WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has known for at least two decades about failures to give military criminal history information to the FBI, including the type of information the Air Force didn't report about the Texas church gunman who had assaulted his wife and stepson while an airman.
The Air Force lapse in the Devin P. Kelley case, which is now under review by the Pentagon's inspector general, made it possible for him to buy guns before his attack Sunday at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Twenty-six people were killed, including multiple members of some families. About 20 other people were wounded.
New details emerged, meanwhile, about his troubled Air Force career. In 2012, several months before his conviction in the domestic violence case, Kelley escaped from a civilian mental health center where he had been placed by the Air Force for treatment, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. She confirmed a Houston TV station report that was based on an El Paso, Texas, police report. Stefanek said privacy laws prohibited her from saying what Kelley was being treated for.
KPRC-TV also reported that the police officers who detained Kelley at an El Paso bus terminal after his escape were told he previously had been caught sneaking firearms onto Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where he was stationed, and that he planned to carry out death threats against his military superiors. Stefanek said she could not confirm those details.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was appalled at the Air Force mistake and unsatisfied by its plans to investigate the matter.
"I don't believe the Air Force should be left to self-police after such tragic consequences," he said, adding that he fears the failure to report domestic violence convictions may be more widespread.
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he is working on legislation that would require swift reporting of military criminal history data. The requirement currently is based on an internal Pentagon rule that does not have the force of law.
An FBI database known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which contains information for use in background checks on prospective gun buyers, had only one Pentagon entry for domestic violence convictions as of Dec. 31, 2016. Most federal agencies had zero entries in that category.
An FBI status report on that database noted, however, that this apparent lack of participation by federal agencies could indicate that they submitted their information to other relevant databases.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday he has directed the Pentagon inspector general to review circumstances of the Kelley case and "define what the problem is."
At its core, the problem is that military criminal investigative organizations have too frequently, for too long, failed to comply with rules for reporting service members' criminal history data to the FBI.
As recently as February 2015, the Pentagon inspector general reported that hundreds of convicted offenders' fingerprints were not submitted to the FBI's criminal history database. The report found about a 30 percent failure rate for submitting fingerprints and criminal case outcomes. It did not determine the reasons for the lapses.
In February this year, the inspector general's office launched a new review to assess compliance with updated reporting requirements. A spokesman, Bruce Anderson, said that review is ongoing.
The problem has persisted much longer.
A February 1997 report by the Pentagon inspector general found widespread lapses. Fingerprint cards were not submitted to the FBI criminal history files in more than 80 percent of cases in the Army and Navy, and 38 percent in the Air Force.
Failure to report the outcome of criminal cases was 79 percent in the Army and 50 percent in the Air Force, the report said. In the Navy, it was 94 percent.
"The lack of reporting to the FBI criminal history files prevents civilian law enforcement agencies from having significant information on military offenders," the report concluded. It cited several reasons for the lapses, including ambiguous Pentagon guidelines and a lack of interest among the military services in submitting information to an FBI viewed as chronically overburdened with data.
"In their view, little benefit in solving cases is achieved by providing timely information," the report said.
The 20-year-old review was prompted by an act of Congress rather than a specific instance, like the Kelley case, in which a reporting lapse allowed a violent offender to purchase weapons. Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after his conviction. But because it was never added to the FBI's database for background checks, Kelley was able to buy his guns.
Air Force records show Kelley initially faced charges of domestic violence for seven alleged incidents in 2011 and 2012. Five were withdrawn as part of a plea agreement, including two involving Kelley pointing a loaded gun at his wife. He pleaded guilty to striking, choking and kicking his wife and hitting his stepson "with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm."
He was sentenced in November 2012 to one year in confinement and reduction in rank to E-1, the lowest enlisted rank. He was given a bad conduct discharge, which was carried out in 2014. The officer overseeing the case was Robin Rand, then a three-star general and now the four-star commander of Air Force Global Strike Command in charge of the service's bomber force and nuclear missiles.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed from Brussels.