With news vans lining the streets near First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and crime scene tape blocking off the building the last three days, the growing makeshift memorial outside and Donna Watkins’ table filled with teddy bears show a glimmer of hope within the tears and sorrow.
“You don’t have to go at it alone,” Watkins said. “There are people that do care.”
Watkins leads the Homicide Survivors Support Group and came to Sutherland Springs from Corpus Christi to pay her respects to victims’ families. She lost her brother to a homicide and knows the pain sticks.
“My main goal is to make sure the victims’ names are heard and their memories are never forgotten,” Watkins said.
She and her family brought stuffed animals, collected from a teddy bear drive she holds annually, to give away. She hopes it can be an outlet for people needing to turn somewhere for support. These stuffed animals may look small, but can be a world of comfort.
“It gives them something to hang onto,” she said. “It gives them somebody to talk to. You can cry, wipe your tears with them, get mad at them, throw them. They’re still there. It’s just something to hang onto – something to squeeze.”
As of Tuesday evening, authorities haven’t officially released the names of the 26 victims yet. Wilson County District Attorney Audrey Louis said they’re working closely with the Attorney General’s office to help victims’ families with funeral expenses. The Attorney General’s Office has a Crime Victims Compensation Fund that covers costs up to $6,500.
“In addition to that, there is a company that has come forward that has agreed to donate all their caskets to all of the victims and we are grateful for that person and their service to our community,” Louis said.
Houston NBC affiliate KPRC obtained a police report that shows the gunman, Devin Kelley, escaped from a mental health facility not long after being court-martialed for a domestic assault against his then-wife and stepson just over five years ago.
The report shows officers found Kelley at a downtown El Paso bus terminal in 2012, but he was living in Holloman Air Force Base during that time. It also states Kelley “had already been caught sneaking firearms” onto Holloman AFB and “was attempting to carry out death threats” on his military superiors.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs says authorities are trying to unlock Kelley’s cell phone. They said Monday he used that phone to let his father know he wasn’t going to make it as he left the church after the shooting. Authorities have executed a search warrant and shipped the phone overnight to Quantico.
There are several ways to help the victims – the Sutherland Springs Community Association has set up a fund at The Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union.