Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) -- When a gunman opened fire in a small Texas church, congregants were helpless to get away from the attacker, who killed 26 people in a massacre that claimed multiple members of some families and tore apart a close-knit town of 400 people.
Once the shooting started Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, there was probably "no way" for congregants to escape, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said.
The gunman, dressed in black tactical gear, fired an assault rifle as he walked down the center aisle during worship services. He turned around and continued shooting on his way out of the building, Tackitt said.
The gunman also carried a handgun, but authorities he did not know if it was fired. Tackitt described the scene as "terrible."
"It's unbelievable to see children, men and women, laying there. Defenseless people," he said
The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. About 20 other people were wounded.
The gunman's former in-laws attended services at the church "from time to time" but were not there Sunday, Tackitt told CNN on Monday.
The suspect was identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26. Authorities said he lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of the Sutherland Springs church.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Kelley did not appear to be linked to organized terrorist groups. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation.
Investigators were looking at social media posts Kelley made in the days before the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.
Kelley received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force for assaulting his spouse and child and was sentenced to 12 months of confinement after a 2012 court-martial. Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his 2014 discharge, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
The attacker pulled into a gas station across from the church, about 30 miles (48.28 kilometers) southeast of San Antonio, around 11:20 a.m. Sunday. He crossed the street and started firing the rifle at the church, then continued firing after entering the white wood-frame building, said Freeman Martin, a regional director of the Texas Department of Safety.
As he left, the shooter was confronted by an armed resident who "grabbed his rifle and engaged that suspect," Martin said. A short time later, the suspect was found dead in his vehicle at the county line. Authorities believe he shot himself following a car wreck.
Twenty-three of the dead were found in the church, two were found outside and one died after being taken to a hospital, Martin said.
The man who confronted Kelley had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who told KSAT-TV that he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. He didn't identify the armed resident but said the man exchanged gunfire with the gunman, then asked to get in Langendorff's truck and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.
Langendorff said the gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed. He said the other man walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn and the suspect did not move. He stayed there for at least five minutes, until police arrived.
"I was strictly just acting on what's the right thing to do," Langendorff said.
Among those killed was the church pastor's 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy. Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were both out of town when the attack occurred, Sherri Pomeroy wrote in a text message.
"We lost our 14-year-old daughter today and many friends," she wrote. "Neither of us has made it back into town yet to personally see the devastation."
Church member Nick Uhlig, 34, who was not at Sunday's service, told the AP that his cousin, who was eight months' pregnant, and her in-laws were among those killed. He later told the Houston Chronicle that three of his cousin's children also were slain.
President Donald Trump, who was in Japan, called the shooting an "act of evil," later calling the gunman "a very deranged individual."
May God be w/ the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The FBI & law enforcement are on the scene. I am monitoring the situation from Japan.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2017
On Sunday evening, two sheriff's vans were parked outside the gate of a cattle fence surrounding the address listed for Kelley on the rural outskirts of New Braunfels, north of San Antonio.
Ryan Albers, 16, who lives across the road, said he heard intensifying gunfire coming from that direction in recent days.
"It was definitely not just a shotgun or someone hunting," Albers said.
The church has posted videos of its Sunday services on a YouTube channel, raising the possibility that the shooting was captured on video.
In a video of its Oct. 8 service, a congregant who spoke and read Scripture pointed to the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting a week earlier as evidence of the "wicked nature" of man. That shooting left 58 dead and more than 500 injured.
Gov. Greg Abbott called Sunday's attack the worst mass shooting in Texas history. It came on the eighth anniversary of a shooting at Fort Hood, where 13 people were killed and 31 others wounded by a former Army major.
Statement on shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX. pic.twitter.com/ffUbQgYdWD— Gov. Greg Abbott (@GovAbbott) November 5, 2017
The previous deadliest mass shooting in Texas had been a 1991 attack in Killeen, when a mentally disturbed man crashed his pickup truck through a restaurant window at lunchtime and started shooting people, killing 23 and injuring more than 20 others.
The University of Texas was the site of one of the most infamous mass shootings in American history, when Marine sniper Charles Whitman climbed the Austin campus' clock tower in 1966 and began firing on stunned people below, killing 13 and wounding nearly three dozen others. He had killed his wife and mother before heading to the tower. One victim died a week later, and medical examiners eventually attributed a 17th death to Whitman in 2001.