Air Force Missed Six Chances to Stop Church Gunman From Buying Weapons, U.S. Says
Posted December 7, 2018 9:52 p.m. EST
The U.S. Air Force missed six opportunities to alert law enforcement authorities about an airman’s history of domestic abuse that would have stopped him from legally buying firearms that he used to kill 26 people in a Texas church in 2017, according to a government report released this week.
The 131-page report, by the inspector general’s office of the Defense Department, found that the airman, Devin P. Kelley, had been convicted of domestic violence by an Air Force general court-martial but that his fingerprints and the final disposition of the case were never forwarded to the FBI as policies required.
Those oversights allowed him to pass mandated background checks and to buy four firearms from a federally licensed firearms dealer. Kelley used three of those weapons when he opened fire on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2017, according to the report, which was dated Thursday. The shooting left 26 people dead and 22 others wounded.
Kelley, 26, was dressed all in black and wearing a skull-face mask when an armed bystander outside the church fired at him. Kelley, who was struck in the leg and torso, made it back to his car and led the bystander and another man in a chase that ended in a crash, with Kelley dead behind the wheel. He had shot himself in the head, officials said.
A day after the massacre, the Air Force admitted it had failed to enter his domestic violence court-martial into a federal database that keeps track of information that would have disqualified Kelley from making the firearms purchases. It asked the inspector general’s office to investigate, and weeks later, the Air Force acknowledged that dozens of its service members charged with or convicted of serious crimes were never reported to the database as required.
The report about Kelley said the inspector general’s office “expended significant resources” in its investigation given the seriousness of what happened. Investigators interviewed 41 witnesses, including Kelley’s ex-wife, his second wife and his father.
His first wife, Tessa Kelley, told members of the 49th Security Forces Squadron on Feb. 17, 2012, that her husband had been abusing her for more than a year, the report said.
In one instance on Dec. 24, 2011, the report said, Kelley pushed her against a wall and choked her because she told him she did not want to visit his family. He told her, “You better pack your bags or I’ll choke you to the ceiling and pass you out,” the report said.
In another episode, Kelley choked her, kicked her in the stomach and dragged her by her hair into the bathroom where he told her, “I’m going to waterboard you,” and stuck her head directly under the showerhead, the report said.
In a separate episode, agents of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviewed Kelley about allegations he had assaulted his stepson.
He at first denied the allegations, suggesting that his stepson was hurt from a fall while crawling or playing in his crib, but later admitted to striking and slapping his stepson, the report said. He told authorities that he had pushed his stepson down multiple times and shook him on at least two occasions.
The investigation found that “multiple organizations and individuals” in the Air Force failed to follow policies during the investigations and after the court-martial, the report said. Over the course of about 18 months, it missed four opportunities to submit his fingerprints and two to send the disposition report.
“The investigators and confinement personnel had a duty to know, and should have known” the policies and should have followed them, the report said, adding, “The failures had drastic consequences and should not have occurred.”
The Air Force described “many actions” it has since taken, such as reviewing archived case files to ensure compliance with reporting requirements, updating instructions and policies and offering mandatory refresher training for agents of its Office of Special Investigations, the report said.
The Air Force did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday night.
In assessing why the fingerprints and reports were not submitted, investigators found several factors that created “a challenging work environment” for Air Force personnel, including inexperienced agents, inconsistent and ineffective training and “leadership gaps and a high operations tempo.”
The Air Force concurred with the recommendations, but it did not provide specific actions that had addressed, or would address, each of the findings, the report said.
The inspector general’s office said it was conducting a follow-up review to check on progress by the Defense Department in ensuring that fingerprints required to be submitted to the FBI are, in fact, filed.