Imagine you are 1,200 miles away from home in a Walmart, picking up some odds and ends you need for a job. You are already disheartened because you just saw the news of the massacre in Sutherland Springs. You hate that sort of thing in general, and you hate this tragedy more than most because it took place in the San Antonio area, where you grew up.
There you are in the Walmart on the outskirts of Joliet, Illinois, minding your own business, when suddenly your cellphone erupts. Strangers are reposting things you’ve posted months before, raging out at you, wishing you would die. You start to wonder why this is happening to you. You realize in horror that Devin Kelley—the man who killed 26 people in a small-town church—shares your name.
This is exactly what happened to Devin Kelley, originally of Castroville, who is not the late Devin Kelley of New Braunfels. Not only are they unrelated, but Kelley did not even know of the existence of his namesake until the massacre occurred.
“I was a little bit paranoid that night,” he says. “Even though I was in Illinois, I didn’t know how many people were paying attention to it. I locked myself out of my hotel room that night, and I had to back to the desk for another key, and I was like ‘Don’t be alarmed, I’m a different guy’ when I told the clerk my name. And I didn’t know if FBI or SWAT was gonna kick in my door.”
Kelley was busy fielding the inevitable phone calls from his friends, his mom, his sister, and other loved ones, reassuring them that yes, he was still alive, and no, he had nothing to do with the massacre in Sutherland Springs. But meanwhile, the people of the internet had found him. And even after he posted on Facebook that he was not that Devin Kelley, they wouldn’t let him go.
The similarities between the two young men were uncanny. This Devin Kelley was 27, while the Devin Kelley who had killed innocent children was 26. On his Facebook profile, Kelley from Castroville accurately described his own job, which entails testing the safety of diesel storage tanks at truck stops, as “Tank Tester at US Tank Alliance”—and for some Facebook posters, that seemed close enough to the other Kelley’s former job in supply and logistics in the Air Force. To add to the confusion, this Kelley had two Facebook pages, one of which had been inactive for years due to a forgotten password. “For someone who was unaware and wasn’t following the event too closely I could understand the confusion,” he says.
It didn’t help that Castroville Kelley featured a picture of Kermit the Frog as his profile picture, suggesting to some that he was seeking anonymity, or, perhaps, was somehow in allegiance to Pepe, that other famous, far more politically-charged frog, the one who has since become the avatar of the alt-right. Nope. “I’d just been to a Muppet exhibit in Seattle, so that was why that was on there,” he explains.
Kelley stubbornly kept his page public throughout the ordeal. “I just wanted to see what the reaction would be when people found it wasn’t me,” he says. “And later in the night I started joking with these people, which seems bad now considering the day’s events. I felt bad later for joking around but I guess I was just caught up in all the different opinions and all the different people that were on my page. I guess I got caught up in the attention, you know?”
After proving to all but the most hellbent on online vengeance that he was not that Devin Kelley, he had another problem: Trolls photoshopped some of his posts into profiles allegedly belonging to his namesake, creating a sort of composite for their own political ends.
Most prominent were a couple of posts that Castroville Kelley made in fairly mild support of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games. Kelley loves football, although he describes himself as rabidly apolitical. He sees the backlash more as interfering with his enjoyment of the game. But online trolls juxtaposed those posts with elements from the profile of Kelley the mass shooter. The screenshots from this Kelley’s harmless posts were deployed by right-wing trolls to “prove” that he had killed 26 people acting on behalf of “leftist/Antifa” operatives, instead of clarifying who he really was: a 27-year-old from Castroville with a job testing diesel tanks at truck stops and passions for the NFL and the Muppets.
So he found himself briefly the centerpiece of the culture wars, right at the intersection of national discussions over gun laws and NFL protests, the two hottest-button issues of the moment, just because of his name.
But Kelley realizes that compared to the victims of the shooting and their loved ones, his hours of attacks online aren’t important. “It’s all good now, man,” he says, sounding over the phone like he’s choking up. “I’m not really affected by it now. I just feel real bad for the people that were affected by it.”
For now, Kelley is still on the road, testing and servicing diesel tanks at truck stops all over America. He’s not relishing the prospect of returning home. “I think I am gonna be ‘Arturo Rodriguez’ for a couple of weeks, until this blows over,” he says. In the meantime, it’s an experience like sharing a name with Charles Whitman in the Austin of the 1960s.
Because he’s on the road three weeks out of every month, Kelley shares a place with his sister in the heart of San Antonio these days. He’s dreading having to use his name. “I have to go to FedEx a bunch, so I will be letting my co-worker do a bunch of that for a while. I already told my boss that my co-worker would be doing most of the filing for awhile, and I’m sure if I get pulled over for speeding or something, there will be a battalion of cops coming for me once they find out my name.”