Gunman kills 26 in rural Texas church during Sunday service

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) - A man with an assault rifle killed at least 26 people and wounded 20 in a rural Texas church during Sunday services, adding the name of Sutherland Springs to the litany of American communities shattered by mass shootings.

RELATED: Photos from the scene of the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting

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Photos from the scene of the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting
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Photos from the scene of the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting
Police block a road in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017, after a mass shooting a church nearby. A gunman shot dead at least 20 worshippers attending Sunday morning services at a Baptist church in Texas, news media reported. / AFP PHOTO / SUZANNE CORDEIRO (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Police block a road in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017, after a mass shooting a church nearby. A gunman shot dead at least 20 worshippers attending Sunday morning services at a Baptist church in Texas, news media reported. / AFP PHOTO / SUZANNE CORDEIRO (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Police block a road in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, 2017, after a mass shooting at the the First Baptist Church. A gunman went into the church during Sunday morning services and shot dead some two dozen worshippers, the sheriff said, in the latest mass shooting to shock the US. 'Approximately 25 people' were dead, including the shooter, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told NBC News. At least 10 people were wounded. The motive was not immediately known, he added. / AFP PHOTO / SUZANNE CORDEIRO (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Police block a road in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, 2017, after a mass shooting at the the First Baptist Church (rear). A gunman went into the church during Sunday morning services and shot dead some two dozen worshippers, the sheriff said, in the latest mass shooting to shock the US. 'Approximately 25 people' were dead, including the shooter, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told NBC News. At least 10 people were wounded. The motive was not immediately known, he added. / AFP PHOTO / SUZANNE CORDEIRO (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Families gather at the community center awaiting news about the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Families gather at the community center awaiting news about the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 6: Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: Law enforcement and forensic officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: A forensics official passes by the entrance to the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 20 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Families gather at the community center awaiting news about the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Police are at the scene of the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Families gather at the community center awaiting news about the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Police have closed off the roads near the scene of the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
First responders are at the shooting scene at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
First responders are at the scene of shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
First responders are at the scene of shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: People gather near First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 26 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, allegedly entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 5: Law enforcement officials gather near First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. At least 26 people were reportedly killed and 24 injured when a gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, 26, allegedly entered the church during a service and opened fire. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
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The massacre, which media reports say was carried out by a man thrown out of the Air Force for assaulting his wife and child, is likely to renew questions about why someone with a history of violence could amass an arsenal of lethal weaponry.

The lone gunman, dressed in black tactical gear and a ballistic vest, drove up to the white-steepled First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and started firing inside. He kept shooting once he entered, killing or wounding victims ranging in age from five to 72 years, police told a news conference.

President Donald Trump told reporters the shooting was due to a “mental health problem” and wasn’t “a guns situation.” He was speaking during an official visit to Japan.

Among the dead was the 14-year-old daughter of Pastor Frank Pomeroy, the family told several television stations.

The gunman was later found dead, apparently of a gunshot wound, after he fled the scene.

“We are dealing with the largest mass shooting in our state’s history,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said at the news conference. “The tragedy of course is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship.”

About 40 miles (65 km) east of San Antonio in Wilson County, Sutherland Springs has fewer than 400 residents.

“This would never be expected in a little county like (this),” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told CNN.

A local resident with a rifle fired at the suspect as he left the church. The gunman dropped his Ruger assault weapon and fled in his vehicle, said Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

A man told San Antonio television station KSAT he was driving near the church when the resident who had opened fire on the gunman approached his truck and urged him to give chase.

RELATED: Man arrives in Las Vegas delivers hand-made crosses to honor mass shooting victims

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Man arrives in Las Vegas delivers hand-made crosses to honor mass shooting victims
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Man arrives in Las Vegas delivers hand-made crosses to honor mass shooting victims
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: U.S. Army veteran Adam Arizaga of Las Vegas, Nevada, places flowers on a cross at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign on October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 58 crosses made by Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, are at the location to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: U.S. Army veteran Adam Arizaga of Las Vegas, Nevada, places flowers on a cross at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign. 58 crosses made by Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, are at the location to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings. October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
Greg Zanis of Chicago, Illinois works on one of the 58 white crosses he set up for the victims of the Route 91 music festival mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
Greg Zanis of Chicago, Illinois works on one of the 58 white crosses he set up for the victims of the Route 91 music festival mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Mourners gather at the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign where Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Chicago, Illinois, placed 58 crosses to honor those who were killed during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shootings, October 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 450. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images)
Greg Zanis of Chicago, Illinois works on one of the 58 white crosses he set up for the victims of the Route 91 music festival mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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“He said that we had to get him (the gunman), and so that’s what I did,” Johnnie Langendorff, the driver of the truck, told KSAT. He added they reached speeds of 95 miles (153 km/h) per hour during the chase, while he was on the phone with emergency dispatchers.

Soon afterward, the suspect crashed the vehicle near the border of a neighboring county and was found dead inside with a cache of weapons. It was not immediately clear if he killed himself or was hit when the resident fired at him outside the church, authorities said.

The suspect’s identity was not disclosed by authorities, but law enforcement officials who asked not to be named said he was Devin Patrick Kelley, described as a white, 26-year-old man, the New York Times and other media reported.

“We don’t think he had any connection to this church,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CNN. “We have no motive.”

‘I HIT THE DECK’

The massacre came weeks after a sniper killed 58 people in Las Vegas in the deadliest attack in modern U.S. history, stirring a years-long national debate over whether easy access to firearms was contributing to the trend of mass shootings.

In rural areas like Sutherland Springs, gun ownership is a part of life and the state’s Republican leaders for years have balked at pushes for gun control, arguing more firearms among responsible owners make the state safer.

Jeff Forrest, a 36-year-old military veteran who lives a block away from the church, said what sounded like high-caliber, semi-automatic gunfire triggered memories of his four combat deployments with the Marine Corps.

“I was on the porch, I heard 10 rounds go off and then my ears just started ringing,” Forrest said. “I hit the deck and I just lay there.”

To honor the victims, Trump ordered flags on all federal buildings to be flown at half staff.

In Japan during the first leg of a 12-day Asian trip, the president said preliminary reports indicated the shooter was “deranged.”

“This isn’t a guns situation, I mean we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it,” Trump said. “But fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise ... it would have been much worse. But this is a mental health problem at the highest level.”

The First Baptist Church is one of two houses of worship in Sutherland Springs, which also has two gas stations and a Dollar General store.

The white-painted, one-story church features a small steeple and a single front door. On Sunday, the Lone Star flag of Texas was flying alongside the U.S. flag and a third, unidentified banner.

Inside, there is a small raised platform on which members sang worship songs to guitar music and the pastor delivered a weekly sermon, according to videos posted on YouTube. In one of the clips, a few dozen people, including young children, can be seen sitting in the wooden pews.

It was not clear how many worshipers were inside when Sunday’s shooting occurred.

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Online records show a man named Devin Patrick Kelley lived in New Braunfels, Texas, about 35 miles (56 km) north of Sutherland Springs.

The U.S. Air Force said Kelley served in its Logistics Readiness unit at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child, and given a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

Kelley’s Facebook page has been deleted, but cached photos show a profile picture where he appeared with two small children. He also posted a photo of what appeared to be an assault rifle, writing a post that read: “She’s a bad bitch.”

Sunday’s shooting occurred on the eighth anniversary of the Nov. 5, 2009, massacre of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in central Texas. A U.S. Army Medical Corps psychiatrist convicted of the killings is awaiting execution.

In 2015, a white gunman killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman was sentenced to death for the racially motivated attack.

In September, a gunman killed a woman in the parking lot of a Tennessee church and wounded six worshipers inside.

Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Phil Stewart in Washington, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Frank McGurty; editing by John Stonestreet.

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