Friday, March 31, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wife of Texas Church Shooter Testifies in Trial Against Feds

The widow of the Sutherland Springs gunman said on the witness stand that the 2017 mass shooting was punishment for her trying to leave him.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — After Devin Kelley shot nearly four dozen people at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church on Nov. 5, 2017, he called his parents and wife, Danielle Smith, who listened together on speakerphone.

“He blamed me and said it was my fault, and he shot himself,” Smith testified Wednesday morning in San Antonio federal court. “And that’s when I hung up the phone.”

Smith, 26, was the first witness to take the stand in the first day of a trial against the federal government in which injured parishioners and massacred churchgoers’ families argue that Kelley would not have been able to purchase the firearms he used in the mass shooting if Air Force officials had reported the former airman's felony domestic abuse conviction to the FBI.

In a bombshell statement that hadn’t appeared in media interviews or depositions prior to Wednesday’s testimony, Smith told the court that Kelley hog-tied her and left their home to shoot up her family’s church — she said it was “another home” for her — as “punishment” for seeking a divorce.

But in cross-examination, the government’s lawyers cast doubt on this version of events, disbelievingly asking why Smith would have hidden these details from Texas Rangers, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys during her deposition prior to the trial until now.

Smith testified before U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a George W. Bush appointee who is presiding over the bench trial. Because there is no jury of laypersons to educate about the legal questions at hand, the lawyers eschewed opening arguments and skipped straight to witness testimony.

It is Rodriguez’s job to determine the factual matters in the case, for instance how to consider Smith’s new testimony in light of other evidence in the record.

On the stand, Smith described her difficult childhood. She said her birth parents abused her as a toddler, burning 80% of her body. Child Protective Services put her in a new home, where her adoptive father sexually abused her for years.

Smith said she was 13 years old when she met Kelley, 17, through mutual friends. She said he was an “outlet” for her, someone she could confide in about her father’s sexual abuse. Kelley joined the Air Force and got married in New Mexico, but kept contacting Smith, saying he thought his wife was cheating on him.

“He was married, and that’s when I told him I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, and he kept on calling and calling,” Smith said during the trial.

Kelley didn’t tell Smith that he was serving a year in the brig for the felony assault of his then-wife, during which he also fractured her son’s skull, in 2012.

That is the conviction at the heart of the victims' lawsuit. They say the Air Force found Kelley guilty of a felony, but didn’t inform the FBI as mandated by law. The judge must decide whether victims of a shooting conducted with firearms that never should have been sold to the gunman can get damages from the government for its negligence.

Law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Devin Kelley opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Nov. 5, killing more than two dozen and injuring others. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

After he was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, Kelley returned to Texas. The pair began dating and married in April 2014.

“At first he seemed normal, until he got mad at me and kicked me in the stomach, and promised never to do it again,” Smith said under direct examination by Jason Webster, an attorney representing the victims and their families. She was pregnant at the time and lost the baby.

The gunman’s wife described years of tortuous abuse at Kelley’s hand, including regular beatings, social isolation and rape.

“I wasn’t allowed to have friends. He told me what to wear, how much to wear it, I should wear makeup, I wasn’t allowed to look at people,” Smith said. “He cut everybody off from me.”

Smith said Kelley developed a discreet system of hand signals that he used to control her behavior in public. By tapping his fingers against his arm, he’d signal how he would punish her for looking at other men in public, or speaking out of turn.

“One finger meant I’d get something taken. Two fingers meant I’m getting hit. If he put all his fingers on there it meant I was getting beaten until I would pass out,” Smith testified.

She couldn’t leave home, she said, because Kelley — chronically unemployed — was always watching or listening. He’d keep their garage door shut with cinderblocks, place heavy furniture in front of the windows and could hear if she opened their heavy front door.

“He said if I ever left him, I would have to pay for it, and the only way of leaving this marriage was one of us is going to end up in a body bag,” Smith said tearfully.

Kelley grew obsessed with firearms, spending most of the family’s money on new and used guns, taking them apart and comparing and cleaning their components.

He purchased one firearm, a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic rifle, at a sporting goods store without a hitch. His background check came through clean because the Air Force hadn’t entered his conviction into the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center, the database that firearm vendors are required to check before selling weaponry.

Kelley never told her that he had purchased the mask, ballistic vest and other accessories he used during the shooting.

Smith said she repeatedly asked for a divorce, but Kelley would hit her every time she asked. According to her testimony, on the day before the shooting, Kelley calmly agreed to a divorce after he showed her a video of another woman performing oral sex on him.

The next morning, after throwing up his breakfast, Kelley hog-tied and handcuffed his wife, suited up for the shooting, told his 2-year-old son he’d be right back, and drove to the church, she testified.

Throughout their questions, the plaintiffs’ counsel suggested that the massacre was Kelley’s attempt to punish his wife for defying him: he killed Smith’s grandmother and perhaps intended to kill her mother as well, since she attended most services.

Jacquelyn Christilles, a U.S. attorney, pushed another narrative in cross-examination: Kelley was acting impulsively because he was upset at how the churchgoers treated Smith after she accused her adoptive father, a parishioner, of sexual abuse.

Earlier on Wednesday, Smith said that two police departments refused to take her allegations seriously at the time, and that one family at the church told her she deserved to be molested. One parent called her “promiscuous,” she testified, adding that she tried to kill herself after she reported the abuse.

Drawing on these details, the government suggested that Kelley was furious over his wife’s unfair treatment. These details are for Rodriguez to decide.

In cross-examination, Smith said some of the victims’ families blame her for their loved ones’ deaths.

“I will always, always carry that burden,” Smith testified through tears. “Everybody died so I could be free of him. And that’s sad.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.