Trial begins to assess damages in 2017 Sutherland Springs church massacre

The trial will determine how much the Air Force should pay survivors, families of those killed

SAN ANTONIO – A trial to assess damages owed to families of the victims of the Sutherland Springs church massacre began with vivid witness accounts of the shooting.

John Porter Holcombe testified for several hours Monday about the horrors of Devin Patrick Kelley’s Nov. 5, 2017, attack on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio.

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Holcombe said he was videotaping the service that Sunday when the front door opened and Kelley, dressed in black and with a rifle, stood in the entryway and declared, "First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, today you are all going to die!” He said the next thing he heard was gunshots.

Holcombe said he was shot a few times but that he laid still. When he felt it was safe enough, he looked around for his family and friends but only saw “lifeless bodies.”

Among the 26 dead were Holcombe's pregnant wife, Crystal, his two stepchildren, his parents, his brother Marc “Danny” Holcombe and an infant niece. Twenty-two people were wounded but survived.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ordered the trial to determine how much the U.S. Air Force should pay to compensate survivors and the families of those killed. He ruled in July that the Air Force was “60% liable” for the attack because it failed to submit Kelley’s assault conviction during his time in the Air Force to a national database, which might have prevented him from buying the guns he used in the mass shooting.

Kelley, who was discharged from the Air Force in 2014 for bad conduct, exchanged fire with an armed resident while leaving the church. The armed resident then got in the truck of another man and they followed Kelley as he drove away. Kelley, who lost control of his vehicle and crashed, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Rodriguez began to hear testimony Monday in the damages phase of the case, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Dingivan, representing the Air Force, told the court Monday that “the government has no intention ... to denigrate or dismiss the claims of these plaintiffs, who we can all agree endured a horrific tragedy.”

He said the government has already stipulated “reasonable compensation and reasonable treatment for some of these plaintiffs” in suggested payments ranging from "$400 to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more."

“As to future medical expenses, we have presented life-care plans covering future (treatment/needs) recommending millions of dollars in future medical care,” Dingivan said. “We have proposed PTSD treatment, backed by research, for those individuals who use it. We have proposed home health care, medicine, surgery ... for those plaintiffs who need them.”

This phase of the trial is expected to last two weeks.

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