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Texas community that’s tight-knit ‘like family’ reels from church murders

The First Baptist Church in the small town of Sutherland Springs was the site of the largest mass shooting in Texas history on Sunday. Twenty-six-year-old Devin Kelley opened fire during services, killing 26 people and wounding 20. John Yang speaks with Joey Palacios of Texas Public Radio and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, about the how the community is reeling and the investigation into the shooter.

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  • John Yang:

    Investigators in Texas are starting to piece together what was behind this weekend’s mass shooting at a church in a small Texas town; 26 people were killed in the attack about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. Some 20 others were wounded.

    The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs was quiet today, one day after services erupted in carnage. Officials say 26-year-old Devin Kelley opened fire with an assault-type rifle in the largest mass shooting in Texas history.

    Investigators are now trying to determine his motive.

  • Freeman Martin:

    But we can tell you that there was a domestic situation going on within this family. The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church. We know that he had made threatening — she had received threatening texts from him.

  • John Yang:

    Kelley had served in the Air Force, but in 2012, he was convicted of assaulting his first wife and child, served a year in prison, and received a bad conduct discharge.

    Yesterday morning, officials say he parked at a gas station across from the church. Fred Curnow watched from his home as a figure in black clothing and a black mask with a white skull face opened fire, reloaded, and kept going.

  • Fred Curnow:

    He was just shooting the church from the outside. He was going from the face of the church around to the side and he kept unloading clip after clip. So I duck down to make sure he doesn’t see me or anything, and he proceeds forward shooting still. He then opens the church and goes in, and I kept hearing gunshots.

  • John Yang:

    Police say another neighbor ran out of his home with a rifle, firing at the shooter. Kelley was wounded, and dropped his rifle just as Johnnie Langendorff drove by.

  • Johnnie Langendorff:

    The shooter got in his truck. The gentleman with the rifle came to my truck as the shooter took off, and he briefed me quickly on what had just happened and said that we had to get him. And so that’s what I did.

  • John Yang:

    The two men chased Kelley at high speed for 11 miles.

  • Johnnie Langendorff:

    I was on the phone with dispatch the entire time. As far as I could see, Wilson County Police were all headed to the church. And on 539, I didn’t see any police, and so I gave them the direction were going in, what road and everything, and that the vehicle was in sight and I was picking up, getting closer and closer.

  • John Yang:

    Finally, Kelley’s SUV ran off the road. When police arrived, they found he’d shot himself with one of two guns he still had with him.

  • Freeman Martin:

    We know during that pursuit, the suspect used his cell phone to notify his father that he had been shot and didn’t think he was going to make it.

  • John Yang:

    At the church, Fred Curnow had run to help victims.

  • Fred Curnow:

    I’m right in the doorway, and I looked around, and there’s just casings everywhere. And when I looked to the side, I did see a couple of small children not moving. They were — they were not moving.

  • John Yang:

    The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. They included eight members of a single family, a pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy.

    Her mother spoke today:

  • Sherri Pomeroy:

    One thing that gives me a sliver of encouragement is the fact that Belle was surrounded yesterday by her church family, who she loved fiercely, and vice versa.

    Our church wasn’t comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family. We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together, and we worshiped together. Now most of our church family is gone. Our building is probably beyond repair. And the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday.

  • President Donald Trump:

    All of America is praying for you, supporting you, and grieving alongside of you.

  • John Yang:

    From Tokyo, President Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff. He called the shooting an act of evil.

  • President Donald Trump:

    A very deranged individual, lot of problems over a long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a guns situation.

  • John Yang:

    Authorities say Kelley had been denied a license to carry a concealed weapon, but managed to buy at least two guns after background checks.

    For more, we’re joined by Joey Palacios of Texas Public Radio, who is across the street from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

    Joey, thanks for joining us.

    First, Joey, can you tell us, give us a sense of what the mood in this community is like today?

  • Joey Palacios:

    People here are still trying to figure out what has happened to their loved ones. I have gotten a few stories here and there of people who know some of their loved ones are already dead, and others who aren’t quite sure what their status is.

    We know that 26 people are dead and at least 20 were taken to the hospital. Last we heard, there were about 14 people still in the hospital. No official names have been released, but we hope that authorities will start releasing names soon.

  • John Yang:

    And I have to imagine, in a community this size, as I understand it, about 400 people, even if you didn’t lose a member of your family, you have to know someone who did or someone who did lose their life.

  • Joey Palacios:

    That’s right.

    This community, as you mentioned, is around 400 people, and this is the type of town where everyone knows everyone. And the gas station is right across the street from First Baptist Church. I have talked to the two clerks that have been there throughout the day. And there are people that come in and they’re just happy to see that they’re alive, that they’re OK.

    I have had one woman tell me who runs the taco shop inside of this convenience store that people inside this church, the people that regularly come to this church will go to this shop on a regular basis. So they’re like family.

    They have nicknames for these folks that come in here.

  • John Yang:

    Joey, I know you talked to Johnnie Langendorff, who is one of those who chased the shooter in this case. What did he tell what that was like, what was going on during that chase?

  • Joey Palacios:

    So, Langendorff was here for a short time this morning, and he gave us an account of what happened.

    So, outside of the church, there was a neighbor who began firing at the suspect as he came out. Langendorff was here outside the church in his vehicle, when this neighbor, who he only identified as Steve, came up to Langendorff and said what had happened, that somebody was shooting at the church and that he was trying to get away.

    Well, this gentleman, this neighbor, Steve, jumped into Langendorff’s car. And Langendorff told us earlier that he reached up to 90 miles an hour trying to chase this suspect out of town. Some time during this point, it could be that the suspect did a self-inflicted gunshot wound, because Langendorff says that they saw the suspect careen off the street into a ditch.

    They then got out of their car, and the neighbor took his own rifle and pointed it at the suspect, telling him to get out of the car, but the suspect didn’t. And that’s when deputies arrived and took over the situation.

  • John Yang:

    Joey, tell us what you’re hearing about some of the victims.

  • Joey Palacios:

    So, I talked to two people here who both tell me about a woman named Joann Ward.

    They tell me that she is in her 30s and was attending church here with at least three of her children. They know that Ms. Ward is dead and at least two of her children are dead. She was described as a vibrant community member here, a day care worker.

    And one of the gentlemen that I spoke to was in tears as he recounted of how much he loved this woman, how much of a friend that she was. So these people are just starting to realize that their friends, their family aren’t going to be coming home because of the actions of this suspect.

  • John Yang:

    Joey Palacios of Texas Public Radio in Sutherland Springs, Texas, thank you very much.

  • Joey Palacios:

    John, thank you.

  • John Yang:

    Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar represents Sutherland Springs, and he has been briefed throughout the day on the latest developments in the investigation.

    We spoke a short time ago. I began by asking him what he knows about motive at this time.

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    Well, since yesterday, I have been saying that there had to be some sort of nexus or connection to somebody that attended that church.

    I know the geography very well, because I represent the northern part, where Comal is at, and, of course, now the southeast of San Antonio. And you don’t just go into a very rural community, a small, very — community without having a reason.

    And I think this is where the investigation, the texting, the threatening messaging, I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. And that’s the nexus that I have been talking about since yesterday.

  • John Yang:

    You say this is a very small community. I think I have heard only about 400 people.

    What are you hearing from people there, from your constituents about how they’re coping with this?

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    You know, they’re going through a very difficult time, going through grief, the grieving. They’re going through the healing process. Everybody knows each other.

    Everybody — you know, once the names are all released, or some names have been released, but once the names of all the victims have been released, everybody will know every single person there because it’s a very small community.

    I have been there. I have done parades there. I have visited there, and it’s one of those places where everybody knows each other, and it’s very difficult, because, you know, a community of 400, 500 individuals, it’s like a large family that’s just been hurt immensely.

  • John Yang:

    Earlier today, the president said this is not a gun issue, this was a mental health issue. Do you agree?

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    Well, you know, I want to see what the investigation comes up to, because, apparently, he tried to get a gun — a gun permit in Texas, didn’t happen. But, at the same time, he was able to get some guns, I think two in Texas, two in Colorado.

    We have been in contact with the law enforcement. I want them to do the investigation, so we can talk a little bit more about it. But, again, it looks like there was a breakdown in the system. I want to know, where was the breakdown in the system? How did somebody who was dishonorably discharged, had some domestic violence issues with his ex-wife and his child, how was this person able to get this gun?

    And this is something that I think the investigation will tell us what happened there.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about you want to figure out where the system broke down. Is this a case of needing to enforce laws that are already on the books?

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    Well, again, let’s see what the investigation tells us.

    It might be that we need to enforce that law. It might have to be that, you know, we do need — everybody talks about mental illnesses. I’m one of those, but I want to see more money put in. You know, how do we treat those individuals? Because if somebody wants to kill somebody, they can use a gun. They can use a truck, like they did in New York and other places in the world. They can use an airplane like 9/11.

    They can use a knife. They can use their bare hands. Let’s see what are we talking about here and see what actions we need to take.

  • John Yang:

    We have seen three of the most deadly mass shootings in modern U.S. history have occurred in the last 18 months, two of them in the last 36 days.

    There will be, I’m sure, a lot of people who will be calling for new gun control. What’s your position on that?

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    Well, again, I’m a big believer in the Second Amendment. Keep in mind also that the persons were able to probably prevent some killings there in Sutherland Springs was an individual that confronted him and started shooting at the suspect, and the suspect ran away.

    The suspect started shooting at innocent individuals in the church, but when somebody confronted him with a gun, he ran off like a coward. He was a coward in the church. He was a coward when he ran off.

    But, again, this discussion has been going for a long time. I think people are already set in their positions right now. I’m hoping we can find maybe some sort of middle ground to address this without going against the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • John Yang:

    Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, who represents the district where the shooting took place, thank you so much for your time. And our condolences to your constituents.

  • Rep. henry Cuellar:

    Thank you so much.

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