SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — It was Joann Ward’s sixth wedding anniversary, and she already had the perfect day in mind.
A mother of four, Ward had the afternoon off from Theresa’s Kitchen, the tiny restaurant inside the Valero gas station where she worked a few hours a week. And though relatives had offered to watch the kids so that she and her husband, Chris, could get away for a few hours, Ward waved them off.
“She wanted the family to be together,” her father, Bill, said.
Ward, 30, was youngest of nine kids from Castroville, Texas, a small town west of San Antonio, and had grown up wanting a big family of her own. After a few years of ups and downs, she had finally met Chris, whom relatives described as her soul mate. According to friends, Ward saw their anniversary as a celebration of the life and family they had built together. There were her two daughters from previous relationships — Rihanna, 9, and Emily, 7; the daughter she and Chris had together, Brooke, 5; and Ryland, Chris’s 5-year-old son from another relationship whom they were raising full time.
“She was a wonderful mother,” her friend, Terrie Smith, recalled. “She lived for those kids.”
And on a horrific Sunday morning a week ago, Ward would die for them too.
Last Sunday, Ward, as she did every weekend, gathered the kids at their modest ranch house and took them a mile down the dusty country road to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Chris wasn’t with them. A truck driver, he had worked the night shift and was sleeping in. After the 11 a.m. worship service, Ward planned to pick up her husband, and together, the family would head to a nearby park for a celebratory picnic.
But just minutes into the service, the praise and worship songs were interrupted by a rapid crackle of gunfire. Bullets began spraying through the walls of the tiny church, shattering some of the windows and sending holes of light through the wooden doors at the front entrance. As the congregation of 50 or so tried to discern what was happening, a man dressed all in black stormed in, his face covered by a black mask with a white skull face on the front. The man, later identified by police as Devin Patrick Kelley, carried a Ruger AR-556, a semi-automatic rifle.
“Everybody is gonna f***ing die!” the gunman shouted as he ran up the aisle and began to fire, according to Rosanne Solis, who was sitting on the back row. Her upper arm bleeding from the initial volley of bullets, Solis dropped to the floor under the pew and pretended that she was dead, convinced she wouldn’t make it out alive.
A few rows ahead of her, Ward shoved her daughter Rihanna to the ground as bullets began to fly their way. The 9-year-old’s glasses were hit and blown off her face as she fell, but she crawled under a pew, taking cover. Her mother threw her body atop the other three kids, but the gunman offered no mercy.
According to Solis, Kelley stalked the room as an executioner seemingly determined to kill everyone. She and the handful of other survivors who somehow made it out of the church alive said he seemed to specifically target crying children, shooting them until they were silenced. All told, Texas officials listed 26 fatalities, the victims ranging in age from an unborn baby in utero to a 77-year-old grandfather, in one of the worst mass shootings in recent history and the worst ever at a U.S. house of worship.
Perhaps the most chilling testimony of the horror has come from Ward’s daughter Rihanna, who was grabbed and shoved into a corner of the room by a woman who — as her mother did for other kids — covered the girl’s body with her own until she too was shot. Rihanna, who miraculously escaped physical injury, has told relatives that the gunman shot her mother multiple times, as if he were trying to make sure he had killed not only her but the kids she was sheltering underneath.
Ward and her daughters Brooke and Emily were killed. Her son Ryland was shot in the stomach, groin and arm, which was so mutilated by bullets it was nearly amputated. But doctors have been able to stabilize the child, who is likely to be hospitalized for months, according to relatives.
Chris Ward, who was awakened by relatives and ran to the church to trying to find his family last Sunday, has barely budged from his son’s side. He has told relatives he does not believe he can return to his family’s home in Sutherland Springs, where last week grim-faced friends and relatives were gathered grappling with funeral plans and trying to figure out how a family and a town as small as this even begins to recover from a tragedy so horrific.
The family has been overwhelmed by media requests, and a relative said Chris Ward had asked friends and relatives to stop talking to the media because he was pained by the coverage and overwhelmed with guilt that he hadn’t been in church that morning. “I think he wonders like we all do about why this happened? How can you possibly go on when you can’t even comprehend it,” the relative said.
Nearly a week later, authorities still have not given an official explanation of Kelley’s motive, beyond saying that he was engaged in a “domestic dispute” with his mother-in-law, Michelle Shields, who regularly attended the church but was not there that morning. According to police, Shields, whose 22-year-old daughter Danielle has been married to Kelley since 2014, received “threatening text messages” from the gunman before the attack — though it’s unclear exactly when those texts were sent.
The Shields family has offered no public comment on the attack — silence that has been largely matched by the gunman’s own immediate family, including his parents. Kelley and his wife lived in a converted barn behind his parents’ home on a sprawling wooded property in New Braunfels, about an hour north of Sutherland Springs.
His father, Mickey Kelley, is a programmer who created a type of billing software called Dilloware. His mother, Rebecca, also works for the company, which is operated out of the family home. The gunman also has two sisters, including an older sister who lives in nearby Bryan. In the aftermath of the attack, there have been numerous revelations about the gunman’s troubled history, including a reports of domestic violence and mental health issues that led to him being thrown out of the Air Force. But it’s unclear what his family knew about his issues, past or present. None of Kelley’s relatives responded to requests for comment, though Mickey Kelley told ABC News in a brief statement on Wednesday that the family is “grieving.”
Police have confirmed that Kelley, who had been occasionally spotted at the First Baptist Church with his wife, had been there just five days before he carried out his massacre. He showed up with his two children to the church’s annual fall festival, an alternative celebration to Halloween where both kids and adults dress up in costumes. A friend of Michelle Shields told the Houston Chronicle the family had been having unspecified problems, and while Shields offered no details, the woman saw Kelley’s appearance as a sign that perhaps their relationship was turning a corner.
It’s not entirely clear what the status was of Kelley’s marriage to Danielle Shields. Police have declined to say, but Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt has suggested the couple was estranged, telling reporters that Kelley was angry at his “ex-in-laws.” Asked for further details, he has repeatedly declined to comment.
Several locals say Shields, who is close friends with Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, was spotted at the community center a few blocks away from the church in the immediate aftermath of the shooting where friends and relatives had gathered for word about their loved ones. Her 77-year-old mother, Lula Woicinski, who was believed to have lived with Shields and her husband, Ben, was killed in the attack.
According to public records, Shields lives in a house less than a mile away from the church. Reporters who visited the property early in the week found no one home, but on Wednesday, cars were parked in the driveway and the gate was plastered with fresh “No Trespassing” signs.
Kelley’s massacre was stopped when he was shot and wounded by a neighbor, Stephen Willeford. Kelley was hit twice — in the leg and torso — prompting him to drop his rifle. He jumped in his Ford Expedition and fled the scene, though not before shooting at Willeford with another gun from inside his SUV. Willeford flagged down a truck driven by Johnnie Langendorff, and the two pursued Kelley in a high speed chase for roughly 10 miles, until the shooter drove off the road. Police say they found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Investigators have declined to say if they believe Kelley would have continued his rampage, had he not been confronted by Willeford. While Kelley was spotted in the Valero gas station before the shooting, authorities have specifically declined to say if he went anywhere else, including his mother-in-law’s home, which is a less than five-minute drive from the church. But they have pointed out that he had more guns and ammunition in his car. “We cannot say what would have happened had he not been stopped,” Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said this week.
The lingering questions about Kelley’s motive and what he might have done, if not stopped, have only added to jitters in a community that to residents had seemed immune from the violence and mass shootings that have erupted in other cities. The attack has hit people of faith particularly hard, as many saw their places of worship as sacred ground that are now no longer truly safe.
At a memorial service on Wednesday for the victims, attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other dignitaries, many attendees were visibly nervous. The event was held in a high school football stadium in nearby Floresville, where just hours earlier much of the city had been put on lockdown amid rumors of an active shooter.
As with many public events, guns were banned at the memorial — a decision that left some nervous. “I left my gun in the truck, but I really didn’t want to,” said Doug Solis, who drove an hour from Canyon Lake to mourn the victims. The massacre, he said, had exposed how vulnerable people of faith were to similar attacks. “You go and you are there to worship the Lord and give praise, but now you realize that if this can happen to the people of Sutherland Springs, it can happen anywhere.”
Looking towards Sunday, he said he was planning to sit near the back of his church and be the person to keep watch. “It’s sad because this is not what church should be about,” he added. “But this is the way it is now. Nobody is safe.”
While those outside of the community have pointed to the massacre in Sutherland Springs as yet more evidence for the need for new gun control laws, many here have suggested that more guns — not less — seem to be the answer.
That includes a relative of Ward’s, who suggested she would be appalled to see anyone “try to use her death to take away someone’s guns.”
“That’s not what she would have wanted at all,” the relative said.
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