Alleged Texas mass shooter had warrants, family violence history. Why wasn’t he in police custody?
The man accused of killing six people in a violent spree across Texas last week had repeated encounters with police over the years, including a mental health crisis just three months before the shootings.
In August, sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a home in East Bexar County. According to a retelling of the incident by the Bexar County sheriff, 34-year-old Shane James, Jr., had barricaded himself, naked, inside a bedroom.
James had three active warrants for family violence. A year and a half earlier, he had cut off his ankle monitor after getting out of jail. He was off his medication and had been drinking, according to the sheriff. Through a crack in the door, he said, James hurled racial and homophobic slurs.
But Sheriff Javier Salazar’s deputies did not take James into custody that day.
They wanted to avoid a violent confrontation, he explained. So the officers left, telling James’ father to let them know when his son emerged. He didn’t call, the sheriff said. It’s unclear whether the deputies ever went back.
The crisis call was far from the first time officers came into contact with James.
He was arrested in Fort Worth in 2017 and was detained for mental health reasons in Austin the next year. In January 2022, he was charged with assaulting three family members. Considered low risk at the time, James was released from jail on bond in March.
Four months later, James bought a .45 caliber handgun. His bond conditions barred him from having a gun. But the sale was private, requiring no background check.
Last week, police say, James killed his parents at their home in San Antonio before driving to Austin and murdering four other people: Emmanuel Pop Ba and Sabrina Rahman, and Katherine Short and her daughter, Lauren. He is also accused of injuring three additional people, including a school police officer. He tried to escape after being arrested last week.
James faces capital murder charges.
There are still plenty of unknowns about last week’s deadly rampage, perhaps most importantly, a motive. What is already clear is that James shares attributes with other mass shooters — a history of family violence, military service and what appeared to be easy access to guns.
The executive director of NAMI Texas, which advocates for people with mental illness, said James sounded like he was at a substantial risk of harm multiple times in his life. He said it’s too soon to know, for sure, that the shootings were related to his mental health.
“It seems like he slipped through the cracks, and not just of the mental health system but of various systems,” Greg Hansch said.
Six months before he bought his gun, in January 2022, James was accused of assaulting multiple family members.
According to records obtained by KSAT, he was charged with three misdemeanors after he shoved his father and scratched him. His mother had a “quarter size knot” on the back of her head after being knocked to the ground, the records showed, and James’ sibling also hurt her shoulder after he pushed her down.
All three wanted to press charges, and James was ordered not to have contact with his family, KSAT reported. Later the terms of his bond were changed to “no harmful or injurious contact with them,” the sheriff said.
The Texas Organizing Project, a liberal group that works on criminal justice issues, paid James’ bail, a total of $300. The group told The Texas Newsroom this incident has spurred them to revisit their bail practices.
When James was released from jail two months later, he cut off his ankle monitor. The warrants for his arrest were then reissued.
For the next year and a half, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said, James was “a fugitive from justice.”
“He was on the lam,” he said during a press conference last week. “We couldn't get any resolution while he was in the wind.”
Some clues as to his whereabouts may have been gleaned from what appears to be James’ LinkedIn. Based on the information there, The Texas Newsroom confirmed through a company representative that James was working at a San Antonio car wash until May 2022.
Christian Henricksen, the first assistant district attorney in Bexar County, told The Texas Newsroom they handle thousands of family violence cases a year. In 2023, they’ve already resolved 6,300 cases.
“We take them all seriously. But unfortunately there wasn’t a lot that made this stand out,” he said.
Bexar County is also looking at their ankle monitor policies. Henricksen said they’re asking, “what can we learn?”
This September, a month after deputies responded to James’ mental health crisis, state legislators made it a state jail felony to remove or disable an ankle monitor. One of the new law’s sponsors said this tragedy, and another high-profile murder case in the Dallas area, make him wonder if this tool is an effective deterrent for violent crime.
“We need a top-to-bottom review of whether these are even appropriate for all criminals,” Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, told The Texas Newsroom.
Mental health history
Salazar has defended his deputies’ decision making during the August crisis call. While he wished they would have had James in custody before the shootings, he called it “a no-win situation.”
“Should they be accused of inciting a violent confrontation with this man? I think they made the intent to try to de-escalate. When that failed, they left the location again in hopes of coming back,” Salazar said during last week’s press conference.
When asked whether they returned, Salazar said they are able to do so.
“But does the average patrol deputy who's running literally from call to call to call to call to call, have the time, or do you all want them to camp out outside of a home for misdemeanor warrants?” he asked.
Salazar added his deputies didn’t have the authority to “kick in a door” because James’ warrants were not felonies.
Hansch of NAMI Texas said officers can take someone into custody for 48 hours if they are a threat to themselves or others. Family members can also request this kind of a hold, called an emergency detention, which can be extended to 72-hour protective custody or longer involuntary commitment.
“It doesn't matter what criminal charges may or may not be pending,” Hansch said. “It sounds to me like the guy was a risk of serious harm.”
All patrol deputies get crisis intervention training, Deputy Sheriff Johnny C. Garcia said. But he told The Texas Newsroom that no one from the county’s specialized mental health units were on the scene that day.
James had a mental health history in Austin as well. On Tuesday, Austin police revealed that he showed up in crisis at a local church in December 2018 and was put in emergency detention for suicidal ideation.
There is no statewide database of those who’ve been subject to emergency detention.
So it’s unclear whether officials in Bexar County knew about James’ mental health incident that took place in Austin. Last week, they said there were warning signs.
“We know that there were cases where the police had to engage what we call ‘emergency detention.’ So that was a red flag. But again, there was nothing to indicate that this individual was going to commit a murder,” Gonzales said.
In response to a series of questions, Garcia said the sheriff’s office is reviewing “all aspects of our interactions with Shane James.” The Texas Newsroom has requested the body camera footage of the August incident, which may shed more light on why the deputies left and did not return.
James had a criminal conviction prior to all this that may reveal earlier mental health issues.
In 2017, he was arrested for criminal trespass at the Water Gardens in Fort Worth.
John Langevin, the gardener at the time, said in an interview with The Texas Newsroom that he called the police after warning James that he could not sleep in the park. He had frequent interactions with homeless people since the park is near a shelter, Langevin said, but his interaction with James was memorable.
“He clearly had mental health issues but he didn’t seem violent,” he told The Texas Newsroom. “[James] said he only came back to the park because God told him to be there, and he started crying.”
James also had a short and ambiguous stint in the military.
James spent two and a half years in the U.S. Army before separating early in August 2015, an Army spokesman confirmed. But, citing privacy laws, he declined to comment on why James left or whether he had an honorable discharge.
Austin police say James was discharged for “unacceptable conduct.”
Last week, Salazar said James left the service “due to some sort of a domestic violence incident.” When asked for more details, his spokesman said the office received information from military personnel that James was accused of being involved in a domestic violence incident in June 2014.
“Additionally, Shane James was later given a general discharge in August of 2015,” Garcia told The Texas Newsroom in a statement that did not explicitly link together the two events.
The legal distinction between whether James was accused or convicted is important. Those convicted of domestic violence are reported to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, making them ineligible to purchase a firearm.
The Army spokesman said they were unaware of any event that would have required James to be reported to NICS at the time.
James bought a .45 caliber handgun last summer, according to new information Austin police released on Tuesday. An Inland Manufacturing 1911 A1 model, it mimics a classic style of handgun originally developed for American servicemembers.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, James’ bond conditions barred him from purchasing or possessing a gun and he may have been flagged in NICS if he tried to buy a firearm from a federally-licensed dealer.
But the person who sold the .45 to James was under no obligation to see if he was in NICS because it was a private transaction. The seller said James presented “appropriate identification,” APD said.
State lawmakers mulled changing the law just a few years ago.
In 2019, after the mass shootings in Midland and El Paso, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said it was time to require background checks for stranger-to-stranger sales. That support seemed to have quickly waffled, and by 2021, Patrick no longer explicitly supported the idea.
Nicole Golden, the executive director of gun safety group Texas Gun Sense, said it makes sense that James would go through a private seller to avoid scrutiny. The decision not to require background checks for all sales, she said, allows “individuals with documented dangerous histories to easily access firearms.”
Sheriff Salazar said James should have been barred from purchasing a weapon.
But even if he was ineligible, the private sale could have shielded him from scrutiny.
“His condition should have prevented him from having a gun, but that happened,” Salazar said, in Spanish, during the press conference last week. “This man, even though he had mental problems, he’s an adult and he also knows what he should be doing and what he should not be doing.
“So, it’s his fault.”
The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martínez-Beltrán contributed to this report.
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