Most of the questions about last week’s grisly shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas center around how the gunman was even able to get his hands on a gun in the first place. As we now know, the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, was booted out of the Air Force after pleading guilty at a court-martial to subjecting his first wife and infant stepson to horrific abuse. Under federal law, he should have been legally barred from getting a gun. However, the Air Force admitted that it didn’t upload the case to the federal database used for background checks of gun purchasers.
However, there is an equally important, if not more important, question about this case–how the hell was this guy even on the streets? Kelley faced a maximum of eight years’ confinement and a dishonorable discharge, but only got a year in the stockade and a bad-conduct discharge. That barely qualifies as a phrase. Had Kelley gotten a credible sentence, in all likelihood he would still be locked up–and 26 people are still alive.
Any doubt that Kelley’s “sentence” was a bad joke was erased on Monday night, when “Inside Edition” aired an interview with Kelley’s first wife, Tessa Brennaman. In it, Brennaman revealed the extent of what she had to endure in just over a year of marriage to Kelley.
Friday’s edition of the CBS Evening News offered a brief excerpt of Brennaman’s interview, in which she revealed Kelley was consumed by “demons” and hatred. We got more insight into what those demons were on Monday. Watch here.
Brennaman, then known as Tessa Loge, first met Kelley while they worked at a burger restaurant in their hometown of New Braunfels, which like Sutherland Springs is a suburb of San Antonio. He frequently paid for her food when they went out, and took her to the mall on a number of occasions.
Kelley and Loge stayed in touch after Kelley enlisted in the Air Force. He was briefly slated to be an intelligence specialist, but flunked out. He was then assigned to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico as a logistics specialist. He married Tessa in April 2011, a week before shipping out; by then, she had a baby son from a previous relationship.
By then, however, Kelley had changed. According to Brennaman, Kelley suffered from acute depression, and it caused him to become violent. She recalled that he frequently beat her up if she wasn’t ready to leave with him by a certain time. He frequently punched, choked, and kicked her–at times, so severely that she had to curl up on the floor and protect her organs. He warned her that if she told anyone about it, he would kill her and her family, then “bury you somewhere here in the desert” where she would never be found.
He also sexually assaulted her–so graphically and brutally that even now, five years later, she still finds it hard to talk about it. She did say, though, that “he did it against my will and I told him not to”–only to have it fall on deaf ears.
Brennaman also said that Kelley would not allow her to go near his phone. She later found out that he was cheating on her; he exchanged sexually explicit pictures with other women on his phone via a secret email account.
Things finally came to a head in the spring of 2012. Brennaman recalled that Kelley was driving too fast on a desolate highway near the base, and warned him to slow down. Kelley’s response was chilling. He stopped the car, pulled a gun, put it to Tessa’s head, and yelled at her, “Do you want to die? Do you want to die!” He also told her something else–he’d abused her son. Three months earlier, she’d found her son throwing up and took him to the hospital, where doctors discovered he had a fractured skull. All this time, she believed it was an accident, but Kelley admitted he’d hit him.
A horrified and “angry” Tessa immediately called the police. Soon afterward, Kelley was arrested and haled before a general court-martial–the highest level in the military justice system–on charges of assaulting Tessa, aggravated assault on his stepson that put him at risk of “death or grievous bodily harm,” and four weapons charges.
He was sent to a mental health facility after threatening his superiors and sneaking weapons on base, and made a failed attempt to escape. In November, Kelley pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife and son. By then, he and Tessa had divorced.
After looking at this, it’s hard to understand how Kelley only got a year in the stockade. Don Christensen, who was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor at the time, believes Kelley fell through the cracks of “an archaic, ineffective sentencing system.” Christensen, who now serves as president of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for domestic violence victims in the military, says that court-martials frequently hand down lighter sentences for violent crimes than is normally the case in the civilian system. He also found it “disturbing” that a jury, not a judge, was allowed to decide Kelley’s ultimate punishment, given the magnitude of the case.
“Disturbing” is being kind to it. If it is even remotely possible to get such a light punishment for inflicting such horrific abuse on a woman and her baby son, something is very wrong. The system failed Tessa and her son, and as a result, 26 people are dead. It’s clear that this needs to be fixed, and quickly. It shouldn’t have taken the deaths of innocent people in order to see that need.
(featured image courtesy Inside Edition via CBS News)