(WASHINGTON) — A federal judge found the United States Air Force 60% responsible for the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.
Devin Kelley opened fire inside the First Baptist Church, 40 miles outside of San Antonio, during a Sunday service and killed 26 people from ages 5 to 72, making it the worst mass shooting at a house of worship ever.
In a civil lawsuit brought by families and victims of the shooting against the government, Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that because Kelley was investigated and court-martialed for assaulting his then-wife and her stepson on an Air Force base, the service should have alerted the FBI that Kelley could not legally purchase a gun through its alert system.
"The Court concludes that the Government failed to exercise reasonable care in its undertaking to submit criminal history to the FBI. The Government's failure to exercise reasonable care increased the risk of physical harm to the general public, including Plaintiffs. And its failure proximately caused the deaths and injuries of Plaintiffs at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church on November 5, 2017," Rodriguez wrote.
The government argued that they were shielded from liability by the Brady Act, which mandates that federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Air Force, report disqualifying information "not less frequently than quarterly," according to the filing. "Disqualifying information includes "any record of any person demonstrating that the person falls within one of the categories" of persons prohibited from purchasing firearms.”
During the investigation into domestic assault allegations, Kelley "threatened to kill both (his wife) and Air Force Security Forces" if she reported the abuse to authorities, according to the court filing. Additionally, his wife told investigators that Kelley threatened to commit a mass shooting at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
"My work is lucky. I'd take a shotgun and blow everyone's head off," Kelley said at the time, according to the court filing.
When Air Force Investigators looked into Kelley they discovered a "long history of violence and abuse," according to the court filing.
Kelley was ultimately jailed for for a year on the domestic assault charges.
He later remarried and abused his second wife, according to the court filing.
The judge concluded that the Air Force did not properly report about Kelley to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that gun dealers are required to use in order to complete a background check.
"The trial conclusively established that no other individual -- not even Kelley's own parents or partners -- knew as much as the United States about the violence that Devin Kelley had threatened to commit and was capable of committing. Moreover, the evidence shows that -- had the Government done its job and properly reported Kelley's information into the background check system -- it is more likely than not that Kelley would have been deterred from carrying out the Church shooting. For these reasons, the Government bears significant responsibility for the Plaintiffs' harm.”
First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy told ABC News Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas in 2019 that he was still hurting from the shooting.
"The aftermath hurt almost as much as the actual, what the shooter did in our church," Pomeroy said.
The judge gave the government 15 days to come up with a settlement plan.