Wife of Sutherland Springs church shooter takes stand as trial begins in lawsuit against the U.S. government

Danielle Smith recalls day of shooting, history of abuse and moment guns were purchased

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. walks past the front doors where bullet holes were marked by police at the First Baptist Church, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing more than two dozen and injuring others. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip, Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – A trial began Wednesday in a federal district court in San Antonio stemming from the 2017 Sutherland Springs massacre that left 26 people dead.

The case is a lawsuit filed in 2018 by the victims’ families of the First Baptist Church mass shooting against the United States government. The families allege that failure by the U.S. Air Force to properly flag shooter Devin Kelley in a national background check database following a domestic violence conviction allowed Kelley to lawfully obtain the weapon used in the slayings.

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Kelley was convicted on domestic violence charges in connection with a series of incidents that included fracturing his stepson’s skull and choking and pointing a gun at his then-wife in 2012.

The first witness to take the stand was Danielle Smith, the wife of Devin Kelley.

In dramatic testimony, she recalled a long history of abuse by Kelley throughout their marriage.

“I was his property,” Danielle Smith said, describing how she was controlled by her husband, not allowed to see family or friends and consistently beaten.

She also testified about the day Kelley purchased the semi-automatic, high-capacity rifle he used in the shooting.

She said after being denied at Dick’s Sporting Goods because of an out-of-state license, the couple went to Academy Sports and Outdoors in San Antonio in April 2016 and he was able to purchase the weapon.

The day before the shooting, she testified that Kelley showed her a video of another woman performing a sex act on him. She asked for a divorce.

The next morning, Kelly hogtied her to the bed, put on a bulletproof vest and a mask, grabbed his firearms and told their son he would be right back.

Sometime later she said his parents found her and untied her. Kelley then called her and stated he had shot a lot of people at her mom’s church and blamed her.

“He said ‘it’s all your fault’ and then he shot himself,” Smith testified.

Lula White, Smith’s grandmother, was one of the 26 victims of the mass shooting. Smith’s mother did not attend that day.

According to police, Kelley went to the First Baptist Church and started shooting from the outside. He then entered the church and continued killing people. When he went back outside he was met with gunfire by a neighbor, Stephen Willeford, and fled the scene. He was surrounded by police and fatally shot himself before being taken into custody.

The testimony on Wednesday is the beginning of a trial in U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez courtroom that’s expected to last for a few weeks. It is a bench trial, meaning there is no jury and Judge Rodriguez will ultimately decide whether the U.S. government was liable in the shooting. If so, the trial would proceed to a phase to determine what amount of damages are owed to the plaintiffs.

After all testimony is heard, it could be weeks before Judge Rodriguez rules on the case.


About the Author

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

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