On that November morning, Danielle Kelley screamed as her husband, Devin Kelley, strapped her to their bed in their Texas home. Their 2-year-old son, Michael, sobbed as he watched his father tie up his mother with rope, handcuffs and duct tape. Raeleigh, their 5-month-old daughter, lay in her crib, Danielle Kelley told the San Antonio Express-News.
Wearing a ballistic vest, Devin Kelley left the house with his Ruger AR-556 and two handguns. Less than an hour later, he stormed a small Sutherland Springs church and sprayed bullets into the congregation, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others in the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
For the first time since the church massacre, the gunman’s wife described that day, and the excruciating months that have followed, in a series of interviews with the Express-News published Saturday.
After a shootout with a man who ran to the church barefoot to intervene, Devin Kelley sped away from First Baptist in his Ford SUV, which careened off the road into a ditch. He called his parents, who had since rushed to his house to untie Danielle Kelley from the bed. He spoke to the three of them over a speakerphone.
“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.”
Then Devin Kelley shot himself in the head. The 26-year-old was dead by the time police arrived.
“It’s just not fair because my kids now have to grow up without a dad,” his widow said in an emotional video interview with the Express-News. “I have to do things by myself being a single parent.
“And a lot of people go through that normally,” she added, “but now it’s like, I’m a single parent to kids, and I have a husband that murdered people.”
Danielle Kelley was left mourning her husband and the father of her kids. But she also grieved the loss of more than two dozen members of a church community she grew up with, she told the Express-News. Devin Kelley killed members of three generations of the Holcombe family, including a 1-year-old and an unborn child. The victims were families that Danielle Kelley sat beside at church and whose children she used to baby-sit. Among the dead was her grandmother, Lou White, who took care of her when she was young.
While it’s still unclear exactly why Devin Kelley targeted First Baptist Church, his widow and some authorities speculated it was connected to his troubled relationship with Danielle Kelley’s mother, Michelle Shields, who attended the church but was not present when he opened fire on the congregation.
Danielle Kelley has since started going back to church in Sutherland Springs, she told the Express-News, but it’s “difficult because it’s not the same.”
“I’m used to seeing ... Lou, my grandmother, smiling and holding the babies, saying, ‘Oh come on, sit over here, I saved you a spot,’” she said.
Danielle Kelley described befriending Devin Kelley when she was 13, and he was 17. They connected over their shared struggles growing up — as teenagers. She suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, she told the Express-News. During her senior year of high school, she attempted suicide. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and recalled being bullied as a child.
But they would not get married until years later, when she was 19, and he was 23. By then, Devin Kelley had already divorced a previous wife, Tessa Brennaman, who said he threatened to kill her on numerous occasions and once put a gun to her head. Court documents also showed that he physically abused her and struck her young child “on the head and body with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.” While serving in the Air Force, he was convicted by a general court-martial on two charges of domestic assault and served a year in prison.
Danielle and Devin Kelley wed in 2014. Their marriage was a tumultuous one that became worse as he became more depressed and reclusive, she told the Express-News. The couple eventually isolated themselves from the community and from Danielle Kelley’s mother, Michelle Shields. Devin Kelley sent his mother-in-law texts threatening to “destroy” her life if she entered the hospital room when their second child was born, the Express-News reported.
He became an atheist, began abusing his anxiety medication, and refused to leave their apartment, Danielle Kelley told the newspaper.
“Devin was sick. He lost who he was. Because the real Devin would’ve never hurt babies. He was a family person. He would never have hurt anybody,” Danielle Kelley told the Express News. “He lost the touch of reality.”
The Express-News article portrayed a conflicted widow grappling with feelings of love and grief for her late husband but also immense guilt over the lives he destroyed.
“People will never understand,” Danielle Kelley told the Express-News. She said she wants her children to know who their father was, “but then I can’t let them know because I don’t want my kids ever following in their dad’s footsteps.”
“I don’t want people to feel like . . . I make excuses for him, because I don’t,” she added. “It’s hard because I will love him, always, but I will always hate what he did.”