sunday service. Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders and crashed his car.

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The Air Force confirmed Tuesday that Kelley had been treated in the facility after he was placed under pretrial confinement stemming from a court-martial on charges that he assaulted his spouse and hit her child hard enough to fracture the boy’s skull.

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Involuntary commitment to a mental institution would have been grounds to deny him a weapon, provided that records of his confinement were submitted to the federal database used to conduct background checks on people who try to purchase guns.

Kelley was also caught trying to bring guns onto Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico when he was stationed there, according to an El Paso, Texas, police report.

While in the military, Kelley, 21 at the time, made death threats against officers, according to the June 2012 report, which also mentioned the military charges. He was eventually sentenced to 12 months of confinement for the assault.

The Air Force acknowledged Monday that it did not enter Kelley’s criminal history into the federal database, as required by military rules. Had he been convicted of sexual assault, he would likely have been prevented from purchasing a gun because federal guidelines prohibit sales to anyone convicted of a felony punishable by more than one year in prison. The Comal County sheriff said he was reviewing whether his department mishandled the sexual assault investigation.

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Officers recovered a Ruger AR-556 rifle at the church and two handguns in the shooter’s vehicle, said Fred Milanowski, agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Houston. All three weapons were purchased by Kelley, he said.

Academy Sports & Outdoors confirmed Monday that it had sold Kelley two guns.

The El Paso report notes Kelley was committed to a mental health facility in Santa Teresa, N.M., but escaped and was later found by police at a bus station in El Paso in June 2012.

Comal County Sheriff Mark Reynolds said it appeared deputies investigated the rape case for three months after being called to Kelley’s home in June 2013, but stopped investigating after they believed Kelley had moved to Colorado. The case was then listed as inactive.

Reynolds said he was trying to find out how deputies came to believe Kelley had moved and why they did not pursue the case, in Colorado or after Kelley returned to the area. Deputies were called to the same house in February 2014 to investigate a domestic violence report involving Kelley and Danielle Shields, his girlfriend at the time, whom he married two months later. ‘‘The last information that we have is the suspect moved to Colorado and then the investigation seems to have tapered off,’’ Reynolds said Tuesday. ‘‘That’s what we’re looking into.’’

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The Comal County district attorney said she became aware of the sexual assault case Monday, before the records were released to the media. ‘‘That case was never presented to our office,’’ Jennifer Tharp said.

Meanwhile, at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, investigators continued analyzing a gruesome crime scene and were trying to gain access to the shooter’s cellphone.

The phone was flown to an FBI lab, said Christopher Combs, in charge of the agency’s San Antonio division.

The inability to access the phone immediately highlights a longstanding frustration of the FBI, which said it has been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices it tried to access in less than a year.

Authorities aimed to conclude the crime-scene investigation by Wednesday. They have no reason to believe anyone conspired with Kelley, said Texas Department of Public Safety regional director Freeman Martin. He repeated earlier statements that the shooting appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law.

Also Tuesday, the authorities said the death toll of 26 included a fetus.