To residents in the no-stoplight town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, population 800, the First Baptist Church had always been a place of worship and a gathering spot for neighbors, friends and family.
The black-clad gunman who pulled up outside the church during Sunday service Nov. 5 wearing a skull mask and carrying a Ruger AR-556 rifle, shooting as he walked into the sanctuary, thus took away more than the lives of the 26 people who died, with another 20 injured. He robbed the rural community about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio of its sense of peace and security.
“It makes your heart drop,” says Sarah Fuertez, 27, a stay-at-home mom who lives just a mile away from the church. “You hear about it in the big cities. But it makes you wonder, what is really safe if we aren’t safe out here in the country?”
• To read more about the victims and heroes in the Texas church shooting, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
Police say the alleged shooter, Devin P. Kelley, 26, who was discharged from the Air Force in 2014 after his 2012 court-martial for assaulting his first wife and her child, appeared to be driven by domestic rage. He’d recently texted unspecified threats to his mother-in-law, who is a member of the church, says Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. (Kelley died after a car chase from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police say.)
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Although his mother-in-law was not at church that morning, his wife’s grandmother, Lula White, 71, was present and was killed.
Others among the victims, who ranged from a toddler of 17 months to a great-grandfather aged 77, included eight members of a single family, as well as the 14-year-old daughter of church pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, neither of whom were in town due to commitments elsewhere that morning.
Sherri Pomery found small comfort knowing that her daughter, Belle, lost her life among those she loved, and who loved her.
“Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family,” she says. “Our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with losing so much family.”
• With reporting by ELAINE ARADILLAS, KC BAKER, CHRIS HARRIS, DIANE HERBST, CAITLIN KEATING, SUSAN KEATING, CHRISTINE PELISEK, and HARRIET SOKMENSUER