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Texas church massacre: Family that lost eight files federal claim against Air Force

The notice of claim alleges that "institutional failures" by the Air Force and Pentagon directly led to deaths of 26 at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Image: Holcombe family
Evelyn Holcombe, second from left in pink shirt, survived the shooting at the Texas church. Her siblings, from left, Megan, Emily and Greg were killed.Courtesy of Debbie Bolf

A family that lost eight members in the Texas church massacre this month filed a notice of claim on Tuesday accusing the Air Force of negligence for not having filed paperwork that could have stopped the gunman from buying his weapons.

The claim by the Holcombe family alleges that "institutional failures" by the Air Force and the Defense Department directly led to the horrible shootings at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people on Nov. 5.

Evelyn Holcombe, second from left in pink shirt, survived the shooting at the Texas church. Her siblings, from left, Megan, Emily and Greg were killed.Courtesy of Debbie Bolf

The claim merely starts a long process that could lead to a lawsuit against the Air Force and the Defense Department. The Air Force has publicly admitted that it failed to enter Kelley's 2012 court-martial conviction for domestic violence into a national database that bars convicted felons from buying or possessing firearms.

The Air Force said it had no comment. It has six months to accept or deny the claim, which was filed by the parents of Bryan Holcombe, 60, an associate pastor who was to have led the service at the church. Holcombe and his wife, Karla, were killed at the church along with their son, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren. Authorities have listed the unborn child of one of the women as a ninth victim.

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While it was Kelley who pulled the trigger, it was the failure of the U.S. Air Force and others that allowed him to buy his weapons and ammunition, the claim alleges.

"It is the failure by the U.S. Air Force to abide by these policies, procedures, regulations and/or guidelines that directly caused this horrific tragedy," it says.

Ron Ammons, the attorney for Holcombe's parents, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, said the family was seeking "answers to questions about how could this happen."

In an interview with NBC News, Joe Holcombe said he and his wife filed the claim because "it just shouldn't have ever happened, and maybe we can keep it from happening again."

"Something like this doesn't bother us, because we know where the family that were killed are. It's not going to be long till the rest of us will be there, and we'll be there for a long, long time," Holcombe said. "We just take things as they happen, and we know that God's in control and we're not."

The claim is addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the service's civilian director. Wilson acknowledged four days after the killings that the Air Force had failed to record Kelley's conviction with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have alerted the parties that sold him his weapons that the sales were prohibited.

The Air Force, the Defense Department and the Justice Department have launched multiple investigations. In a statement Tuesday, the Air Force said its review of about 60,000 cases dating to 2002 found that the error in the Kelley case wasn't an isolated incident.

"Similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations," it said. "Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking."

Mosheh Gains contributed.