SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The people of Sutherland Springs have not held news conferences, they haven't made appearances on network morning television shows, and while they've been polite to the media, they're not exactly forthcoming. Instead, this rural community is turning to the one thing that has buoyed them in good times, and sustains them now: an unshakeable faith in God.
David Colbath, one of 20 people who were injured but survived Devin Patrick Kelley's rampage at the First Baptist Church, held Bible study from his hospital bed. Judy Green, a church member who avoided the carnage because she and her husband were running an errand, sought counseling at another church because of what she saw when she drove up to the building that day. Crystal Barkley, a Sutherland Springs resident who doesn't even attend the church, prayed and "stayed at home for a couple of days, collecting strength."
There have been no fewer than three prayer vigils for the victims. One, held Wednesday and attended by Vice President Mike Pence, was so large that it had to be held in the neighboring town's football stadium. Today, the town will gather for church services in its community center, which is next door to the church and was part of the crime scene for several days. Residents have included reporters in impromptu prayer circles and have tried, quietly, to let the world know that it is a God-loving town, not a place of violence.
"We want to be known for more than this," sighed Tambria Read, president of the local historical museum, schoolteacher and lifelong resident. "We are not a shoot-'em-up community."
In Sutherland Springs, there's been no escaping Sunday morning's shooting that left 26 dead. Every resident in town knew at least one person who was killed, and most knew several. The victims were cousins, former students, people who they laughed with not long ago at the annual Fall Festival.
Eight were children, and one victim wasn't yet born.
"It's a good, simple community," said Rod Green, Judy's husband.
Green said he got a call from the church pastor, who was out of town. "He said, 'what's going on,' and I said, 'what do you mean?' He said, 'there's been a shooting at the church. Aren't you there?'"
By the time Green and his wife arrived, police and first responders were there. There were wounded people in the parking lot. The Greens tried to comfort the wounded, while ambulances crisscrossed the road outside. Helicopters landed nearby to fly the critically wounded to hospitals.
"I saw a lot of stuff in Vietnam, and I never expected to see that type of thing here," he said.
And now there are outsiders in Sutherland Springs, who stick out by virtue of the fact that they're asking questions during a time when people are pleading for answers from God.
It's difficult for any community that's been blindsided by sudden horror to cope with grieving in the public eye. But for Sutherland Springs, population 600, it's been a particular challenge for several reasons — not the least of which is the fact that it's set in rural Texas, a stoic and insular place.
Scores of media trucks, vans and cars have hunkered down at the town's one major intersection (there are no stoplights here, only a flashing yellow). Anchormen did live shots near a flower-covered cross nailed to a post, while across the street, chaplains stood in a prayer circle next to a Frito-Lay truck in a gas station parking lot.
Charlene Uhl, whose 16-year-old daughter Haley Krueger died last Sunday, has spent the days since the shooting at home, comforting her other three children and planning a funeral. She hasn't wanted to leave her house because the town is crawling with reporters.
The media attention "has made it harder," she said. "It's hard for me to talk about it."
It's no exaggeration to say that reporters have knocked on almost every door in Sutherland Springs, seeking stories about the victims.
It's not that Sutherland Springs hasn't weathered its share of tragedies. In the decades since people settled there in 1854 — the community was named after a doctor who treated soldiers at the Alamo — the town flooded, a high school burned down, and dozens were killed during a flu epidemic in 1919.
But in recent decades, things have been quiet in this sleepy town southeast of San Antonio. It's surrounded by rolling hills and cow pastures, and at night, overarched by vast Texas skies.
"We ain't got much news," shrugged 84-year-old Richard Cardenas, who was born here and served as a county public works supervisor for decades. There was a flood in 1998, he recalled, and once, a woman with Alzheimer's wandered into the woods and her body was found two months later. In 1993, the parents of Stephen Willeford were both killed in a motorcycle accident, said Cardenas' wife, Theresa. (Willeford confronted Sunday's attacker, shooting him, and has been hailed as a hero).
The Cardenases were home Sunday when a friend called, wanting to know what was happening at the church. Richard Cardenas wept over the next few days as he watched his town's tragedy played out on a television from a hospital bed in the family's front room.
He and his wife used to maintain the town cemetery, and now that duty's fallen to his daughter Bertha and her husband. As a television anchor interviewed people about the shooting, Cardenas turned to his daughter and asked, "How many are they going to bury over there?"
Bertha shook her head. "We don't know yet."
She would be interviewed in The New York Times a few days later.
Tambria Read, the teacher, says the presence of the media has put a certain pressure on the town, one it just isn't used to. Live satellite trucks hum in the middle of town day and night as schoolkids pass by on buses, and white-hot lights illuminate the faces of the cable news hosts.
"Did you look to the east sky and see the full moon this week?" she said. "The media's lights have ruined the night sky."
There are villains and there are villains.
Jose Sandoval stood in a Norfolk bank on Sept. 26, 2002, orchestrating death; murdering three people himself, abetting the killing of two more and terrorizing three others. In 40 seconds, he turned a would-be robbery into a homicidal frenzy.
He certainly rises to the top of the list for many Nebraskans — especially in northeast Nebraska — of the most heinous of villains.
In 2003, Sandoval was found guilty of killing customer Evonne Tuttle, 37, of Stanton, and tellers Samuel Sun, 50, of Norfolk, and Jo Mausbach, 42, of Humphrey. He was also convicted of the murders of bank employees Lola Elwood, 43, and Lisa Bryant, 29, both of Norfolk.
For those crimes, he was condemned to die. He also has two first-degree murder convictions for the unrelated deaths of a onetime roommate, 19-year-old Travis Lundell, and Lundell's friend, Robert Pearson Jr., for which he has life sentences.
Former state Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk on Friday called Sandoval a "supreme risk to human life," someone about whom you have doubts could be held safely in prison.
"There's not many people locked up in the prison system that have seven murders on their record. ... He kills for sport."
Many people say Sandoval's death sentence is the only just punishment for the cold-blooded, execution-style murders he committed. They remember him looking into a news camera and smiling, defiant, flashing a gang sign as he was led out of a courthouse after his capture.
They say it's about time the punishment is carried out, 15 years too late, in fact.
Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes served notice to Sandoval on Thursday of the lethal injection drugs that would be administered to cause his death if an execution takes place. Sixty days following the notification, Attorney General Doug Peterson can request the state Supreme Court issue Sandoval's execution warrant.
Those who are against the death penalty in Nebraska say he won't be executed any time soon. There are too many legal questions.
For Dave Mausbach, whose wife was killed by Sandoval, an execution would be 15 years too long in coming. He thinks about the senselessness of the crime, the money it has cost Madison County and the state to put on trial and to house the Norfolk killers, when there is no question about their guilt.
"They took a lot of innocent lives and ruined them. For what?" he said.
He resents all that he, his family and others had to put up with during those trials.
Jo Mausbach was a caring person and lived for their kids, he said. Her life was all about family.
"She was easy to get along with. It was always about somebody else instead of her," he said. "She'd drop everything and help you with anything."
That day 15 years ago, he had to pull their two kids out of school and watch as they came out, excited, thinking it must mean they would be getting to do something special. And then the heartbreak of telling them their mother was dead, gunned down at work.
"That's something I'll never forget," he said.
He's fortunate though, he said, that in the ensuing years those two — Rebecca now 28 and Jacob, 24 — continued to be excellent students, never got in trouble, graduated, got college degrees and then good jobs.
Sandoval's execution will bring him relief, he said.
"I'll feel a hell of a lot better, and I'm not a mean person," he said. "I hope I'm alive when this happens. It's what I'm waiting for."
Jo Mausbach's brother, Micheal Tichy, has a different take on the announcement that Sandoval has been served notice of his potential execution.
"To be honest with you I'm not a firm believer in the death penalty, even though what happened," he said in a phone call from his home in South Dakota. "If it does happen, well, he probably gets what he deserves."
He would rather have seen Sandoval's punishment be solitary confinement or hard labor for the rest of his life, he said.
With that said though, he does not appreciate hearing death penalty opponents talk about the inhumanity of Sandoval being a test subject for a never-used cocktail of lethal injection drugs.
"I'll tell you what. What was cruel and inhumane is my sister down on her hands and knees choking on her own blood," Tichy said. "That wasn't a very pretty picture. I saw it."
So did their mother, Ina Mae Tichy, who died this year.
"She was like a rock through the whole thing, and took care of us kids," he said. "She did not believe in the death penalty, either. But she would have accepted it."
Joe Smith is the Madison County Attorney who prosecuted Sandoval, Erick Vela, Jorge Galindo and Gabriel Rodriguez, an accomplice also convicted of the five murders but given life sentences.
In 2003, after a jury held Sandoval responsible for four aggravators in the deaths of all five victims at U.S. Bank, paving the way for the death sentence, Smith had said that people in Madison County won't ever get over what happened in that bank.
Smith looks at the notification Thursday of Sandoval's impending execution as potentially the first step in the last part of a long process.
"It's something that I'm sure nobody is excited about. On the other hand, it's about time the process got off stall," he said.
Flood, as speaker of the Legislature from 2007-2013, presided over multiple death penalty-related debates. Everytime he would rise to speak in support of the death penalty, he would talk about the Norfolk bank killings.
As a reporter for his radio station, he was also on the scene of the murders that September day.
"What happened on that day was pure evil. Unconscionable," he said.
And then, Sandoval, Vela and Galindo were cold and indifferent at their trials, he said. Those jury panels were made up of teachers, farmers and pastors that had to listen to weeks of testimony about what occurred inside the bank. They had to decide the mitigating and aggravating factors to recommend whether the death penalty was appropriate.
"The justice system in Madison County has invested quite a bit, not just dollar-wise, more importantly though the human capital that went in to rendering a just verdict," he said.
Flood's Norfolk radio station US92 posted a story Thursday about the death penalty notification. Most of the more than 40 comments went like Cindy Mathis Clyde's:
"It's about time. They all need to go."
Lincoln attorney Bob Evnen was a spokesman for death penalty proponents during a campaign to overturn the Nebraska Legislature's elimination of the death penalty, and is now a candidate for Nebraska secretary of state. He has studied capital punishment, researched death row cases and appeals, and pondered the arguments.
It's not something anyone should take pleasure in, Evnen said. The best thing would have been if the crime had never been committed in the first place.
"But the punishment that he is receiving is a just one. And it's in accordance with what the people of the state of Nebraska have voted to retain, and rightly so."
Rachel Pokora, a Lincoln college professor, remembers meeting Sandoval in 2008 on two visits to the prison as a member of Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty. He was one of the more interesting people on those visits, she said.
"Of all the other people I talked to, a lot of them were maybe not as bright, but it also then really scared me because I thought, 'He knows what he's doing.'"
Shortly after that visit, she had said it stuck in her mind what he had said to her.
I'm a very bad man, he told her. I'm the worst man you've ever met.