Twenty-six people in Texas would still be alive and the monster who murdered them would be just six years into an 18-year mandatory prison sentence if he had faced civilian rather than military justice for fracturing his infant stepson’s skull in 2012.
“For that type of abuse, it’s a minimum of 18 years,” says Rachel Skinner, the district attorney’s secretary in Otero County, New Mexico, where the attack occurred. “We definitely take child abuse seriously.”
But because the crime took place within the confines of Holloman Air Force Base, the case against then-Airman Devin Patrick Kelley was handled by the military. He was sentenced to just one year.
And that was after Kelley attempted to smuggle guns onto Holloman Air Force Base, spoke of using them to kill his superiors, and escaped from a mental health facility where he was consigned for evaluation.
“Advised that [Kelley] was a danger to himself and others, as he had already been caught sneaking firearms onto Holloman Air Force Base,” read a report filed by a police officer who picked Kelley up at the El Paso, Texas, bus stop after he escaped from the Peak Behavioral Health Services facility.
The police report added, “Advised that [Kelley] was attempting to carry out death threats that [he] had made on his military chain of command. [He] was also facing military criminal charge.”
Individual military prosecutions are handled by the particular command, and the brass at Holloman were already beyond busy being the nation’s top training center for drone pilots in the midst of our longest war. They had enough to worry about without a baby-battering airman who spoke of murdering them and even sought to smuggle in guns to do it.
So, the Air Force offered Kelley a deal.
He admitted to intentionally assaulting his stepson with such brutality that the infant’s skull was fractured.
In exchange, he received a sentence that was just a fifth of the five-year maximum that the military sets for such an assault.
The Air Force agreed to drop added charges that Kelley had repeatedly threatened his wife with a loaded gun.
Kelley went from problem airman to prisoner.
But in a year, he would be at liberty, a deranged individual with a proven inability to control his anger who sought power in loaded firearms and made dark threats of unleashing violent death on his imagined enemies.
Guns. Guns. Guns.
The one thing the Air Force should have done was enter the domestic violence conviction into the FBI database to ensure Kelley could not legally purchase a firearm.
All it would have taken was a moment, but somehow it did not get done. Kelley checked the “No” on a firearms acquisition form and there was nothing in the FBI database to mark it a disqualifying lie.
A measure of how Kelley would have fared if he had fractured an infant’s skull outside the confines of Holloman came on July 20 of this year, after 27-year-old Joseph None of Otero County was convicted of fracturing the skull of his infant son.
None had also battered his wife and choked his 2-year-old son, but the 5-week-old son’s fractured skull was what made it a case of assault on a child resulting in great bodily harm, a first-degree felony.
On July 31, None was sentenced to the mandatory 18 years, plus three more for the less injurious assaults.
“We will never stop fighting to protect our children from violent abusers,” vowed District Attorney John P. Sugg. “It is our mission as prosecutors to be the voice for our most vulnerable. We will fight to end the series of abuse and neglect that plague so many families in our community. It takes every one of us to do our part—deter, detect, report and stop child abuse.”
The sentence was 20 more years that Kelley had received for a similar crime in the same county, but on the other side of the Holloman perimeter. Sugg’s secretary, Skinner, used two improbable words to describe Kelley.
“Very lucky,” she said.
She added that the district attorney would almost certainly have claimed jurisdiction had Kelley assaulted his stepson off the base.
“We would have prosecuted him to the fullest,” she said.
And Kelley would almost certainly be doing the mandatory 18-year minimum.
Instead, Kelley was free to walk into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs with an assault rifle that an Air Force lapse enabled him to purchase legally.
Of course the bigger issue is the continuing national lapse that makes assault rifles available for purchase in the first place.
When some of the children shot by Kelley arrived at University Health System in San Antonio, a trauma surgeon who had done multiple deployments with the military beheld great bodily harm that seemed out of a war.
Meanwhile, None is inmate 520298 at the Lea County Correctional Facility. He is not due to be released until 2040.