In the years before he opened fire at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas on Nov. 4, Devin Patrick Kelley’s life was marked by a pattern of disturbing behavior.
During high school, he stalked women who scorned him. In 2012, while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, he was court martialed for choking his then-wife and beating his stepson so hard he fractured the child’s skull. That same year, he escaped from a nearby mental health facility where he’d been committed amid fears that “was a danger to himself and others as he had already been caught sneaking firearms” onto Holloman to “carry out death threats” against his superiors, according to NBC News. In 2014, he was charged with animal cruelty after beating a stray dog nearly to death.
That Kelley killed 26 people gathered for Sunday worship seems unsurprising in retrospect; the warning signs, apparently, were there all along.
Yet despite this, Kelley still managed to carry out his gruesome massacre. And based on public comments from the Air Force, there were at least two points when the service could have potentially turned the disgraced airman from his deadly course — but they went unheeded, with deadly results.
A lenient plea deal?
The first critical decision point came in the service’s prosecution of Kelley’s vicious assault on his wife and child in 2012. The Air Force initiated court-martial proceedings and charged the airman with five specifications under Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs assault. But according to new reporting from Military.com, three of those specifications — for beating his son, pointing a loaded gun at his then-wife, and a separate instance where he threatened her with an unloaded firearm — were dropped before a military jury slapped Kelley with his sentence.
Kelley’s plea was arranged by Gen. Robin Rand, then a lieutenant general and now chief of Air Force Global Strike Command.
Why Rand opted for a plea deal given the severity of the charges against Kelley and his pattern of disturbing behavior at Holloman remains unclear, although former Air Force JAG Coretta Johnson Gray points out that multiple factors like the timing and logistics of convening a general court-martial may have made a plea deal more appealing to Air Force officials. Public affairs officials in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force told Task & Purpose that the pre-trial agreement would be part the record of Kelley’s trial that the branch is currently working to redact and release to the public.
“[Kelley’s] prosecution was in accordance with the principles of our legal system and based on the evidence gathered and our ability to convict,” a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command told Task & Purpose. “However, the Air Force is reviewing whether, following the trial, proper procedures were communicated about former Airmen Devin P. Kelley’s convictions to civilian law enforcement officials.”
Failing to report
The second critical point came after Kelley was given his bad conduct discharge from the service in 2014. Under federal law, anyone dishonorably discharged from the armed forces is prohibited from possessing or receiving firearms or ammo transported across state lines. The 1996 Lautenberg amendment that extends that prohibition to military personnel with domestic violence convictions.
But on Nov. 6, the Air Force admitted that it had failed to report Kelley’s domestic violence court-martial to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the go-to database for firearms-related background checks for both state officials and private dealers. The Department of Defense has announced that the DoD Inspector General and Air Force officials are conducting a joint investigation into how Kelley’s info was handled and (not) distributed to federal databases following his 2012 conviction.
This issue is bigger than just Kelley. The Pentagon has had major lapses in crime reporting to civilian authorities like the FBI for at least two decades, according to a Nov. 7 Associated Press report. In 1997 a DoD IG report found that the Air Force had failed to report 50 percent of its criminal case outcomes and 38 percent of fingerprint cards to the FBI from December 1995 to July 1996. According to a 2015 follow-up by the DoD IG, the Air Force still failed to report 39 percent of its fingerprint data between June 2010 to October 2012; a brief examination of military reporting to NICS by firearms reporter Alex Yablon this week revealed zero records of bad conduct discharges and misdemeanor domestic violence had been passed along to the FBI
How did this gap persist? Reports suggest that the military simply couldn’t be bothered to get its shit together. The 1997 DoD IG report chalked the lack of reporting up to “ambiguous Pentagon guidelines and a lack of interest among the military services in submitting information to an FBI viewed as chronically overburdened with data,” as the Associated Press put it.
The FBI demurred on the reporting gap, telling reporters on Nov. 7 that “nothing is perfect.” But a former Army lawyer Eric Carpenter put the blame squarely on the branch’s shoulders. “There are thousands of cases that have been misclassified,” he told Time national security correspondent W.J. Hennigan on Nov. 7. “We just know about this one because (Kelley) decided to shoot up a church.”
The lack of attention paid to domestic violence reporting is alarming. An estimated 1 in 3 American civilian women (33 percent) endure intimate partner violence during their lifetime, according to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. VA statistics indicate similarly that 36% of female active-duty service members experienced domestic violence, a number that’s likely low due to underreporting in the ranks; for female veterans, it’s as high as 70%, per the VA.
Some 40% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2012 began with a shooter targeting his current or former girlfriend or wife; by 2016, the total number of mass shootings involving domestic violence since 2009 jumped to 54% as the frequency of mass casualty events began to increase.
Searching for solutions
In the aftermath of Kelley’s rampage, the Pentagon is clearly taking these problems seriously. Speaking to the Washington Post on Nov. 7, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated the DoD’s intent to thoroughly investigate the branch’s institutional failures in handling violent crime reporting, stating that “if the problem is that we didn’t put something out, we’ll correct that.”
But given the ambiguity surrounding Kelley’s plea bargain and the two decades of poor communication between the Air Force and FBI detailed by the Associated Press, it’s unclear how swiftly, if at all, the DoD will turn its focus to yet another enemy within.