SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — Before Nov. 5, 2017, Sutherland Springs seemed to be little more than a reduced speed zone on U.S. 87, a short stretch of highway with two gas stations, a Dollar General store and a flashing traffic light.
Now, seven months after a former serviceman with a bad conduct discharge stormed the First Baptist Church to carry out one of the worst mass murders in recent U.S. history, this town about 35 miles southeast of San Antonio is on the mend but still struggling with loss.
The community is so small — population 600 — yet it endured violence on such a large scale. Seemingly no one in Sutherland Springs, even those who weren’t in the First Baptist Church that Sunday morning, went untouched by the shooting frenzy unleashed by Devin Patrick Kelley.
Larry Keeble, a 53-year-old home inspector, lost at least 10 good friends, including his Tuesday night bandmate Robert “Bob” Corrigan, a gifted guitarist. After hearing of the shooting, he recalls, “I texted Bob right away and said, ‘You’d better be OK.’ I didn’t get a response.”
The Nov. 5 mass killing took the lives of 26 people, including an unborn child, and left at least 20 others wounded, some severely. Nearly half of the dead were children, an image that remains indelibly fixed in the memories of first-responders and others who arrived within minutes after the shooting.
But people here say the story of Sutherland Springs is not only a tale of suffering and upturned lives. It’s also the story of a tiny but unbreakable community where neighbors have helped neighbors walk the long road back.
“Nov. 5 did not define Sutherland Springs,” said Stephen Willeford, the 55-year-old Sutherland Springs resident who exchanged gunfire with the assailant, ultimately putting an end to the bloodshed. “It just shined a light on who we always were. We’re the community that pulls together and has always. And we’re the community that focuses on God and has always before this.”
‘By God’s Bootstraps’
Passing motorists still slow down to gaze somberly at crosses beside the highway. Some stop to go inside the former church, which has been painted white and repurposed as a memorial with 26 white chairs inscribed in gold with the names and nicknames of the victims.
For those who lost loved ones, the grief endures, even as they struggle to resume their workaday lives. “You think that with time, it gets easier,” says a tearful Maria Salas of Atascosa, Texas, whose sister, JoAnn Ward, died along with two young daughters whom she tried to shield from the gunfire. “It doesn’t. It still hurts as much as it did that day.”
But Sutherland Springs also has shown a resilience rooted in the community’s unbridled Christian faith.
“We are a people who trust the Lord and pull ourselves up,” says First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy. “Not by our own bootstraps, as the old saying goes, but … up by God’s bootstraps.”
David Colbath, a 56-year-old contractor and a member of the church for a quarter of a century, was shot at least eight times and was told by doctors performing surgery that bullets were falling out of him. His arm was rebuilt and a bullet that hit a rib in front of his heart remains lodged in his side.
After multiple surgeries and rehabilitation alongside wounded combat veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Colbath now travels on speaking engagements to tell of his experience and the healing power of God. He and the Pomeroys last month attended the National Day of Prayer in Washington, where Vice President Mike Pence gave them a tour of the West Wing.
“I don’t believe I’ve had a low point since that day,” Colbath told reporters at the time. “My rehabilitation will be continual but I would like to be able to go anywhere I can and speak of God’s goodness and God’s grace.”
First Baptist Church hasn’t missed a Sunday service since the attack, though worshippers now meet in a temporary sanctuary beside the original church. Attendance has surged to about 150 to 175 each Sunday, more than three times the attendance before the shooting.
Wearing a legally permitted pistol on his hip (he has carried one for years) and a trademark novelty tie, Pomeroy conducts worship services with an exuberant informality, referring to his congregants as “guys” and inviting members to get out of their seats to shake hands with fellow worshippers.
The worship leader is Kris Workman, 34, who plays the guitar and sings from his wheelchair near the pulpit. He was under a pew in November when the gunman stood over him and fired into his spine, severing the L-2 vertebra and leaving Workman partially paralyzed.
After five surgeries and weeks of therapy and recovery, Workman has returned to his job with Rackspace in San Antonio. Although doctors have told him he will never regain the use of his legs, Workman says he now has some function in his left leg.
“God is working, God is big, and if he decides that I’m going to walk again, I’ll walk again,” Workman said. “And if he doesn’t, that’s OK too. You know, it doesn’t matter, because whatever I’m intended to do, it’s not a surprise to God, and [if] that includes me being in a wheelchair, that’s OK.”
Frank and Sherri Pomeroy, who have been married 32 years, were out of town during the shooting, but they were not spared from personal loss. Their 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was killed. She had been doing particularly well in school and was excited about landing a part in a school play.
In a nearly hourlong weekday interview at a concrete table outside the church, Pomeroy said his wife is “still very fragile” since Annabelle’s death. He had to pause as he talked of his daughter. But overall, Pomeroy said, his approach to grieving has been to try to move ahead.
“I keep the memories with me, but I take them with me and move forward,” he said. “And know that she’s moving forward with me.”
Pomeroy says he has forgiven the gunman but believes some in Sutherland Springs have been unable to do so. The minister also suggests that his feelings on the subject might have been more complex had Kelley survived to stand trial.
“I’d like to say I would still have forgiven as easily I did,” he said. “He still has to be held accountable for his actions.” Pomeroy blames failures in the mental health system and overlooked warning signs for contributing to the violence and adds: “I think evil came into that place through that boy.”
Solidarity and Disagreement
Three months after Sutherland Springs, 14 students and three staff members were shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The death toll from the Feb. 14 attack surpassed the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 as America’s deadliest high school shooting.
Three months after Parkland, a 17-year-old suspect using his father’s shotgun and a revolver opened fire in a first period art class in Santa Fe High School near the Texas Gulf Coast, about 220 miles from Sutherland Springs. Eight students and two teachers were killed.
“Every time there’s a shooting, it hits right square in the middle of your heart if you’re one of the ones that have been through it,” said Morgan Colbath, David Colbath’s son, who has since moved in with his father and helps run the contracting business. The younger Colbath said his father cried after hearing about the violence in Santa Fe.
Residents of Sutherland Springs wasted little time in preparing to send a supportive banner to Santa Fe. It has become a grim American tradition: A banner from residents of Las Vegas, where 58 concertgoers were killed by a gunman last October, hangs outside Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church: “#VegasStrong sends wishes of strength and healing to Sutherland Springs, Texas.”
But while Parkland students have gained national attention by demanding that Congress and the Trump administration enact tough new gun control measures, Sutherland Springs residents have espoused a sharply different point of view: their right to arm themselves.
Willeford, who sprinted barefoot from his house with an AR-15 to confront Kelley at the start of a chase that ended in the gunman’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot, was hailed as a hero at the recent National Rifle Association convention in Dallas. He also tells his story in an NRA advertisement.
“I was terrified and dead-calm at the same time,” the fourth-generation Sutherland Springs resident said in a recent telephone interview, recalling his confrontation with the shooter.
Many residents of Sutherland Springs and the surrounding rural area keep pistols, shotguns and rifles to fend off feral hogs and the occasional water moccasin from nearby Cibolo Creek. But Kelley’s attacks heightened concern about the need for self-protection from human violence.
In Wilson County, which includes Sutherland Springs, gun license applications in November increased 167 percent over the previous November, according to an analysis of state data by the San Antonio Express-News.
Fred Ohnesorge, who owns Acme Guns and Gear in nearby Floresville, said between 25 and 40 people took advantage of its free gun license courses, which it offered in the aftermath of the shooting.
“Sutherland Springs may not be a town you want to mess with any more,” asserts Willeford, a former NRA instructor who says his actions in confronting the shooter embodied a central tenet of the NRA: “The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
“The illogical rhetoric that came out of Parkland was depressing,” Pomeroy said. He says that tragedy became “politicized” and “was overtaken by ideology.”
Tensions flared within the Sutherland Springs community earlier this year amid social media criticism questioning the distribution of thousands of donations that have poured in from around the world. Church leaders say none of the money designated for victims is being used to construct a new church. And the controversy appears to have died down.
Church officials say the donations specified for victims have paid for a range of expenses, from retrofitting homes for disabled victims to medical supplies, utility bills and living expenses. The church’s Restoration Committee, saying it is still counting donations, has not released its totals.
At least $3 million had been raised from other funds, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis in early April. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in March released $2.3 million in state aid to enable at least a half-dozen schools and organizations, including the University of Texas at San Antonio and the county mental health authority in Floresville, to provide services to victims, including therapy for trauma, legal services, grief counseling, hotlines and bereavement services.
The Republican governor also convened a three-day roundtable discussion on gun violence immediately after Santa Fe. The conference produced more than 40 recommendations, including for greater law enforcement presence in schools and tougher safeguards on gun storage. Pomeroy, Willeford, Colbath and Workman were among the third day participants.
One outgrowth of the Santa Fe tragedy was the enactment of a new federal law to repair weaknesses in the national criminal database system.
Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas pushed the measure through Congress following outrage over disclosures that the Air Force failed to report that Kelley had been convicted of domestic abuse during his time in the service — which should have prevented him from buying guns.
Several Sutherland Springs families have lodged negligence claims against the federal government, the first step toward formal lawsuits, alleging that the Air Force was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
Among the petitioners are the Holcombes, husband Joe, 86, and wife Claryce, 85. Their family lost nine of its own, including an unborn child, Carlin Brite “Billy Bob” Holcombe. The losses cut across three generations and to a large degree made the Holcombe family the face of the Sutherland Springs tragedy.
The couple’s petition declared that negligence by the Air Force created a “dangerous condition” that resulted in the death of their 60-year-old son, John Bryan Holcombe, who was the visiting pastor the day of the shooting. He was shot in the back as he was walking to the pulpit.
In a phone interview from the couple’s farm near Floresville, Joe Holcombe declined to discuss the negligence claim, but he exuded a sense of inner peace as he talked of the losses as part of God’s plan.
“We know we’re in God’s will, and God sometimes takes things from us,” he said. “We know this travel on Earth is soon going to end for us because we’re old and when it happens, we’ll be where our son and the rest of the family is.”