In Air Force, Colleague Feared Church Gunman Would ‘Shoot Up the Place’

At the start of his Air Force career, Devin P. Kelley was picked for a demanding and selective intelligence analyst school. He walked into his first Monday of class with a crisp blue uniform, shined shoes, and for perhaps the first time in years, with hope. It didn’t last.

Two years later, he found himself on the run, in a bleak El Paso bus station at midnight trying to catch the first Greyhound back home after failing out of school, being charged with assault and escaping from a psychiatric hospital.

As he waited in jean shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, the ticket in his hand was proof he had once again failed.

For Mr. Kelley, who last Sunday opened fire on a rural Texas church, killing 26 people, the Air Force could have been a turning point — a source of discipline and direction that he had not embraced in a troubled childhood. But military records and interviews with fellow airmen show that despite repeated chances, his career fell apart under the weight of his depression and rage, at a time when his mind was churning with half-laid plans to kill his superiors.

After only a few months in the service, Mr. Kelley slid back into a long decline that left a wreckage of broken relationships, criminal convictions and eventually bloodshed.

“The Air Force tried to give him chances but he was just problem after problem after problem,” said Jessika Edwards, a former Air Force staff sergeant who worked with Mr. Kelley in 2011, near the end of his career.

“He was a dude on the edge,” Ms. Edwards added, noting that he would appear at informal squadron social functions in all black and a black trench coat. “This is not just in hindsight. He scared me at the time.”

Even after he left the military, he contacted her on Facebook with disturbing posts about his obsession with Dylann S. Roof, the Charleston, S.C., mass murderer, and his target practices using dogs ordered online.

Ms. Edwards said the military had tried counseling and tough love, but nothing seemed to work. When punished for poor performance, Mr. Kelley would cry, scream and shake with rage, vowing to kill his superiors, she recalled. His temper was so unsettling that she warned others in the squadron to go easy on him or he was likely to come back and “shoot up the place.”

The Air Force, like the civilian world, is often ill-equipped to intervene before violence occurs. Though Mr. Kelley’s behavior raised flags, commanders say they have limited options until a crime is committed. Even then, the priority is more often on getting problem troops out of the military, giving little thought to the possible impact on society. After facing intense criticism for its failure to report Mr. Kelley, the Air Force has opened an investigation into the case and many questions remain about what more it could have done.

For Mr. Kelley, the military was likely an encouraging option at first. His family had a tradition of going to Texas A&M University: His grandfather, father and both siblings became Aggies. But growing up in New Braunfels, Tex., Mr. Kelley did not get the grades to attend one of the state’s top schools. Besides earning mostly C’s, he had amassed at least seven suspensions for insubordination, profanity, dishonesty and drugs, according to school records.

Devin P. Kelley in a photo from the New Braunfels High School yearbook. He enlisted in the Air Force after graduation.

The Air Force offered him a clean slate and the chance to prove himself. He enlisted right after high school in 2009. Based on above-average aptitude test scores, he was picked to become a fusion analyst — an intelligence specialist trained to interpret and communicate the latest information on enemy tactics. It promised a clear career path and a top-secret clearance.

In spring 2010, after two months of basic training, he arrived at Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, Tex., for the rigorous six-month intelligence technical school. Graduating required passing a polygraph test and a background check to get a security clearance.

Mr. Kelley washed out before graduation.

The Air Force did not provide details on whether Mr. Kelley passed the required polygraph, which typically scrutinizes mental health, drug use, family issues and disruptive behavior. A military official briefed on Mr. Kelley’s Air Force record said only that he was cut from the school for “academic reasons.”

Several airmen who went through school with Mr. Kelley said in a closed Facebook group viewed by The New York Times that he did not last long. Some remembered him being there only a few weeks.

“I didn’t even realize he was in for as long as he was,” one of them said. “I thought he was discharged in tech school, let alone retrained into a different career field.”

Mr. Kelley’s next assignment was decidedly less demanding. Records show the Air Force made him a traffic management apprentice, a job that includes moving people and freight, and requires a minimal aptitude score. Still, he struggled.

He was sent in 2011 to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and assigned to the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron. Six days before he arrived, he had married 19-year-old Tessa Loge from his hometown — a move that allowed his new wife and her baby from another relationship to move into base housing with him, and gave him increased pay because he had dependents.

At the base, Mr. Kelley worked in the receiving department, entering information on incoming supplies into a computer. He was smart enough, said Ms. Edwards, who worked in the same office, but he and his new wife fought constantly and were being investigated by local child protective services for child abuse. His wife, who later divorced him, declined to comment.

Mr. Kelley was so emotionally unstable and unfocused, Ms. Edwards said, that he often would not do his work.

As punishment, superiors would give Mr. Kelley menial tasks, such as mopping or scrubbing toilets, which would send him into a rage, Ms. Edwards said. “He would get so upset,” she said, “and just keep saying, ‘I want to kill them.’”

He was formally disciplined multiple times, she said, including for sneaking a gun onto the base in his car.

The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., where Devin P. Kelley killed 26 people last Sunday.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

The Air Force confirmed that Ms. Edwards served in the same squadron as Mr. Kelley, and that evaluations show he performed poorly.

The squadron wrote up the airman for every infraction, Ms. Edwards said, laying a paper trail that would allow the Air Force to discharge him for poor performance. Before it could do that, in April 2012, Mr. Kelley was arrested and detained after he pointed a gun at his wife, hitting and choking her, and hit his baby stepson, fracturing his skull.

His wife filed for divorce that year.

While Mr. Kelley awaited court-martial, the Air Force sent him to a civilian psychiatric hospital in Santa Teresa, N.M., where, according to local emergency dispatch records, he was given medication for depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and was considered a “high-risk patient.”

On the night of June 7, 2012, Mr. Kelley escaped, made his way 12 miles south in the desert night to the El Paso bus station and bought a ticket home.

His counselor at the hospital called the police, according to a police report, warning that Mr. Kelley had talked about killing his chain of command in the Air Force and told other patients he had recently bought guns online.

Mr. Kelley was quickly caught and kept in pretrial confinement before his court-martial because his commanders were concerned about the threats, said Don Christensen, a retired colonel who at the time was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor. He pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and in November 2012 was sentenced to 12 months in confinement — a relatively light sentence.

“A serious injury to a child is worth more than a year in confinement,” said Mr. Christensen, who is now president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the military.

Mr. Christensen said that during his military career he had seen service members receive the same punishment Mr. Kelley got for merely abusing over-the-counter cough medicine.

The Air Force should have entered Mr. Kelley’s name into federal databasesthat bar convicted felons from buying firearms — but did not. That mistake allowed him to buy several guns over the next few years.

Air Force officials apologized last week after admitting that in recent years an unknown number of violent criminals were never registered with the system. “We’re looking at all of our databases,” the Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson, said.

After his guilty plea, Mr. Kelley served just eight months in military prison. In June 2013 he was let out, having been knocked down to the lowest possible rank and given a bad conduct discharge that barred him from nearly all veterans benefits, including mental health treatment.

Mr. Kelley returned to his parents’ home in New Braunfels, Tex., after receiving a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force. CreditJonathan Bachman/Reuters

He went back to New Braunfels. Though his parents owned a sprawling ranch house with a patio and pool, he moved into their barn. He married again in 2014, to 19-year-old Danielle Shields.

“That’s where things started to get weird,” said Ms. Edwards, who reconnected with Mr. Kelley around that time when he called asking for a job reference. They started chatting occasionally on Facebook, she said, and his posts grew gradually more disturbing until she finally stopped communicating with him this year.

At first, Mr. Kelley shared photos of his children and small updates, she said. Then he started complaining about his new wife, and about how his family was trying to get him to take medication. He said he hated his wife, but feared she would leave and take the children, Ms. Edwards said.

Law enforcement officials said their rocky relationship may have contributed to the shooting on Sunday.

A friend of Mr. Kelley’s mother-in-law, Todd Feltner, said on Friday that the marriage was strained because “Devin was abusing her physically, verbally and mentally.” He added that the mother-in-law told him that Mr. Kelley had threatened her family, too: “He was telling her ‘that he was going to get them.’”

Soon, Mr. Kelley’s Facebook conversations turned dark. He started sending Ms. Edwards photos of weapons he had bought and descriptions of killing animals. At first, she brushed it off as the enthusiasm of a hunter in the Texas hill country. But then, she said, he became obsessed with news of Mr.Roof, the 21-year-old who killed nine people in a church in South Carolina in 2015.

“He was excited about it. He went on and on and on about it, saying ‘Isn’t it cool? Isn’t it cool?’ Have you watched the videos?’” Ms. Edwards said. She said she told Mr. Kelley that he was not acting normal and needed help.

“He told me he would never have the nerve to kill people, he only killed animals,” she said.

In 2016 he sent her photos of a new military-style rifle he was building, one that she said looked like the rifle the authorities said he used in the church shooting.

This spring, Mr. Kelley’s comments became so disturbing that she unfriended him — something a number of his other friends also said they did.

The breaking point came when he told her he was buying dogs online and using them as target practice. “I told him this was not normal, and he needed the kind of help I could not give him,” Ms. Edwards said. “Before I unfriended him, I gave him my number. I told him, ‘If you ever are thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, just call.’”

He never called.

Now she, like many others in his path, says she cannot help but blame herself for not acting when she saw signs of trouble.

On Sunday, she was washing dishes at home when another member of their old squadron texted her. “The shooter, it’s Kelley,” the text said.

She dropped the glass in her hands and started crying.

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