Texas killings: Sutherland Springs the latest name synonymous with atrocity
Fourteen children and eight members of the same family among worshippers massacred
On Sunday, Sutherland Springs in Texas became the latest American town to join the inventory of place-names that have become synonymous with gun atrocities.
The scene was depressingly familiar. As dozens of ambulances and police cars descended onto the tiny town, another corner of America was thrust unwillingly into the international spotlight.
Shortly before 11.30am on Sunday, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, parked his pick-up truck outside the First Baptist Church and began firing with a semi-automatic rifle. He moved inside the small white church where the weekly service was under way and continued shooting.
Twenty-three bodies were found inside the church, and two outside – presumably killed by the gunman before he entered the church. Another died in hospital. Of the 26 killed, 14 were children. Eight members of the same family, spanning three generations, were massacred. Annabelle Pomeroy, the daughter of the church pastor, was one of the victims.
Those killed ranged in age from 17 months to 77 years. While the media awaited confirmation of the identities of the victims, by Monday morning, in this tiny community of about 400 people, that information was already coming out. The intimacy of death was everywhere.
At a dollar store in nearby Floresville, customers were coming to terms with what had happened less than 24 hours later. “It’s just such a quiet place, you never expect something like this to happen here,” said Nora, one of the store’s first customers on Monday morning.
In quiet tones, the cashier told her an employee at the local HED grocery store and his wife had been killed in the atrocity. “You know him – remember he worked at the milk counter, a really nice guy. Him and his wife – just gone.”
Across the road from the First Baptist Church, which was hidden behind police tape and makeshift tarpaulins, the owner of the Valeo petrol station where Kelley visited just minutes before he launched his attack handed out coffee. “We’re coping. We’re OK, but we know people who were affected. It is a very difficult time for us.”
Makeshift community centre
A mile down the road and away from the media scrum, relatives and neighbours gathered at the Royal Oaks Church, the only other church in the district, which had become a makeshift community centre. Small groups of people, reluctant to speak to the media, came by throughout the day to pray.
In Japan, President Donald Trump condemned the “murderous attack” as a “horrible act of evil”. “We cannot put into words the pain and grief we all feel, and we cannot begin to imagine the suffering of those who lost the ones they loved. Our hearts are broken,” he said. He claimed this was “not a gun situation”, pointing instead to the gunman’s mental state.
While Republicans condemned the atrocity and offered their thoughts and prayers to the victims, it was left to Democrats to raise the question of how the deaths could have been prevented.
As former president Barack Obama, whose efforts to increase gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre were ultimately thwarted by Congress, called for “concrete steps to reduce violence and weaponry in our midst”, Texas attorney general Ken Raxton ignited controversy for suggesting that parishioners should be armed.
He argued that Texan gun laws, which allow people to carry concealed weapons, could have allowed the gunman to be taken out before he killed so many. The fact that a local resident seized his own gun and confronted the gunman, prompting Kelley to flee, helped bolster his case.
As shock began to turn to anger, focus on Monday turned to the connections Kelley had with the area. Though originally from New Braunfels, a suburb of San Antonio about 50km north of the First Baptist Church, his in-laws were parishioners at the church, though they did not attend the service on Sunday.
His grandmother-in-law, Lulu White, was present and was killed, however. Police confirmed that a domestic dispute between the killer and his mother-in-law had been ongoing at the time of the attacks, with Kelley sending her threatening text messages on the morning of the attack.
“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety said at a news briefing. “There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”
But for the residents of this quiet rural area, the suggestion of a motive brought little comfort, as Sutherland Springs became the latest community to find itself at the centre of a mass shooting that has become an all-too-familiar aspect of American life.