SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Survivors of the November 2017 massacre at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church took the stand in federal court as their trial against the U.S. government, which failed to prevent a shooting perpetrated by a disturbed former airman, proceeded to the damages phase.
During the bench trial, which began Oct. 4, Judge Xavier Rodriguez and attendees listened to recordings from the shooting, reviewed images of survivors’ fresh wounds and healed scars and heard firsthand testimony from those present at the mass killing and the loved ones of those who were killed that day.
Judge Rodriguez will need to calculate a monetary sum that purports to compensate the victims for their suffering. Funerals, surgeries, therapy visits and pharmaceuticals have price tags attached to them, but so much of the anguish and distress the witnesses described are felt deeper than any pocketbook can remedy.
Julie Workman was sitting in her pew when Kelley opened fire into the church from outside. At first she thought that kids must have been playing with fireworks; she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until fellow worshipper Hailey McNulty, then 15 years old, cried out “I’m hit!”
Workman called 911 twice; her first call was greeted with a busy signal, perhaps because parishioner David “Gunny” Macias had also called the shooting in. During his testimony, the court listened to his chilling phone call: Several dozen gunshots ring out. Macias shouts over the gunfire, frantically describing the church’s location to the dispatcher. Before the clip ends, he yells, “I’ve been shot!”
Multiple witnesses present for the spree described how Kelley shot through the church’s exterior walls at chest-level before entering the building and advancing up the middle aisle, shooting left and right down the pew benches, where parishioners were cowering. More than one survivor said Kelley made snarky comments as he shot up the church: “Man, is it smoky in here,” according to McNulty, who is now 19.
“I saw the barrel of his gun three or four inches from my son’s back,” Workman testified through tears. “My son screams out. I reached out and grabbed his hands, and told him to shut up.”
Kris Workman is 6 feet, 4 inches tall; only his head and back fit under the pew. The shot to his back left him paralyzed from the waist down; when he took the stand, he described how he can no longer race stock cars with his family or play tennis, and likely won’t be able to have children.
Kris says he survived the shooting because he played dead after he was shot. For speaking up, his mother Julie was shot too.
“It was like a Mack truck hitting me in the chest,” Julie Workman testified. She’d just recovered from mastectomies to treat her breast cancer and had hoped those would be her last surgeries.
A trauma nurse, Julie Workman provided grave descriptions of the carnage after Kelley left. He had sped away from the scene after two armed locals shot and wounded him when Kelley emerged from the church. After calling his parents and wife, he shot himself in the head and died on the edge of town. Kelley had killed 26 and injured 20 more.
Julie Workman described piles of bodies, adults and young children, lying in blood and waste. A four-year-old who survived the shooting gave Julie a hug, but when she saw a young child who’d been shot in the back of the head, she started screaming.
Macias, who earned his nickname Gunny for his time as a Marine gunnery sergeant, told Julie to “get it together,” so she went into “triage mode,” she says. She retrieved towels from her truck to use as tourniquets, helping the wounded while they waited for emergency responders to arrive.
Deborah Braden was sitting next to her 6-year-old granddaughter, Zoe, when bullets first zipped through the wall, over their heads. She grabbed her granddaughter and dove under their seats, setting a Bible between the wall and Zoe’s head, “thinking, ‘OK, maybe this will help.’”
Deborah was shot in the arm and legs; Zoe’s leg was hit. Photographs taken at the hospital depict the child’s leg opened by the gunshot, the edges of her skin purpling with bruises, the maw swollen, red and raw. The doctors put rods in her thigh so her femur could heal, and Zoe can now walk and run with the help of a brace.
Zoe loves animals and wants to become a veterinarian. She misses at least one school of day weekly, according to her mother, due to frequent panic attacks.
Her friend Ryland Ward was 5 at the time of the attack. He was shot five times; two of his sisters did not survive. His mother, Chancie McMahan testified that a nurse let him pull a bullet fragment out of his arm with tweezers. Ryland intends to make it into a necklace.
Most survivors discussed sleepless nights and panicking triggered by loud sounds and unfamiliar places. Many survivors — even those who weren’t present at the shooting, whose lives were uprooted by the deaths of loved ones — have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety, PTSD and other mental ailments.
Others now live with paralysis, drop foot, neuropathy, chronic pain, colostomy bags and other physical disabilities. Everyone’s anguish was particular, their anxieties specific and personal.
Preston Corrigan was working at an Air Force base in Nebraska when his parents were killed at the church. Corrigan works on the software used by nuclear strike planners, a job he was venting about with his father Robert in their last conversation. His father had told him, “Don’t let the Air Force make you into a bitter person.”
Preston says these words haunt him daily.
“Every day is a struggle, putting on the uniform, … working for the people that essentially had them killed,” Corrigan said. “I’m kind of betraying my dad by not being able to hold the Air Force accountable. Him asking me not to be bitter is a pretty difficult pill. But if I let myself be bitter, if I let myself be angry, then I’m not upholding his last request.”
In July, a federal judge found that the U.S. government was at fault for failing to prevent Devin Kelley from obtaining the firearms he used to kill 26 and wound another 22 at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“No other individual — not even Kelley’s own parents or partners — knew as much as the United States about the violence that Devin Kelley had threatened to commit and was capable of committing,” Judge Rodriguez wrote in his July 6 order declaring the federal government was 60% liable for the injuries Kelley inflicted during the shooting.
The trial resumes Nov. 1, when expert witnesses will answer attorneys’ questions and help Judge Rodriguez determine the economic and emotional damages payments due to survivors and the families of the deceased.
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