Church gun­man 'scared me,' fel­low air­man re­calls

She feared ex-col­league with bad tem­per would ‘shoot up the place.’

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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 found him­self 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.

‘Prob­lem af­ter prob­lem’

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 added, 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, South Carolina, 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.”

The Air Force, like the civil­ian world, is of­ten ille­quipped to in­ter­vene be­fore vi­o­lence oc­curs. Though Kel­ley’s be­hav­ior raised flags, com­man­ders say they have limited op­tions un­til a crime is com­mit­ted. Even then, the pri­or­ity is more of­ten on get­ting prob­lem troops out of the mil­i­tary, giv­ing lit­tle thought to the pos­si­ble im­pact on so­ci­ety. Af­ter fac­ing in­tense crit­i­cism for its fail­ure to re­port Kel­ley, the Air Force has opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the case, and many ques­tions re­main about what more it could have done.

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 be­came Ag­gies. But grow­ing up in New Braun­fels, Kel­ley did not get the grades to at­tend 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. Based on above-av­er­age ap­ti­tude test scores, he was picked to be­come a fu­sion an­a­lyst — an in­tel­li­gence spe­cial­ist trained to in­ter­pret and com­mu­ni­cate the lat­est in­for­ma­tion on en­emy tac­tics. It promised a clear ca­reer path and a top-se­cret clear­ance.

In spring 2010, af­ter two months of ba­sic train­ing, he ar­rived at Good­fel­low Air Force Base near San An­gelo, Texas, for the rig­or­ous six­month in­tel­li­gence tech­ni­cal school. Grad­u­at­ing re­quired pass­ing a poly­graph test and a back­ground check to get a se­cu­rity clear­ance.

Kel­ley washed out be­fore grad­u­a­tion.

The Air Force did not pro­vide de­tails on whether Kel­ley passed the re­quired poly­graph, which typ­i­cally scru­ti­nizes men­tal health, drug use, fam­ily is­sues and dis­rup­tive be­hav­ior. A mil­i­tary of­fi­cial briefed on Kel­ley’s Air Force record said only that he was cut from the school for “aca­demic rea­sons.”

Sev­eral air­men who went through school with Kel­ley said in a closed Face­book group viewed by The New York Times that he did not last long. Some re­mem­bered him be­ing there only a few weeks.

“I didn’t even re­al­ize he was in for as long as he was,” one of them said. “I thought he was dis­charged in tech school, let alone re­trained into a dif­fer­ent ca­reer field.”

Kel­ley’s next as­sign­ment was de­cid­edly less de­mand­ing. Records show the Air Force made him a traf­fic man­age­ment ap­pren­tice, a job that in­cludes mov­ing peo­ple and freight, and re­quires a min­i­mal ap­ti­tude score. Still, he strug­gled.

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

Poor per­for­mance

Six days be­fore he ar­rived, he had mar­ried 19-year-old Tessa Loge from his home­town — a move that al­lowed his new wife and her baby from an­other re­la­tion­ship to move into base hous­ing with him, and gave him in­creased pay be­cause he had de­pen­dents.

At the base, Kel­ley worked in the re­ceiv­ing de­part­ment, en­ter­ing in­for­ma­tion on in­com­ing sup­plies into a com­puter. He was smart enough, said Ed­wards, who worked in the same of­fice, but he and his new wife fought con­stantly and were be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by lo­cal child pro­tec­tive ser­vices for child abuse. His wife, who later di­vorced him, de­clined to com­ment.

Kel­ley was so emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble and un­fo­cused, Ed­wards said, that he of­ten would not do his work.

As pun­ish­ment, su­pe­ri­ors would give Kel­ley me­nial tasks, such as mop­ping or scrub­bing toi­lets, which would send him into a rage, Ed­wards said. “He would get so up­set,” she said, “and just keep say­ing, ‘I want to kill them.’ ”

He was for­mally dis­ci­plined mul­ti­ple times, she said, in­clud­ing for sneak­ing a gun onto the base in his car.

The Air Force con­firmed that Ed­wards served in the same squadron as Kel­ley, and that eval­u­a­tions show he per­formed poorly.

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, New Mex­ico, 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 his com­man­ders were con­cerned about 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.

“A se­ri­ous in­jury to a child is worth more than a year in con­fine­ment,” said Chris­tensen, who is now pres­i­dent of Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, an ad­vo­cacy group for vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in the mil­i­tary.

Chris­tensen said that dur­ing his mil­i­tary ca­reer he had seen ser­vice mem­bers re­ceive the same pun­ish­ment Kel­ley got for merely abus­ing over-the-counter cough medicine.

The Air Force should have en­tered Kel­ley’s name into fed­eral data­bases that bar felons from buy­ing firearms — but did not. That mis­take al­lowed him to buy sev­eral guns dur­ing the next few years.

Air Force of­fi­cials apol­o­gized this past week af­ter ad­mit­ting that in re­cent years an un­known num­ber of vi­o­lent crim­i­nals were never reg­is­tered with the sys­tem. “We’re look­ing at all of our data­bases,” the Air Force sec­re­tary, Heather Wil­son, said.

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. Though his par­ents owned a sprawl­ing ranch house with a pa­tio and pool, he moved into their barn. He mar­ried again in 2014, to 19-year-old Danielle Shields.

“That’s where things started to get weird,” said Ed­wards, who re­con­nected with Kel­ley around that time when he called ask­ing for a job ref­er­ence. They started chat­ting oc­ca­sion­ally on Face­book, she said, and his posts grew grad­u­ally more dis­turb­ing un­til she fi­nally stopped com­mu­ni­cat­ing with him this year.

Dis­turb­ing com­ments

At first, Kel­ley shared pho­tos of his chil­dren and small up­dates, she said. Then he started com­plain­ing about his new wife, and about how his fam­ily was try­ing to get him to take med­i­ca­tion. He said he hated his wife but feared she would leave and take the chil­dren, Ed­wards said.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said their rocky re­la­tion­ship may have con­trib­uted to the shoot­ing last Sun­day.

A friend of Kel­ley’s mother-in-law, Todd Felt­ner, said Fri­day the mar­riage was strained be­cause “Devin was abus­ing her phys­i­cally, ver­bally and men­tally.” He added that the mother-in­law told him that Kel­ley had threat­ened her fam­ily, too: “He was telling her ‘that he was go­ing to get them.’ ”

Soon, Kel­ley’s Face­book con­ver­sa­tions turned dark. He started send­ing Ed­wards pho­tos of weapons he had bought and de­scrip­tions of killing an­i­mals. At first, she brushed it off as the en­thu­si­asm of a hunter in Texas Hill Coun­try. But then, she said, he be­came ob­sessed with news of Roof, the 21-yearold who killed nine peo­ple in a church in South Carolina in 2015.

“He was ex­cited about it. He went on and on and on about it, say­ing ‘Isn’t it cool? Isn’t it cool?’ Have you watched the videos?’ ” Ed­wards said. She said she told Kel­ley that he was not act­ing nor­mal and needed help.

“He told me he would never have the nerve to kill peo­ple, he only killed an­i­mals,” she said.

In 2016 he sent her pho­tos of a new mil­i­tary-style ri­fle he was build­ing, one that she said looked like the ri­fle au­thor­i­ties said he used in the church shoot­ing.

This spring, Kel­ley’s com­ments be­came so dis­turb­ing that she un­friended him — some­thing a num­ber of his other friends also said they did.

The break­ing point came when he told her he was buy­ing dogs on­line and us­ing them as tar­get prac­tice.

“I told him this was not nor­mal, and he needed the kind of help I could not give him,” Ed­wards said. “Be­fore I un­friended him, I gave him my num­ber. I told him, ‘If you ever are think­ing about hurt­ing your­self or some­one else, just call.’ ” He never called. 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.

TEXAS DE­PART­MENT OF PUB­LIC SAFETY

Mil­i­tary records and in­ter­views with fel­low air­men show how Kel­ley’s ca­reer fell apart.

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