Witnesses recount shooting at Sutherland Springs church in damages lawsuit


With vivid testimony from the Sutherland Springs Church massacre, a trial began Monday in San Antonio to determine how much the Air Force should pay to compensate the families of the 26 people who died and 22 injured.

The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley of New Braunfels, served in the Air Force and was fired for misconduct. He displayed violent behavior while on duty and pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife and stepson.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled in July that the Air Force was primarily responsible for the massacre because it failed to record Kelley’s assault conviction in a nationwide database used to check the backgrounds of gun buyers. fire. If the conviction had been entered into the database, Kelley could have been prevented from purchasing the assault rifle he was using.

On Monday, Rodriguez began hearing testimony in the damages phase of the case, which is expected to last two weeks.

Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017.”/>

People attend a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017.

Staff archive photo

On Sunday, November 5, 2017, Kelley entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs dressed in tactical gear, a ballistic vest and a black mask and shot the worshipers. He committed suicide after fleeing the scene with the police chasing him.

John Porter Holcombe, who survived the shooting but has lost several members of his family, spent several hours in the witness stand on Monday, recalling the horror of the shooting as well as happy memories of when his loved ones were still alive.

Holcombe said he was filming the Sunday morning service when he and others heard loud noises outside the church and thought someone was “making noise”. He would later learn that it was gunshots.

Moments later, the front door opened and “a guy in tactical gear”, dressed in black and armed with a rifle, stood at the entrance.

“Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, Today You Are All Going To Die! Holcombe said the shooter said. Holcombe recalled what he heard next: “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

The shooter emptied an ammo magazine into the congregation, stopped to reload the rifle, then walked down the aisle, firing again before repeating the process. Smoke filled the air. The shooter said he couldn’t see, Holcombe said.

Holcombe cried as he remembered hearing the victims’ moans. He wanted to do something but was overcome with helplessness.

Then the gunman returned to the front of the church.

“I turned my back,” he said. “I didn’t want to come into contact with who was going to shoot me.”

Holcombe said he was shot several times and then remained still.

“I thought the man was possessed,” said Holcombe. “Who sane goes and does that?” “

Holcombe said the shots had started again, but they sounded different, as if they were coming from another gun. He realized that the gunman was gone and was in an outside shootout. A Good Samaritan shot the gunman, injuring him.

He heard people shout, “Glory to the Lord! and celebrating that they were alive, but “I was angry with God that he allowed this to happen.”

Holcombe searched for his wife, family and friends. He saw lifeless bodies, some unrecognizable.

“Their beautiful faces! he is crying.

He called his wife, Crystal, 36, who was pregnant with their first child. The couple had planned to name baby Carlin Brite “Billy Bob” Holcombe because they weren’t sure about the gender at first.

Holcombe later realized that he had lost not only his wife and unborn child, but also his parents, Bryan and Karla Holcombe; one brother, Marc “Danny” Holcombe; an infant niece, Noah Holcombe; and two of Crystal’s children (John Holcombe’s stepchildren), Gregory and Megan Hill.

“I wish I could have done something … to … stop it,” he said in tears. “To stop it.”

Texas Ranger Terry Snyder was summoned to church by Wilson County MPs. When he arrived, a child was the first of many victims he saw. The benches have been overturned. The bodies were piled up on the benches, or on top of each other, on the ground, everywhere. Snyder said he felt anger, disbelief and sadness as he watched the scene.

“I was going through mixed emotions, kind of a denial of how this could happen,” Snyder said.

“There were families or parents trying to protect their children, lying on top of their children,” Snyder said. “You had church members trying to protect their children.”

Everyone seemed to have rushed from the center of the church, where the gunman had been walking back and forth down the center aisle, he said.

Asked by a lawyer for families to describe the scent that day, Snyder replied, “You could smell… death.”

Snyder said the shooter fired 450 shots in total – 254 outside the church and 196 inside.

Snyder said police recovered several green-tipped bullets, “a military surplus bullet that has stronger ballistic penetration.”

Snyder recalled that the phones of the slain worshipers buzzed and vibrated as worried relatives attempted to monitor them.

“It was just constant,” Snyder said. “The hum would stop and another would begin.”

Snyder described the visit of a victim to the hospital who became alarmed when he heard the noise of cellophane, thinking someone was shooting again.

In his July ruling, the judge found that the Air Force was 60% responsible for the shooting because it “failed to do due diligence” in reporting Kelley’s criminal history to a database. from the FBI. The judge found Kelley 40 percent responsible.

The government argued at the time that the Air Force was not guilty and Kelley was to blame for cheating the national instant criminal background check system when he purchased several guns, including the Ruger AR -556 which he used in the mass shooting.

In Monday’s opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Dingivan, representing the Air Force, said “the government has no intention …

“Regardless of our arguments, reservations or objections during the accountability phase of this trial, there will be, cannot be, any argument that many of these people have died, many have suffered terrible physical injuries ( and) many more suffered psychologically, ”Dingivan said. noted.

He said the government had already stipulated “reasonable compensation and reasonable treatment for some of these plaintiffs,” including previous medical expenses, traumatic surgeries, physical rehabilitation and mental health counseling.

In court documents, suggested payments range from around $ 400 to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

“Regarding future medical expenses, we have presented life care plans covering the future (treatment / needs) recommending millions of dollars in future medical care,” he said. “We have offered a research-backed treatment for PTSD for people who use it. We have offered home care, medication, surgery … for complainants who need it.

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