Air Force Fought Families of Texas Church Shooting Victims 'Tooth and Nail,' Lawyer Says

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First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs after a fatal shooting
Law enforcement officers work in front of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs after a fatal shooting, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

It's been just over four years since Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost their son and seven other relatives from three generations of their family when a former airman stormed into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and fired more than 700 rounds, killing 26 parishioners.

Joe Holcombe said he had a "beautiful" relationship with his late son, John Bryan. They lived and worked on the family farm together. Since that tragic November day, the father has experienced "profound sadness, painful memories of the trauma, and avoidance of reminders of this loss" from the shooting, experts described in court documents.

The Holcombes' tragedy was detailed in a ruling Monday, in which a federal judge ordered the Air Force to pay more than $230 million to the survivors and families of the church shooting victims because the service failed to report the gunman's criminal history to state authorities. That history would have stopped him from buying the firearm he used to gun down the parishioners.

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"The losses and pain these families have experienced is immeasurable," Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas wrote. "Ultimately, there is no satisfying way to determine the worth of these families' pain."

Despite the Air Force admitting that a mistake had allowed the gunman, Devin P. Kelley, to fall through the cracks, the service has made it difficult for survivors and family members to get financial closure, one of the lawyers who represented the families told Military.com.

"The Air Force gave lip service, saying 'we were wrong, and we made mistakes that caused this,'" Jamal Alsaffar said. "But then fought [the survivors of the shooting] tooth and nail and tried to deny responsibility in every stage of this case."

After the 2017 shooting, Air Force officials claimed they would make immediate reforms.

That year, a Pentagon inspector general's report found that all military services "consistently" failed to submit fingerprint data for 24% of the convicted offenders reviewed.

Notably, one of the Air Force's law enforcement offices failed to report 60% of the fingerprint and final disposition reports for convicts, the review detailed.

"This was not just a one-time mistake," Alsaffar said. "The Air Force and the entire military was aware for 30 years that they were not reporting dangerous felons in the background check system."

Under federal law, Kelley shouldn't have been allowed to purchase the rifle used in the shooting because of a prior conviction of domestic assault against his wife and stepson. He received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014.

Then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Washington officials in 2017 that local offices were now required to loop in higher levels of command before closing criminal cases and that officers must verify that the records have been added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's database.

In 2019, the Air Force acquired a new program for crime reporting that replaced an outdated computer system that had been around since the 1990s.

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, declined to comment on what other policy measures have been taken to ensure such a tragedy doesn't occur again.

Stefanek, when asked about an appeal, added, "We are aware of the court's award and are reviewing the judge's ruling,"

In response, Alsaffar said, "The folks that are making this decision are the president of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States and the Department of Justice, not a media spokesperson."

In the four years since the shooting, the victims have had to relive their trauma every anniversary, for every trial and every time many of them go back to that church.

But for those parishioners who served in the military, it's knowing that the Air Force has battled them in court that really hurts.

"Quite a few of the victims who were seriously injured, one who was permanently paralyzed, and several who died in that shooting are veterans," Alsaffar said. "So, this was particularly painful for them."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Air Force Ordered to Pay More Than $230M in Church Shooting

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