• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Sutherland Springs Shooting: A Texas Massacre

November 2017

Join me in recounting Sunday’s massacre in medias res. At this point, the murderer—whose name was not yet known to Texas authorities, or to the American public at-large, or to the annals of the heinous sadists of history—scampered away from his sanguinary scene. He was forced to hasten his departure from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, where for at least four minutes, he covered the congregants of this south Texan town with bullets from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. In his rear-view mirror, as he accelerated toward the interstate in his SUV, he left behind him a bloodied sacristy, a body-count of twenty-six dead devotees, and a community and nation once again torn asunder.

He was pursued, first by foot (and I do mean by foot) and then by chase by a one Stephen Willeford—a local family man whose daughter alerted him of the assault. Before being roused, he was taking in leisurely and literally the lord’s day of rest. Willeford lives quite near the church, close enough to be immediately and precariously in harm’s way. Responding with his training and—more remarkably—without so much as a tincture of trepidation, Willeford darted from his house with his rifle in hand. He was acting on the type of intrepid instinct that makes for the mythology of heroic lore. He hadn’t the time to put on his shoes, but that mattered little. He was dressed instead with practiced precision and an unerring eye, and outfitted as such, he engaged the assailant.

For a second act, shots again rang out. This time, however, the armed combatants were two instead of one. Willeford and the assailant fired in succession at one another, each with the same gun, each with the same lethal intent, but only one endowed with—as some are prone to say—a divinely-inspired right. As their explosive shots filled the soporific Sunday air, they tore through panels, through car doors, and finally, through flesh.

Willeford struck the murderer no more than two times. It’s uncertain how effective or potentially fatal these shots were; the assailant was wearing black tactical attire and a bullet-proof vest. Himself unscathed during this tense escapade, Willeford landed shots on the assailant’s leg and torso. Wounded, but not mortally so, his adversary was then able to get into his Ford Explorer and cravenly drive away. Willeford vainly volleyed a few final shots as the car in front of him disappeared. He struck and shattered the driver-side window as it sped from his sight.

At that very moment, in a lionhearted move unique to the Lone Star mystique, a fellow Texas townsman drove his truck to where Willeford stood. This man was Johnny Langendorff, or in this case, Johnny-on-the-spot. Langendorff, in contrast to the white-haired Willeford, is a towering, tattooed Texan of twenty-seven. He arrived on the scene in the nick of time. Like a one-man cavalry, he loaded Willeford into his truck and pursued the culprit to the county line.

Reaching and sustaining nearly ninety miles-per-hour on their path, the two trailed the killer until they could trail no closer. They maintained their cautious proximity until, after an apparently violent paroxysm, the murderer’s car jumped from the tracks. It pummeled into a street sign and then the abutting tree line before arriving in at its final stop.

Willeford, not knowing the cause of this abruptly violent crash, loaded his gun and took refuge behind his partner’s car. Langendorff went off to re-direct oncoming traffic, as a renascent offensive might’ve been moments away. Fortunately, this was not the case and the second salvo never came. Shortly after the assailant crashed his vehicle, the police arrived. There, they discovered the murderer, twenty-six-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, deceased by way of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Kelley is this year’s second most “successful” domestic terrorist, following at a distance (thanks to Langendorff and Willeford’s legendary bravery) behind Stephen Paddock. It was Paddock, I needn’t remind you, who engraved his infamy in the walls and windows of his high-rise suite at Mandalay Bay and in the bruised soul of all America below. While Paddock was an anomalous and enigmatic executioner, whose motives will likely forever remain unknown, Devin Patrick Kelley’s history was rife with red flags.

Kelley entered the Air Force in 2010, which would have been the year of his high school graduation (assuming he abided by the state’s prescribed curriculum and his intellect didn’t deserve acceleration or remediation—I think myself safe in assuming he wouldn’t be a candidate for the former). He served in the Air Force until 2012, at which point he prematurely departed and returned to civilian life. Kelley was court martialed and dishonorably discharged with “bad conduct” for having assaulted his then-wife and stepson. While awaiting his court martial, he was admitted to Peak Behavioral Health Systems in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. His mental state was sufficiently unstable to warrant this level of care and oversight at the New Mexico facility.

There, at the mental health facility, caregivers deemed him a “danger to himself” and to others. On one occasion, Kelley was caught sneaking firearms onto the base where—for obvious reasons—their presence is strictly prohibited. He made death threats to commanding officers and, while confined at the Peak Behavioral Health compound, attempted to use the facility’s computers to purchase guns and ammunition online. All this, so he might make good on his promise to slay his superior officers. Finally, and perhaps most disconcertingly, he succeeded in escaping from the hospital’s compound. By chance, he was discovered at a bus stop in nearby El Paso, Texas shortly after.

His confinement, if one could call it that, in the New Mexican facility lasted only until his day in court. He faced multiple charges, including spousal assault and battery, aggravated assault against his stepson, pointing a loaded firearm at his spouse, and—most gentlemanly of all—pointing an unloaded firearm at his spouse. Clement military prosecutors dropped the last two charges when Kelley pled guilty to the more significant aggravated assault charge against his stepson and the assault charge against his then-wife. In an admission revealing the height of human barbarity, Kelley admitted to shaking and hitting repeatedly his stepson on the head “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm”. For these crimes, he was dishonorably dismissed from the Air Force, but it doesn’t appear that further prosecution was pursued as he transitioned to civilian life.

Mind you, I was careful to say civilian life—not civilized life. Kelley, who recently flirted with infanticide for no other reason than to act upon his bestial frustration, was left free to roam the streets as he pleased. His vagrancy brought him briefly to an RV complex in Colorado Springs. He brought with him to his new mobile home a mounting derangement and an increasingly minatory anger complex. A neighbor witnessed him punch and then drag a dog in his front yard. Kelley at first denied the allegation, only to later plead guilty to his callously cruel crime. He was punished appropriately (which required a $500 fine and the completion of an animal cruelty class) and was compliant with his probation. The case was dismissed and the charge expunged.

An unnatural disregard for life—be it human or canine—was at this point frighteningly clear. But he returned to Texas from Colorado, ending his vagrancy but not his barbarity, in the place whence he was born. There, he began dating a young woman who accused Kelley of sexual assault on more than one occasion. No formal charges were filed against him.

As we gaze inquisitively at Kelley’s past, there emerges a portrait of a young man’s ongoing and indefatigable sadomasochism. He was unabashedly besotted with violence and bestiality (not of a sexual kind, but of a violent one) and acted upon his despicable infatuations shamelessly and continuously. It’s not so much that he was a mercurial manic-depressive prone to unpredictable mood swings. No—it appears rather that he was consistently and disturbingly depraved without much sway. And the authorities, from the Air Force to the local police in multiple states, knew all too well this to be the case. This, in hindsight and in the unfolding aftermath, is the most frustrating part. If all of the overt, aforementioned points had been connected, then this mass shooting in Sutherland Springs might have been prevented.

Upon discharging Kelley from his service, the Air Force ought to have entered his name into a federal database. Said database, maintained and necessitated by the Pentagon and the FBI, accretes a list of service men and women who—because of past peccadilloes or less venial sins—are refrained from purchasing or owning firearms in the future. It could serve as a superb way to keep firearms out of the reach of those who served, but have been since determined to be unsuitable gun owners. Kelley should have been on that list and thus proscribed from purchasing even one gun, let alone the three that he carried with him on Sunday’s trip to Sutherland Springs. It was the Air Force’s unforced act of omission that indirectly led to the deaths of twenty-six congregants in the First Baptist Church.

Kelley killed children aged as young as one and adults aged as old as seventy-two. He slew a part-time pastor, who was substituting his time to carry out the day’s sacerdotal deeds. He decimated an entire family tree, with victims from at least three innocent generations. He murdered an mother enceinte, sending to heaven painfully prematurely her and her unborn. The victims were vergers and sisters, fathers and sons. No one was spared. No longer is the church the hallow chrysalis it once used to be. Dylann Roof showed us this but two years ago; now, Devin Patrick Kelley gives us added proof.

We have our heroes, namely Willeford and Langendorff, and to their valor, America is forever grateful. We have our murderer, Devin Patrick Kelley, a man so evil words fail to describe his depravity. But more heart-wrenchingly, we have our victims—twenty-six to be exact. Twenty-six more to add to the fifty-nine before them, and the forty-nine before them, and the thirty-two before them, and the twenty-seven before them. Let’s see to it that no more come after.

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Success, ‘tis said, yet more success begets– On the prosperous rains ever more profits. So reads the adage of the Gospel’s Jew: The iron law, the Effect of Matthew. “To him who has much, more will be