County News

Mass shooting hits at heart of county family

Law-enforcement officers, including county officials, gather outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, Texas where a lone gunman killed at least 26 people during services Nov. 5. Photo by N. Kilbey-Smith/Wilson County News

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Wilson County, Texas employee loses seven family members in mass shooting at church Nov. 5 

A county employee and his child survived the mass shooting Nov. 5 in Wilson County, Texas, but lost numerous family members in the massacre. The county’s IT manager, John Holcombe, was in the church filming the Sunday service when the gunman opened fire.  Holcombe lost numerous family members in the shooting: his wife Crystal, who was expecting their child; three stepchildren, Emily, Greg and Megan, as well as his brother Marc, mother Karla and father Bryan, Wilson County Commissioner Ernest “Skip” Hajek said. A niece also died in the shooting. Holcombe’s father was the visiting preacher that day.

Holcombe and his stepson were injured, but were discharged from the hospital.

Twenty-six people were killed and at least 20 injured after a gunman shot up the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a town of about 600 in the central Texas county. Located about a 40-minute drive southeast of San Antonio, the county has a population of 43,000.

“This community has never seen anything like this,” Hajek said. A former detective for 40 years with Bexar County, Hajek started his job as a county commissioner in January. One of the other county commissioners alerted him to the shooting. “I just happened to come in to get a drink of water when the phone rang,” he said. He had been outside adding fencing to a pasture for horses for his grandchildren.

“When I saw the front of the church I assumed there had to be mass casualties, there were bullet holes all across the front of the church,” he said. “And seeing a dead man laying out in the yard, I assumed there were going to be more casualties.”

The county made sure that visiting law enforcement had esources, whether it was crowd control, food, fuel or just finding a rest room, Hajek said. County commissioners met with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick and Vice President Mike Pence.

“Normally a county would be lead law enforcement agency, but when they found out the enormity of it they asked dispatch to provide all the ambulance services within our county and surrounding areas we could,” Hajek said. “We requested, from the state, for them to provide DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) and Rangers (Texas Rangers) and they responded immediately. They, in turn, contacted the FBI because of the enormity of the event.”

The county had other duties as well. “We’re trying to coordinate the efforts, the counseling services for the survivors, deputies and first responders,” Hajek said. “Unless they’ve been in combat military, they’ve never seen a scene like this, 3-year old children dead. Half of the 26 killed were children. It can take a toll for first responders when they have to deal with something like that. I know I’ve seen my share over the years. We want to be sure first responders have access to counseling.”

The county notified the Texas Crime Victims Fund and American Red Cross and others to help in any way possible withburial and other expenses for the victims’ families. The community has been very responsive, he said. “Coordinating all of these needs, services, is the county role right now.” A funeral home in nearby Cuero donated 14 caskets. An organization in San Antonio donated as well.

Normally, the justice of the peace is designated to pronounce someone dead in Texas counties; for this kind of mass casualty event, a mobile medical examiner and morgue were enlisted.

Hajek said he hopes some of the lessons learned can help other counties dealing with such emergencies. “Hopefully they don’t have to endure something like this, but maybe our learning curve here will help other counties in the future.”

The gunman, 26, was found dead in his truck after a chase north into Guadalupe County. His body was transported to Travis County for an autopsy, according to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

The shooting has prompted some counties to remind residents that active shooter training is available. Polk County, Florida, has active shooter training specifically for churches. Orange County, New York is offering free programs on site security, staff education and public presentations for schools, government offices and local businesses.

The killing comes on the heels of a mass shooting Oct. 1 in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, where 58 people were killed at an outdoor concert after a gunman started shooting from the window of a hotel room.

The White House issued a statement from President Trump, which stated in part: “My administration is providing its full support to the state and local authorities investigating this horrible crime. I have spoken with Gov. Abbott and we offer our thanks to the first responders who ultimately stopped the suspect and rendered immediate and lifesaving aid to the victims of this shooting. I will continue to follow developments closely.”

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