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Texas church shooting victims honoured, funeral held

Two hearses arrive with the caskets of Richard and Therese Rodriguez at the Sutherland Springs Cemetery, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The two were killed when a man opened fire inside the Sutherland Springs First Baptist church on Sunday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
November 11, 2017 - 8:50 PM

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas - Two silver hearses carrying the bodies of a couple killed in last weekend's shooting at a Texas church were followed by a long procession of vehicles Saturday that avoided passing the small church where more than two dozen people died.

Mourners instead drove around the tiny community of Sutherland Springs before reaching a cemetery on the edge of town, where dozens more vehicles waited along a rural road for the private burial of Therese and Richard Rodriguez. Sheriff's SUVs shielded mourners at the cemetery's three entrances.

The services for the recently retired couple followed a ceremony earlier in the day where about 100 people gathered to commemorate Veterans Day and to honour the shooting victims, nearly half of whom had ties to the Air Force.

"Maybe this will start the healing process that will get Sutherland Springs and Wilson County to put this horrific tragedy behind us and look to the future," county Judge Richard Jackson, his voice breaking, told the crowd, which included first responders and law enforcement officers.

Jackson, the county's top administrator, thanked the first responders and others who rushed to First Baptist Church in the aftermath of Sunday's shooting. What they saw there will affect them the rest of their lives, Jackson said during the ceremony outside the town's community centre, where a wreath was placed near flags to remember those killed.

The gunman killed 25 people — authorities put the number at 26 because one was pregnant — and wounded about 20 others. The gunman died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being shot and chased by two men who heard gunfire from the church.

Investigators have said the shooting appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving the attacker, Devin Patrick Kelley, and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but wasn't there the day of the shooting.

Kelley had a history of violence. He was given a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force after pleading guilty to assaulting his first wife and stepson. The ex-wife, Tessa Brennaman, told "Inside Edition" that Kelley once put a gun to her head because she'd received a speeding ticket and threatened to kill her and her family. A former Air Force colleague told The New York Times that Kelley, after leaving the military, contacted her about his obsession with Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Sutherland Springs is about 30 miles (48 kilometres) southeast of San Antonio and not far from several military posts, including Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, said 12 of those killed were either members of the Air Force or had family ties to it.

Among them were Scott and Karen Marshall, both 56, who had decided to retire in nearby La Vernia after meeting when they were in the service together more than 30 years ago. On Thursday, a military funeral was held for them at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

Retired Chief Warrant Officer Mike Gonzales, who led Saturday's Veterans Day ceremony, moved to Sutherland Springs with his wife to raise their children in 2009. He said many veterans choose to live in the San Antonio area because of its deep military ties, and families tend to migrate to the city's surrounding rural areas.

"We come here to enjoy life, to get quiet and to raise our children," he said. "We've been to war zones and seen that tragedy firsthand. Never did we think that tragedy would strike here."

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told the gathering to lean on one another for support. The Texas congressman said $10 million in federal assistance has been secured to help cover overtime costs for law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation.

Some in the crowd Saturday wore shirts that said "Sutherland Springs Strong" and included an outline of Texas with a heart of the town's location. The shirts were donated by Brenda Bierd, who lives on the Gulf Coast and whose home was damaged by Hurricane Harvey in late August.

"I hadn't even heard of Sutherland Springs before the shooting, but this is what you do," she said. "I just had this feeling I needed to be here."

A steady stream of people also visited a makeshift memorial of crosses adorned with flowers, photographs, red hearts and white, purple and pink balloons.

Among the visitors was Jackie Lee, who said she asked her friends on Facebook if anyone would come with her from San Antonio this weekend. She said about two dozen people quickly said they would.

"It was on my heart since it happened," she said. "I needed to come to show the community some support, to show these people some support."

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Associated Press writer Emily Schmall contributed to this report.

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