Army investigated alleged mass shooter who killed 6 in Austin, San Antonio for spousal abuse
According to a U.S. Army report exclusively obtained by The Texas Newsroom, James was accused of assaulting his wife in June 2014 after a verbal altercation turned physical. He grabbed his then-wife and prevented her from calling 911, the heavily redacted document shows, prompting an investigation.
The report provides new details about the incident and sheds light on how the military dealt with James’ wrongdoing as well as its approach to domestic violence at the time.
The exact outcome of the investigation is unclear. In response to a list of questions about the report, Army spokesman Bryce Dubee said there was disciplinary action taken but no charges related to the incident were filed under military law.
“The Army has several options in disposing of misconduct ranging from reprimands and administrative separations to judicial action,” Dubee said. “The Privacy Act and DoD policy prevent us from releasing personnel information relating to the alleged misconduct.”
Dubee did not provide details as to what consequences James faced. The summer after the 2014 incident, James was discharged early from the U.S. Army.
Attempts to reach James’ ex-wife through social media and via letter were unsuccessful. The Texas Newsroom is not naming her because she was the alleged victim of domestic violence. Her name is redacted in the report.
After he was discharged, James then spent several years struggling with mental health crises and bouts of alleged violent behavior against his mother and father.
In early December, police say he used a .45 caliber handgun he bought in a private sale to murder his parents in Bexar County before killing four people around Austin: Emmanuel Pop Ba and Sabrina Rahman, and Katherine Short and her daughter, Lauren. He is also accused of injuring three additional people.
James faces capital murder charges. His lawyer did not comment on his client’s possible motive, and said he was unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding the 2014 case.
More about the report
James was stationed at Fort Cavazos (then Fort Hood) in Killeen on June 21, 2014, when he was accused of assault, according to the military police report of the incident.
The report was released after The Texas Newsroom filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Army for “any criminal investigation information or documents” into James. The name of the accused was redacted.
The Army confirmed James’ unit, which matched that of the accused on the report.
“1Lt. [redacted] grabbed [redacted] by the arms and grabbed [redacted] mouth [redacted]. 1Lt. [redacted] then took [redacted] phone and broke it, preventing her from calling 911,” the report reads.
The victim denied medical treatment on the scene, the report adds, and James was processed before being released to his unit. An unnamed third person, another Army first lieutenant, is listed as a witness.
An investigation by military police determined James was “responsible for the offense assault” and the case was coordinated with a staff judge advocate, who serves as the principal legal advisor to the commander, the report states.
Then in August 2014, a police investigations supervisor stated probable cause existed to title James. “Titling” is a term in the military justice system that means formally naming someone as the subject of a criminal investigation.
The three offenses under military law listed on the report were: interference with an emergency phone call (on post), assault (domestic disturbance) and spouse abuse (on post).
The Texas Newsroom has requested additional documents to shed more light on the incident.
The report confirmed statements by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar that James had been accused of domestic violence while in the military. In the days after the shooting, Salazar mentioned this incident and speculated the alleged gunman’s repeated acts of violence were tied to mental illness.
“He was in the military for some time, was discharged due to some sort of a domestic violence incident in the military. Again I think that’s in no small part due to his mental illness,” Salazar said during a December press conference.
At that time, the Army declined to comment on Salazar’s statement about the domestic violence allegation. They also declined to say why James was discharged, citing privacy rules.
Austin police have said he was other than honorably discharged for unacceptable conduct. In the years after he left the military, James was detained for suicidal thoughts and charged with assaulting his mother and father.
In August, his father called the police after James barricaded himself inside the family home. Officers responded, but left after they could not convince James to come out. Three months later, police say he went on the shooting rampage that resulted in the death of his parents and four others.
How the military deals with domestic abuse
When James was investigated for spousal abuse by the Army, the ultimate decision to bring charges — or formally accuse him of a crime — rested with his commanding officer.
Although James was not convicted, he could have been penalized in some other way. His commander could have ordered confinement, fines, reduction in rank, counseling, involuntary separation, or other administrative punishments. The commander also may have simply chosen not to pursue the matter further.
Victims said this system allowed offenders to go unpunished based on their rank or reputation, and allowed troops with violent pasts to avoid scrutiny.
In recent years, the military has made changes to move the investigation and prosecution of certain crimes outside of the service member’s direct chain of command. In cases of sexual assault domestic violence, murder, and other major crimes, many of those responsibilities and legal decisions now rest with independent military prosecutors.
Federal law bars anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing firearms. These people are supposed to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, the FBI’s background check system.
But even when service members are formally convicted of domestic violence, the military has not always properly reported these cases to NICS.
That was what happened with Devin Kelley, a veteran who killed 26 people at a rural Texas church in 2017. Kelley had a domestic violence history that went unreported, which allowed him to buy the weapon he used in the shooting at a major retailer without being flagged.
Dubee had previously said that the Army was unaware of any event during James’ service that would have required him to be reported to NICS.
At the time of the mass shooting last month, James had several active arrest warrants for an alleged assault against his parents dating to January 2022. The terms of his bond prohibited him from purchasing or possessing a firearm.
But James bought the gun police said he used in the shooting through a private sale. Texas law does not require the seller to run a NICS background check on the buyer.
Republican leaders mulled changing this law after two mass shootings in 2019. The idea was championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most conservative leaders in the state, who said he was “willing to take an arrow" to push the issue.
Within months, Patrick stopped publicly supporting the idea. The concept never again gained traction in the GOP-led Legislature.
Patrick has not responded to requests for comment about the James case.
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