SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas—Even amid the numbness induced by yet another record mass shooting in America, it still comes as a shock to learn that nearly one entire family was murdered here during Sunday morning’s massacre.
Twenty-six people were killed at First Baptist church, one-third of them from the same family: guest preacher Bryan Holcombe; his wife of 25 years, Karla, who taught Sunday school at the parish; their daughter-in-law, Chrystal Holcombe, who was eight months pregnant; and three of Chrystal’s five children, Emily, Meghan, and Greg.
John Holcombe, Chrystal’s husband and the son of Bryan and Karla, was shot but survived the attack with shrapnel wounds to the leg. Two of their children also made it out alive.
But John’s brother, Marc Daniel Holcombe, 36, didn’t. He was at the church with his 1-year-old daughter, who also died from her gunshot wounds. Joe Holcombe, Bryan’s elderly father, confirmed Marc Daniel and little Noah’s deaths to The Washington Post on Monday.
That’s eight members of one family, not including the unborn baby Chrystal was carrying who died, the family said.
Bryan was reportedly approaching the pulpit when Devin Patrick Kelley entered First Baptist with what officials said was a Ruger AR-556 and opened fire. A sheriff said early Monday that 12 to 15 those killed or wounded were children—the worst U.S. massacre of kids since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Kelley, 26, was discharged from the Air Force after he was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and his own child. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his vehicle at the county line not long after he fled the bloody scene.
Authorities still have no known motive for Kelley’s attack. Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said Monday morning that the gunman’s in-laws often attended First Baptist here, but were not at Sunday’s service. All of the bodies were removed from the usually stark-white church overnight, Tackitt said.
In nearby Floresville, 86-year-old Joe Holcombe took the call Sunday morning from a pastor his own local Baptist church he attends with Bryan’s mother, Claryce.
“He said there was a big shooting and he didn’t say much more than that,” Joe told the Post. It was about an hour after the shooting began.
The phone would ring again and again throughout the day, the news getting worse with each call. Friends came to pray.
“They’re in heaven,” Joe told the Post, of his family’s unfathomable tragedy. “And they’re a lot better off than we are.”
Friends remember Bryan and Karla Holcombe as generous, kind, and loving people, who in many ways fit the mold of this tight-knit community, but in as many way broke it, as well.
Bryan was a canvas maker at his little shop in Floresville. Nestled on 2nd Street between B and C streets, he operated it for over 15 years. Karla was often seen inside, helping mend tarps and warm hearts.
“Bryan felt that has canvas business was an extension of his personal ministry; like one of the disciples, only his nets were his tarps,” said Gil Waguespak, who knew the Holcombes and their family well.
“They were not pious Christians at all. Humble, simple, meager, and pure of heart; the beatitudes lived out,” Waguespak said Monday morning in a short phone call.
Bryan is described as a man who wanted to live his life just like one of Christ’s disciples and in his own way, in this heavily Polish influenced community, he did just that.
“You didn’t have to worry about Bryan just randomly preaching to you. That was not him,” says Waguespak. “More like a gentle listener with a heart the size of Texas.”
As a younger man, he had a big red beard, shaggy hair, and calloused hands from repairing canvas and attended church at Floresville’s First Baptist Church.
Bryan was a Royal Ambassador leader—a mission organization for elementary-school kids—there on Wednesday nights for a group of boys. They went on camping trips, learned to tie knots, and speak softly and gently about their Christian faith; Bryan Holcombe was the perfect fit.
He was playful, gentle and kind; a man who was always smiling, even on the worst of days.
“Imagine a man who lived in small town Texas who played a ukulele and had a beard and could have been considered a hippie; that was Bryan Holcombe,” said James Hoffman, who knew Bryan since they attended Victoria College together some years ago.
“He was the guy who fit in perfectly, but didn’t fit in at all. You just loved Bryan and you didn’t know why,” he says. “Bryan just loved you back, no matter what.”
Bryan was a man who loved the people that society might normally outcast. Friends say he loved the prisoner, the poor, the downtrodden and almost anybody in between. He lived what he believed.
“No doubt if he were here right now Bryan would grab that shooter and say how much he loved him and take him in and show him that love firsthand,” Hoffman says, choking back tears.
Karla was the same way. Together, they raised four kids and never had more than just what they needed to get by.
“Bryan and Karla were the perfect fit for each other,” says Eliza Barrett, a family friend.
They would often work side by side in their shop while the kids were at school. Friends say that the couple complimented each other perfectly and their philosophy of being a friend stretch to their acts and deeds and in everything they did.
They lived together in peace and built a home and life full of harmony and joy. Tragically, on Sunday they died together doing what they loved doing the most—loving those around them.