The man suspected of killing 26 people and injuring at least 20 more with an assault rifle at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday had a history of violence against women and his stepson.

Perpetrators of domestic violence accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, according to an analysis of mass shootings released in April by Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-control measures. The same study notes that 16 percent of mass shooters had been formally charged with domestic violence.

In 2012, Devin Patrick Kelley was court-martialed by the U.S. Air Force and convicted of assaulting his then-wife, kicking and choking her, and breaking his infant stepson’s skull, with what the Air Force described as “a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.”

Devin Patrick Kelley
Devin Patrick Kelley Credit: Courtesy / Texas DPS

“It begins with controlling behavior which could be physical, psychological, [or] sexual, and over time progresses in severity,” said Marta Pelaez, president and chief executive officer of Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio. “The [perpetrator’s] aim is to control the victim.”

Kelley was charged with assault and received 12 months’ confinement and reduction to E-1, the lowest possible rank, according to Ann Stefanek, chief media officer for the Air Force.

For the two years following his confinement, Kelley resided in New Braunfels, where he was investigated by the Comal County Sheriff’s Department for sexual assault and rape in 2013, Jennifer Smith, the department’s public information officer, said Tuesday.

However, despite some media reports that the case had been closed, Smith told the Rivard Report that it remains open.

“The case is actually still open. It was never closed. Because it’s open, we’re seeking guidance from the Texas Attorney General on what we can release,” Smith said, referring to “sensitive details” contained in case records.

Although she did not have a specific date, Smith said county officials expect a ruling from the AG’s office in the next couple of weeks.

In 2014, Kelley was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A neighbor reported that Kelley had beaten his dog, a court judicial assistant in El Paso County, Colorado told the The Rivard Report Tuesday. (The assistant declined to give his name.) Kelley sought deferred adjudication for the charge and successfully completed the deferred sentence, the court judicial assistant said.

Pelaez said that Kelley’s story is a familiar one, but instead of one case of domestic violence at a time, it was a “group domestic violence situation” with mass casualties.

Domestic violence is progressive, she said, and it never begins with one extreme action. Rather, Kelley’s actions were “the end of a long progression of events.”

At a press conference in Sutherland Springs on Monday, investigators in Kelley’s case said that an ongoing “domestic situation” within the gunman’s family may have motivated the killing. During the days leading up to the shooting, Kelley reportedly sent threatening texts to his mother-in-law, a parishioner at the church where he opened fire. She was not present at the time of the attack.

However, Kelley’s grandmother-in-law, Lula Woicinski White, a 71-year-old member and volunteer at the First Baptist Church, died in the rampage, police confirmed.

A Texas State Trooper secures the perimeter of the crime scene surrounding the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
A Texas State Trooper secures the perimeter of the crime scene surrounding the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For Pelaez, Kelley’s actions fit within the “constellation of controlling behaviors” and should not be considered in the context of a situation or as a one-time event.

“A domestic dispute can be one event over time,” Pelaez said. “You can have a dispute with your loving husband. You can dispute what restaurant you want to go to tonight. That’s not what domestic violence is.”

In 42 percent of cases shooters exhibited warning signs prior to the shooting indicating that they posed a danger to themselves or others. These red flags may include acts, attempted acts, protective order violations, threats of violence toward oneself or others,  or evidence of ongoing substance abuse and addiction.

The results of the Everytown study were not shocking for Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She said that domestic violence advocates have “known for a long time” that people who have committed a mass shooting typically have violence in their background, and that perpetrators who make threats “typically make good on them,” and should be taken seriously.

McLaughlin explained that Kelley’s purported targeting of his mother-in-law had the ultimate goal of inflicting pain and suffering on his victim.

“Threatening the [domestic violence] survivor’s family or their support network is an excellent way to control someone,” McLaughlin said. “It results in the survivor living with suffering, immense and intense lifelong trauma, guilt, and the loss of the support network.”

This history of domestic violence puts Kelley in the horrific company of many mass murderers. Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting at Pulse, the Orlando nightclub, had an extensive history of domestic abuse.

Robert Lewis Dear, the devout Christian who killed three people and wounded nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, had an extensive history of violence against women. According to the Washington Post, two of his three ex-wives had accused him of domestic abuse. In 1992, he was arrested and accused of rape and sexual violence.

When it comes to the “why” behind the behavior of a mass murderer, Pelaez points to family culture and socialization. She told the Rivard Report that generational violence is present in just about every case of domestic violence.

“When the social template that you have received from your own family is one of aggression, one of abuse, typically you learn to become an abuser,” she said.

Pelaez said that people who grow up in a nurturing environment are unlikely to develop the kind of rage and self-esteem issues that move them to victimize others. She said that while “we don’t know the situation” regarding Kelley’s past, she “[doesn’t] doubt that there are elements of generational violence in this situation and other mass shootings.”

Community members embrace for a word of prayer during the vigil.
Community members hold each other during a vigil held in Sutherland Springs on Monday night. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Domestic violence is directly related to human trafficking, teen pregnancy, bullying, homelessness, child abuse, substance abuse, and homelessness, Pelaez added.

Family Violence Prevention Services runs the Violence Intervention Program, a 20-week program aimed at teaching men who have abused their partners to change their behavior by changing their beliefs about what it means to be a “real man.”

“We challenge their attitudes and help them see that you can still feel very whole as a man without having to resort to victimizing someone else,” Pelaez said. “Any behavior that is taught can be replaced by a new behavior.”

Family Violence Prevention Services reports that 74 percent of all Texans have experience some form of domestic violence, or have a friend of family member who has experienced it. Thirty-one percent of Texans report that they have been severely abused at some point in their lifetime. One in three women in the state of Texas are in an abusive situation.

Men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or domestic violence as children are almost four times more likely than other men to perpetrate domestic violence as adults. And while both men and women can become abusive, 98 percent of mass killers are male, according to an in-depth investigation into mass shootings in the U.S. from 1982 – 2017, completed by Mother Jones. You can access the dataset here.

According to McLaughlin, the propensity for men to commit violent crimes at a much higher rate than women sheds light on whether people’s mental health history is relevant to their decision to engage in acts of violence. For McLaughlin, there is little correlation.

She told the Rivard Report that more women have mental health issues than men, “but you don’t hear about women being mass murderers.”

“There are a lot of folks who have mental illness who are completely non-violent,” McLaughlin said. “They could use treatment, support, and empathy, but they aren’t being violent.” She stressed the importance of being careful when placing blame on mental illness as a reason behind a person’s decision-making.

While some “level of imbalance” must be present to push a person toward insensitive, violent behavior, Pelaez said, “if we reduce the issue simply to a medical issue, we are in fact allowing abusers to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sick, and I can’t do anything about it.’

“We can’t do this because we take responsibility out of the picture, and we take challenging attitudes and beliefs out of the picture,” Pelaez said. “Then what? We wait for the healthcare system to take care of it?”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.