The morning of Nov. 5 marked the beginning of a nightmare for the close-knit community of Sutherland Springs. A town that had never sought or received national attention since its founding in 1849 will now be remembered for a tragedy that claimed 4 percent of its population.
Sutherland Springs’ first landmark was a post office opened in 1851 by the town’s founder, John Sutherland, Jr. Today, the post office sits directly across the street from a small white church on Old Highway 87, separated from the rest of its community by yellow crime scene tape and dozens of law enforcement vehicles.
Since 1926, the First Baptist Church has been a focal point of hope and faith for residents. However, on Sunday morning a gunman claimed the lives of 26 within its walls.
The following day, the sidewalks on both sides of the road that separate the church and the post office look nearly identical: hundreds of journalists, their equipment and vans clutter the street while frustrated neighbors attempt to cope with the reality of masses of strangers invading their property and their lives.
The town of Sutherland Springs, where only 650 reside, has awakened to something they thought could only happen in other places.
Aimee Gann, studio art senior, was surprised to hear the name of her tiny hometown uttered on national television by the president of the United States.
“I was home alone, house-sitting for my parents who were out of town,” Gann said. “My dad messaged me to stay inside, and I didn’t change the TV from CNN all day. I watched the air life helicopter fly over the house, one after another, and heard the sirens blaring down the highway.”
For Gann, the situation remained surreal until seeing the crime scene tape attached to a hay bale; then, reality sunk in. As the victims were named, Gann realized she knew some of the people who lost their lives.
American flags and grazing cattle lined the winding road on the Sunday morning when 26-year-old Devin Kelley made the drive to Sutherland Springs from New Braunfels.
As Kelley passed the town’s post office and arrived at the First Baptist Church, he had a plan. At 11:30 a.m. he opened fire on the congregation, killing 26 and injuring more than 20.
According to Freeman Martin, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Kelley’s actions were related to a “domestic situation.”
“We know he had made threatening texts, and we can’t go into detail (about) that domestic situation,” Martin said. “This was not racially motivated. It wasn’t over religious beliefs.”
Kelsey Huckaby, curator for the Gallery of the Common Experience at Texas State, reflected on her childhood spent with Kelley.
Huckaby began to form her friend group in 7th grade at New Braunfels Middle School. This is the year she met Kelley who was a year older and dating one of her good friends. She admired the affection Kelley and his girlfriend shared with one another. The group began building memories at movie theaters and church youth groups.
When Kelley went on to high school, Huckaby would see him in the hallways, but they eventually lost touch.
According to the Air Force Times, Kelley joined in 2010. He married Tessa K. Kelley, a woman who lived above Huckaby’s apartment along with her son.
“I thought it would be good for her to have someone seemingly solid like that taking care of her and her baby,” Huckaby said.
Years later, Huckaby found out that the woman had filed a restraining order against Kelley.
Texas officials reported that Kelley was dishonorably discharged after being court-martialed in 2012 for the assaults on his wife and step-child.
Huckabee said since then, she had not interacted with Kelley until earlier this year when she was searching for a place to live. He messaged her privately, offering his trailer as a place where Huckaby and her boyfriend could live.
“Knowing some things from his past, it struck me as odd right off the bat. Then he proceded to say if I would give him a hand-job for five minutes twice a week, he’d let me stay there for free ‘if (my boyfriend) was cool with it,” Huckaby said. “I stopped responding, and he went on to say his wife or girlfriend were in an open relationship, and I just blocked him after that and never heard of him again until the shooting.”
NBC News interviewed a source who experienced similar sexual harassment from Kelley when she was 13 and he was 18.
This past weekend, Huckaby’s boyfriend showed her a picture of the gunman who opened fire on the church, and Huckaby quickly remembered Devin Kelley.
“In a strange way, the way things led up through his life, it’s almost not surprising,” Huckaby said. “Simultaneously, this is someone I’ve hugged and laughed and had memories growing up with. A lot of our old mutual friends are saying the same thing.”
This year’s Common Experience theme is justice, which outlines how the court system and criminal justice intertwine. This experience gives her a different understanding of Kelley’s actions as part of a bigger picture.
“I’m beyond angry he did this, but it also seems like there (are) some missing pieces that caused him to break somewhere down the line,” Huckaby said. “Maybe if his behavior was better punished or resolved in the past, this wouldn’t have happened… Or maybe it would have just built the fire, who knows.”
Back in Sutherland Springs, a make-shift memorial with flowers and a teddy bear sits just outside the crime scene tape that surrounds the First Baptist Church.
“There are quite a few fundraisers set up on GoFundMe and within the community. I encourage anyone who can help to please donate for funeral and medical expenses,” Gann said. “Please keep this little town in your thoughts while we recover from this tragedy.”
Flags across the state have been lowered to half-staff. Seven miles away, in La Vernia, the Immanuel Lutheran Church displays a sign that says, “Our prayers are with Sutherland Springs.”