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Texas church gunman sent hostile text messages before attack

Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

A man at the shooting scene wiped his eyes.

By Jim Vertuno, Will Weissert and Paul J. Weber Associated Press 

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church had a history of domestic violence and sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, a member of First Baptist, before the attack, authorities said Monday.

A day after the deadliest mass shooting in state history, investigators revealed that deputies had responded to a domestic violence call in 2014 at Devin Patrick Kelley’s home involving a girlfriend who became his second wife. Later that year, he was formally ousted from the Air Force for assaulting his ex-wife and a child in 2012.

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Trump administration officials say the Air Force failed to report Kelley’s domestic violence conviction to the federal database that is used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers, even though it was required to do so by Pentagon rules.

It’s the kind of lapse that gun-control advocates say points to loopholes and failures with the background check system.

At issue is the Lautenberg Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1996. It was designed to prohibit people convicted of domestic violence from buying or possessing a firearm regardless of whether the crime was a felony or a misdemeanor.

‘‘This is exactly the guy the Lautenberg Amendment is supposed to prevent from possessing a firearm,’’ said Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former judge advocate. ‘‘Of course, the law only works if folks are abiding by the law.’’

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email that the service is launching a review of its handling of Kelley’s case and taking a comprehensive look at Air Force databases to make sure other cases have been reported correctly.

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Law enforcement authorities said Kelley owned four guns, including the three he had with him during the attack: a Ruger AR-15 that was used in the church and two handguns that were in his car. The weapons were purchased — one each year — from 2014 to this year.

Authorities say they have collected hundreds of shell casings and 15 magazines that hold 30 rounds each at the First Baptist Church.

As of Monday evening, authorities say 10 victims remained in critical condition and four were in serious condition.

In the tiny town 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.

‘‘Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family,’’ said Sherri Pomeroy, the wife of the church pastor, who was out of town with her husband when the attack happened. ‘‘Now most of our church family is gone.’’

The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.

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

Texas Department of Public Safety via AP

Devin Kelley.

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. He did not elaborate.

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.

An official said Kelley had three gunshot wounds: one self-inflicted to his head, and two from an armed citizen — one in his leg and one in his torso.

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

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

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 had served a year of confinement after a 2012 court-martial.

When sheriff’s deputies went to his home to check out the 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.

Also in 2014, he was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty in Colorado after a neighbor reported him for beating a dog. Kelley initially refused to speak with officers about the incident. He denied abusing the animal but complied with an order to pay almost $370 in restitution. He was also the focus of a protective order issued in Colorado in 2015.

Once the shooting started, there was probably ‘‘no way’’ for congregants to escape, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said.

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

About 20 other people were wounded. Ten of them were still hospitalized Monday in critical condition.

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.

On Sunday, the attacker pulled into a gas station across from the church, about 30 miles (48.28 kilometers) southeast 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, Martin said.

As he left, the shooter was confronted by an armed resident who had grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with Kelley.

The armed man who confronted Kelley had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. The armed man asked to get in 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,’’’ Langendorff said.

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

The assailant was dead in his vehicle.

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

Church member Nick Uhlig, 34, who was not at Sunday’s service, told the AP 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 also were slain.

Three weapons were recovered. A Ruger AR-556 rifle was found at the church, and two handguns were recovered from the gunman’s vehicle, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The assailant did not have a license to carry a concealed handgun, Martin said.

The church has posted videos of its Sunday services on a YouTube channel, and authorities said they were reviewing footage recorded inside the church.

In a video of its Oct. 8 service, a congregant pointed to the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting a week earlier as evidence of the ‘‘wicked nature’’ of man. That shooting left 58 dead and more than 500 injured.

Sunday’s attack came on the eighth anniversary of a shooting at Fort Hood, between Austin and Waco, where 13 people were killed and 31 others wounded by a former Army major.

The previous deadliest mass shooting in Texas had been a 1991 attack in Killeen, when a mentally disturbed man crashed his pickup truck through a restaurant window at lunchtime and started shooting people, killing 23 and injuring more than 20 others.

One of the most infamous mass shootings in American history happened when Marine sniper Charles Whitman climbed a clock tower at the University of Texas’ Austin campus in 1966 and began firing on people below. He killed 13 and wounded nearly three dozen others after killing his wife and mother before heading to the tower. One victim died a week later, and medical examiners attributed a 17th death to Whitman in 2001.

President Trump says problem is mental health care, not guns