Saturday, April 21, 2018
Nation & World

In Air Force, colleague feared church gunman would ‘shoot up the place’

At the start of his Air Force career, Devin P. Kelley was picked for a demanding and selective intelligence analyst school. He walked into his first Monday of class with a crisp blue uniform, shined shoes, and for perhaps the first time in years, with hope. It didn’t last.

Two years later, he was on the run, in a bleak El Paso bus station at midnight trying to catch the first Greyhound back home after failing out of school, being charged with assault and escaping from a psychiatric hospital.

As he waited in jean shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, the ticket in his hand was proof he had once again failed.

For Kelley, who last Sunday opened fire on a rural Texas church, killing 26 people, the Air Force could have been a turning point — a source of discipline and direction that he had not embraced in a troubled childhood. But military records and interviews with fellow airmen show that despite repeated chances, his career fell apart under the weight of his depression and rage, at a time when his mind was churning with half-laid plans to kill his superiors.

After only a few months in the service, Kelley slid back into a long decline that left a wreckage of broken relationships, criminal convictions and eventually bloodshed.

"The Air Force tried to give him chances but he was just problem after problem after problem," said Jessika Edwards, a former Air Force staff sergeant who worked with Kelley in 2011, near the end of his career.

"He was a dude on the edge," Edwards said, noting that he would appear at informal squadron social functions in all black and a black trench coat. "This is not just in hindsight. He scared me at the time."

Even after he left the military, he contacted her on Facebook with disturbing posts about his obsession with Dylann Roof, the Charleston, S.C., mass murderer, and his target practices using dogs ordered online.

Edwards said the military had tried counseling and tough love, but nothing seemed to work. When punished for poor performance, Kelley would cry, scream and shake with rage, vowing to kill his superiors, she recalled. His temper was so unsettling that she warned others in the squadron to go easy on him or he was likely to come back and "shoot up the place."

For Kelley, the military was likely an encouraging option at first. His family had a tradition of going to Texas A&M University: His grandfather, father and both siblings were Aggies. But growing up in New Braunfels, Texas, Kelley did not get the grades to attend A&M, one of the state’s top schools. Besides earning mostly C’s, he had amassed at least seven suspensions for insubordination, profanity, dishonesty and drugs, according to school records.

The Air Force offered him a clean slate and the chance to prove himself. He enlisted right after high school in 2009.

In spring 2010, after two months of basic training, he arrived at Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, Texas, for the rigorous six-month intelligence technical school.

Kelley washed out before graduation.

A military official briefed on Kelley’s Air Force record said only that he was cut from the school for "academic reasons."

He was sent in 2011 to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and assigned to the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

The squadron wrote up the airman for every infraction, Edwards said, laying a paper trail that would allow the Air Force to discharge him for poor performance. Before it could do that, in April 2012, Kelley was arrested and detained after he pointed a gun at his wife, hitting and choking her, and hit his baby stepson, fracturing his skull.

His wife filed for divorce that year.

While Kelley awaited court-martial, the Air Force sent him to a civilian psychiatric hospital in Santa Teresa, N.M., where, according to local emergency dispatch records, he was given medication for depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and was considered a "high-risk patient."

On the night of June 7, 2012, Kelley escaped, made his way 12 miles south in the desert night to the El Paso bus station and bought a ticket home.

His counselor at the hospital called police, according to a police report, warning that Kelley had talked about killing his chain of command in the Air Force and told other patients he had recently bought guns online.

Kelley was quickly caught and kept in pretrial confinement before his court-martial because of the threats, said Don Christensen, a retired colonel who at the time was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor. He pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and in November 2012 was sentenced to 12 months in confinement — a relatively light sentence.

After his guilty plea, Kelley served just eight months in military prison. In June 2013 he was let out, having been knocked down to the lowest possible rank and given a bad conduct discharge that barred him from nearly all veterans benefits, including mental health treatment.

He went back to New Braunfels. He married again in 2014, to 19-year-old Danielle Shields.

Soon, Kelley’s Facebook conversations turned dark. He started sending Edwards photos of weapons he had bought and descriptions of killing animals.

This spring, Kelley’s comments became so disturbing that she unfriended him.

Now she, like many others in his path, says she cannot help but blame herself for not acting when she saw signs of trouble.

On Sunday, she was washing dishes at home when another member of their old squadron texted her. "The shooter, it’s Kelley," the text said.

She dropped the glass in her hands and started crying.

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