Reflecting on the church shooting in Sutherland Springs

Last Saturday night, my husband and I went to dinner at a local restaurant. While we were finishing our food, some friends, the Workmans, came in to eat. As we are all saying our hellos and exchanging hugs, which has become customary with this family, Colby Workman said excitedly, “Guess who drove us here?!” I knew the answer. Kris, her husband, had recently told me all about their new van, which is specially outfitted with the accelerator and brake by the steering wheel. He could finally drive again after he was shot in the spine at close range on the morning of November 5, 2017, just before the start of Sunday services at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. His mother had watched in helpless horror as it happened.  
    But Kris and his family have tremendous strength, both mentally and physically. This strength, coupled with their unwavering faith, have moved them forward from the horror of that shooting to today, about a year later, where Kris is regaining some independence with the new van. Kris’s progress has been astounding since the shooting that killed 26 and injured 20, all members of a very small town and an even more close-knit church. And his is just one story of so many. The shooting was one of the most traumatic and emotional things I will ever go through—because Sutherland Springs is my community too. The church is three miles from our house.
    The gunman killed himself before law enforcement could arrest him, so there will never be a trial, no chance for the survivors, like Kris, and the families left behind to confront him in court. But the fact that the killer won’t face justice in our courthouse doesn’t mean that the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office hasn’t been deeply engaged with these families and survivors, nearly from the get-go. We’ve actually been intimately involved in the shooting’s aftermath, from an hour after it happened (when our DA, Audrey Louis, and ADA Lorena Whitney arrived at the scene) to even now, as I pick up crime victims’ compensation (CVC) paperwork from various families on my way to work and then return it to them (after filing it) on my way home. It’s still a part of our daily lives.
    And as such, we have learned a lot—more than we ever wanted to—about major trauma events and dealing with their wake. Having been on the job as the lone victim assistance coordinator (VAC) in the DA’s Office for just under a year at the time, I felt woefully unprepared for a mass shooting in our small community—but then again, how can anyone ever properly prepare for such a thing? There are, however, a few lessons I learned that I can pass along to VACs and prosecutors in other offices in the hope that they might give you a starting point, should you face a similar tragedy in your jurisdiction. Because given the state of the world, it’s not really a matter of if such a thing will happen again, but when and where.

Lesson One: Find a location for families to wait for news.
Sutherland Springs is really small. By the last census count, it was home to 600 people. As soon as news of the shooting got out—and that happened quickly—families of people who were in the church rushed to the scene, only to find it (appropriately) blocked off by police. At first people were told to gather at the Sutherland Springs Community Center, which is about a block and a half away, but it was quickly apparent that this was a poor location. There is no air conditioning in that building, and there was only one women’s and one men’s restroom. Plus, the media was incredibly intrusive, and there was no way to keep reporters away. We had to relocate the families.
    Luckily, the pastor of another church just two miles north offered his church as our Family Assistance Center (FAC) . It was a much better space for families to gather and await word from law enforcement on their loved ones. And later, when the Texas Rangers arrived to notify the families of those who had died, we set aside private rooms (and RVs had been brought in) for those notifications. All of our notifications were done by one the next morning.
    Identifying a building that can serve these purposes—somewhere comfortable and with private spaces for notifications—is essential to care for victims’ families, and the church couldn’t have provided better accommodations for us. We were there for the next two weeks.

Lesson Two: Mark families, clergy, counselors, etc., with a bracelet or other identifier.
Before we moved and the Family Assistance Center could be set up at the other church, we needed a way to identify all of the people who had gathered at the community center. We opted to make them bracelets out of duct tape, which we picked up at the nearby Dollar General, to mark them as families, clergy, counselors, law enforcement, victim services, etc. We took down their names, as well as the names of their loved ones in the church who were unaccounted for (potential victims).
    When the American Red Cross arrived an hour or two later, those workers went even further and supplied people with plastic bracelets denoting who they were. After the Red Cross arrived, no one would be admitted into the Family Assistance Center without a bracelet—it was a way to keep the media at bay and let families wait in peace (or, in as much peace as was possible, given the situation) without being overrun by media and bystanders.

Lesson Three: Decide how to ­handle victims’ personal effects.
In the days following the shooting, once all of the deceased were identified and their next of kin notified, we were faced with the issue of how to handle all of the victims’ personal effects that were left behind in the church. There was everything from kids’ coloring books and sippy cups, to cell phones, purses, bibles, and clothing. Many of these items were stained with blood, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent them off to a facility that cleaned them. We were astounded when the personal effects were returned: Bibles whose pages had been blood-soaked were completely clean, but the owners’ handwritten notes in the margins were intact. Cell phones, too, were cleaned of blood and other matter and returned to us looking nearly new.
    FBI Victim Services returned some of the personal belongings themselves to victims with whom they specifically had met and who were unable to come to the FAC because of their injuries. We tried very hard to reunite next-of-kin with their loved ones’ cell phones—these days, so many people keep photo albums on their phones and nowhere else—and doing so was no easy task. Without passcodes or fingerprints, we couldn’t even open most of the phones to identify the owners. Then Audrey (our DA), a deputy with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, and I hit upon a solution: We made arrangements with the local 911 dispatch that we would press the “emergency” button on each phone (which you can do without unlocking it), and the 911 operator would record the phone number as it popped up and find out to whom that number belonged. Some of the phones didn’t require a passcode to open, so on those, we looked for the Facebook app. If Facebook was on the phone, we opened it so we could see the owner’s profile and identify him or her that way. For some phones that we still were unable to open or that had been damaged, one of the investigators in our office took them to the local phone stores (AT&T, Sprint, etc.) and had workers there identify the owners.
    Once we got all of the items back from the Texas Rangers and the FBI’s cleaning crew, the victims’ belongings filled nine banker boxes. We identified as many things as we could the easy way (by looking in bibles for names and purses for driver’s licenses) and gave them to the owners’ families. People would also call our office asking about this or that item, and I’d let them come in and look through the boxes, which were stacked in my office. I also contacted a couple of people at the church (where the shooting occurred), people I already knew, and asked if they would come to my office and go through the boxes with me to see to whom the items might belong. That whittled the lot down to five boxes, which we then moved from my office to the church after about eight months. That way, families can sift through the belongings in their own time and at their own pace.

Lesson Four: The repercussions last a long time.
It’s been just over a year since the shooting in Sutherland Springs. Many survivors have kept in close contact with our office for crime victims’ compensation purposes and to find personal property, though some have not—some will not file claims with crime victims’ compensation because of pending civil cases. And that’s OK. But many of them, they just want to talk. They’ll call or come to my office to visit, and of course they can do that. I’m not a counselor, but I can listen. The stories of healing and hope are endless.
    I’m still submitting receipts and claims on their behalf to crime victims’ compensation, and the Attorney General’s Office has just been spectacular. I can email or call Doris Contreras in CVC any day, and she takes care of our claims. The Sutherland Springs survivors have a guardian angel in Doris.
    My favorite thing is when people ask how the survivors and the families are doing. I am so proud to report that they are healing! They actually held church services the Sunday after the shooting. They’re the most faithful people you’ll ever meet, and because of their faith, they have healed from the inside out. And not just them—our community too. It’s actually contagious to see how they have forged together as a family, as a church, as a town. It is just humbling for your community to come together. I’m proud to be helping them, and I’m proud of the way they’ve flourished and rebuilt their lives and relationships and community. It’s a phenomenal thing to witness.