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Sutherland Springs still struggles with church massacre

Heather Cooper, 8, and her mother Meredith Cooper visit the crosses in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 6, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten1 / 8
Twenty-six crosses, one for each person killed in the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 6, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten2 / 8
Mourners embrace as dozens of people stand in the rain to pray and sing together at the memorial crosses near the scene of the Sutherland Springs massacre in November. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten3 / 8
A rosary hangs on the fence outside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, one week after the massacre in November 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten4 / 8
The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, has been turned into a memorial to the 26 people killed there in November when a gunman invaded the sanctuary. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten5 / 8
Hay bales lie in pastures down the road from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten6 / 8
People pray in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, the day after the shooting. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten7 / 8
The sanctuary in the small Sutherland Springs, Texas, church has a white chair for each of the victims, showing where they were killed in what used to be the church's pews. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten8 / 8

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas - Fiddling with her "Sutherland Springs Strong" charm necklace, Michelle Shields opens the door to the sterile, bright-white memorial that used to be her church.

Shields wasn't here that morning. She wasn't here because her husband's back hurt and the couple had been up late watching one of their grandchildren. She wasn't here for the usual family greetings or the hugs or the community togetherness or the tiny, warm sanctuary's music-filled service. Neither was she here for the unspeakable horrors that would forever corrupt those things. The gunfire. The stalking killer. The toddlers shot at point-blank range for making a sound. Entire families wiped out in the pews where they prayed to God. That morning, her son-in-law went to First Baptist Church on a mission to kill her and those close to her.

She wasn't there. That morning.

There are 26 white chairs in the stark room now, each bearing the name of someone who died in the Nov. 5 massacre, the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history. There's a rose on each seat and teddy bears where eight of the children - including 17-month-old Noah Grace - were killed with a military-style rifle. A tissue box sits at the altar.

Shields is here to escort a couple who pulled over in this small town outside San Antonio - as many driving through do - to pay their respects. Shields, the church treasurer, is here a lot, now, reliving the events that tore through this place, and these people, her people. Her mother, Lula Woicinski White, 71, bled to death over there. Her best friend died over there. Others, huddled with their children, died in that pew. Now it has been reduced to an empty room.

"I don't like going in there," Shields shares in a rare interview. She breaks down. She pushes wispy silver bangs out of her eyes, makes sure her makeup isn't running. "Trying to be strong for the survivors," she says, like a mantra, as if she's trying to convince herself.

Shields knows this wasn't her fault, but everything about it haunts her. Her son-in-law, a deeply troubled 26-year-old with a history of domestic violence, had threatened to harm her if she meddled in his life. He forbade her to visit the hospital months earlier when his wife, Danielle, 23, was giving birth to their second child.

But the violent attack came without specific warning. He had been to the church just days earlier for a fall festival, a moment that Shields thought at the time signaled his willingness to reconcile their troubled relationship, a step forward. He was seeing a doctor, taking anti-anxiety medication. He was there.

Maybe the streams of angry text messages telling her to stay away from her daughter - one read: "Don't test my resolve" - were going to be a thing of the past. Maybe she would get to spend time with her grandchildren.

Maybe she could bring Devin Patrick Kelley to find Jesus, here, at her church.

Instead, he brought mayhem, destruction and death to it. What he didn't find there was Shields, who learned about the massacre by phone after Kelley had shot himself to death, and she has been struggling to reconcile her absence that day. A breast cancer survivor, Shields said the only way she can make sense of her role is by believing that there was a reason for all of this, as elusive as that might seem some days.

"The Lord had a different plan for me, maybe for me to be left behind and help the survivors," Shields said.

They need it now more than ever, as the world has moved on from Sutherland Springs in an era when mass shootings have taken on an air of somber regularity. Sutherland Springs is still devastated, still hovering between sorrow and strength, still trying to overcome what hangs over nearly every interaction in this working-class, rural farming community, which lost 5 percent of its 500 residents in the massacre.

Jennifer Holcombe spent the better part of a decade trying to get pregnant. She finally did. But on Nov. 5, her fun-loving Noah Grace - her miracle baby - was slaughtered along with her husband, Danny, and seven other relatives. Holcombe often stops mid-sentence, loses track of what she means to say.

Katie Wall - who lost both her parents that morning - misses the family dinners. She misses removing her dad's hat as he nodded off in his recliner, and she misses kissing his head every night before bed.

Ryan, 9, his 12-year-old sister, Reina, and their little brother, Jacob, 8, lost their grandparents, an aunt and uncle and five young cousins: close friends with whom they shared sleepovers, decorated cookies and played at church.

This summer, Ryan, Reina and Jacob went to a special wellness camp for young survivors, where they played basketball in wheelchairs to instill compassion and to "represent that even though things are hard, they can overcome it," said their mother, Miranda Abbott Bonesteel. The children blew bubbles that glinted and drifted in the summer sun before popping and disappearing, a representation of life: things come, and then they go.

"This town, this county, will never be the same. Some physically, because of all the bullets they took, and everybody mentally," said Wilson County Judge Richard L. "Dickie" Jackson, the area's top elected official. He recently had lunch "to check in on" a seasoned criminal investigator in the Wilson County's Sheriff's Office, Stephen Moore, who was one of the first to walk into the carnage in the church.

"Sutherland Springs . . . that was . . . that was just," Moore said, searching for the words. "You know, I've seen drownings and shootings, fires, car accidents, infant SIDS deaths and the occasional homicide, but this . . . it was. . . . Let's put it this way, in the law enforcement community, there's a stigma if you show the impact of something like this. It's like, 'Oh, now, cowboy up and get it done.' "

This time, it wasn't so simple for Moore, 47. The blood, the tiny bodies of toddlers, schoolchildren, indelibly printed in his mind. Moore was always the happy guy who would play Santa Claus at community holiday events. This past Christmas - just more than a month after the shootings - he couldn't.

Moore's children - 9, 7 and 5 - attend Floresville South Elementary School with a friend whose mother was killed in the church protecting her children. Stefanie Moore said that when her husband came home after several round-the-clock days investigating the shooting, "he was a totally different person. It wasn't my Stephen."

- - -

Jennifer Holcombe's eyes look red, numb, exhausted - like those of so many people here who talk about severe memory problems, insomnia, feeling spacey.

"People said I talked to them, and I can't remember the conversations," Holcombe said. "It's like I live in waves of grief."

But she says she could never be upset with Shields or even Kelley, the killer who did all of this. She still comes to the church for Bible study and to visit.

"We loved Michelle before this happened, and we still love her," Holcombe said softly. "I mean, she lost her mother and her best friend."

Holcombe went silent, staring at the floor.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm always tired. It's the trauma."

Some Sutherland survivors say it's most difficult when they are alone. So Shields has made it her mission to be here for them. She helps by just showing up, taking the children who lost relatives out for pizza, helping families build ramps at home for those who have trouble walking after multiple surgeries from multiple gunshot wounds.

On a recent morning, she took two survivors out to breakfast at a country diner. They tried to eat, pushing around their eggs and hash browns. Shields hugged them often.

"Lots of hugs," she said, and they pulled her close.

"I was afraid at first to reach out. But I feel, well, I'll say - it's really my duty," said Shields, a petite woman with pale pink skin and blue-green eyes who is known here as "Aunt Mimi." "This is the only way we get through this - God, each other."

First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs was the tiny country congregation that Danielle, her daughter, was raised in and once loved. Shields had recently tried "to bring Devin to God," a tough - and contentious - push as her son-in-law appeared to embrace atheism and discouraged his wife from engaging with the church community.

The relationship had become so tense that in the spring, when their second child was born, Kelley blocked Shields from visiting the hospital to see her daughter and grandchild. Police said that Kelley sent vitriolic texts to Shields attacking and threatening her; Shields can't talk about them, physically shaking when they come up in conversation.

"I will personally make it my mission to destroy your entire life," Kelley texted, according to texts police are investigating. Another: "You think this is a God-d--- f-----g game? It's not."

Shields said she never imagined Kelley's texts eventually would be followed by actual violence. Police were unaware of the threats until after the massacre.

- - -

With their church now a memorial, the congregation meets for Sunday services in a temporary tan building on the church grounds. A gate outside the church is festooned with flowers and posters from churches and from other communities that have had mass shootings, including a banner from survivors of the Las Vegas Strip massacre that happened a month before the one here.

"We are praying for you," one reads. "The Lord is Close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."

Wind chimes donated by local churches softly jingle in a light breeze. Around the church are 26 square steppingstones, each bearing a victim's name, surrounded by freshly planted wildflowers, green bushes and azaleas. It is meant to be a peaceful spot for reflection, solace.

On Sundays, Shields is comforted by the fact that the church community has grown to more than 200 people from area towns. Survivors of the attack are slowly coming back. Holcombe recently started working again in the church nursery, the same one her daughter, Noah Grace, enjoyed.

"Some of the kids asked about Noah Grace," she said. "We don't expect anyone to know what to say."

Shields, though not in the church that day, is a survivor. Her mother was killed. Her lifelong best friend, Karla Plain Holcombe, was gunned down. Sherri Pomeroy, a church leader and the pastor's wife, lost her 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, in the attack. The four were close, always together.

"We called ourselves the four amigos. We were always planning beach trips, laughing and having fun," Shields said, apologizing for crying. "Now there are only two of us."

And then there's Shields's daughter, Danielle, whose estranged husband carried out one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, turning her church into a graveyard, targeting her family, then killing himself while being chased. The father of her children is dead, and what he left behind is haunting.

Danielle declined interview requests from The Washington Post, saying she wasn't yet ready to talk about the incident. But in interviews published this month in the San Antonio Express-News, she said that her husband strapped her to their bed in the home the morning of the shooting, leaving the house in a ballistic vest and with at least three guns.

She said Devin Kelley had been speaking out against God, had been turning more militant about hating religion, and appeared to be abusing his anti-anxiety and depression medications in the days before the attack.

In the article, Danielle did not address why her husband might have carried out the attack. She said he summoned his parents to their home to help Danielle and then spoke to the three of them as he fled the shooting scene. "He was like 'I can't, I've killed so many people. So, so many people,' " Danielle Kelley recalled to the Express-News. "He kept saying how sorry he was."

He then fatally shot himself in the head.

Danielle told the newspaper that she will always love her husband and clings to the positive memories of their tumultuous relationship. In a text message to The Post, she said "I will never defend Devin ever. I will though be grateful for the times I had and him giving me two babies." She declined to comment further.

Danielle hadn't been back to the church in the immediate months after the shooting as the community tried to recover. But she recently came to two Sunday services. Kris Workman, 35, who plays rhythm guitar and bass in the church's band and was shot and paralyzed inside the church, said Danielle appeared tentative, reluctant, sad.

She mostly said, " 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry' between sobs and went around to each church member," Workman said. "I hugged her back and told her, 'I know.' "

The warm reception her daughter received when she walked into the church comforted Shields. They're trying to be there. In the church. In the community. In the lives of the survivors.

"When Danielle came to church - and it was so hard for her, and she sat in her car awhile - everyone was so open and so loving," Shields said. "Devin is gone now. We have to let God lead our life. God and one another."

This article was written by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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