A CONNECTION has emerged between the gunman and the Texas church where 26 people were killed as police described the victims as “defenceless people”.

A gunman dressed in black combat-style gear and armed with an assault rifle opened fire inside the First Baptist Church on Sunday and killed worshippers aged between five and 72 in the state’s worst ever mass shooting. About 20 others were wounded.

Wilson County Sheriff Joe D Tackitt Jr told CNN the gunman’s former in-laws attended services at the church “from time to time” but were not in attendance on Sunday.

The gunman has been identified by officials as Devin Kelley.

Mr Tackitt said once the shooting started at the small church in Sutherland Springs there was probably “no way,” for congregants to escape.

“He just walked down the centre aisle, turned around and, my understanding is, shooting on his way back out”, added Mr Tackitt, who said the gunman also carried a handgun but didn’t know if he used it.

Mr Tackitt described the scene as “terrible,” adding: “It’s unbelievable to see children, men and women, laying there. Defenceless people.”

The attack started when Kelley crossed the street and started firing at the church, said Freeman Martin, a regional director of the Texas Department of Safety, then continued firing on entering the white wood-frame building, where an 11am service was taking place.

As he left, the gunman was confronted by armed resident Stephen Willeford who “grabbed his rifle and engaged the suspect”, Mr Martin said.

Kelley was found dead in his SUV at the county border after being given chase by Willeford and passing motorist Johnnie Langendorff.

Local resident Langendorff told reporters he was driving past the church when he saw Kelley and Willeford exchanging fire outside.

Several weapons were found inside the vehicle and Mr Martin said it was unclear if the attacker died of a self-inflicted wound or from a gun shot it ie believed Willeford inflicted, despite Kelley wearing body armour.

Federal agents swarmed the small rural community of just a few hundred residents in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Mr Martin said 23 of the dead were found in the church, two were found outside and one died later in hospital.

Among those killed was the church pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were both out of town when the attack occurred, Sherri Pomeroy wrote in a text message.

“We lost our 14-year-old daughter today and many friends,” she wrote. “Neither of us has made it back into town yet to personally see the devastation.

“I am at the Charlotte airport trying to get home as soon as I can.”

Church member Nick Uhlig, 34, who was not at Sunday’s service, said his cousin, who was eight months pregnant, and her in-laws were among those killed.

He later told the Houston Chronicle three of his cousin’s children also were killed.

President Donald Trump, who was in Japan, called the shooting an “act of evil”, later calling the gunman “a very deranged individual”.

Texas governor Greg Abbott said the attack by Kelley was the worst mass shooting in Texas history.

Kelley was discharged from the Air Force for assaulting his spouse and child, according to an Air Force spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman said Kelley served 12 months’ confinement after a 2012 court-martial.

He then received a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank.

Neighbours of Kelley said they had heard gunfire in days leading up to the atrocity.

Two sheriff’s vans were parked outside the gate of a cattle fence surrounding the address listed for Kelley on the outskirts of New Braunfels, north of San Antonio.

Neighbour Ryan Albers, 16, said he had heard intense gunfire coming from the direction of Kelley’s property in recent days.

“It was definitely not just a shotgun or someone hunting,” Ryan said. “It was someone using automatic weapon fire.”

Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014 and was responsible for moving passengers, cargo and property in military transportation.

He does not appear to have been linked to any organised terrorist groups.

The official said investigators are looking at social media posts Kelley may have made in the days before Sunday’s attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon.

An address listed in online records as belonging to Kelley is located in New Braunfels, Texas, just outside San Antonio and about 35 miles from Sutherland Springs.

At the address listed for Kelley in New Braunfels, two sheriff’s vans were parked outside and police officers stood at the gate of a cattle fence surrounding the property.

Neighbours said that they heard intense gunfire coming from the direction of the address listed for Kelley in recent days.

“It’s really loud. At first I thought someone was blasting,” said Ryan Albers, 16, who lives across the road.

“It had to be coming from somewhere pretty close.

“It was definitely not just a shotgun or someone hunting.

“It was someone using automatic weapon fire.”

A person matching Kelley’s name and date of birth also registered in 2014 to vote in Colorado, with an address listed in Colorado Springs, home of the US Air Force Academy.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office lists his registration now as inactive.

According to Texas Department of Public Safety regional director Freeman Martin, the gunman arrived at a Valero petrol station near the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs at around 11.20am on Sunday.

He was dressed in black, wearing tactical gear and a ballistic vest.

He crossed the street to the church, left his vehicle and started firing a Ruger AR assault-type rifle at the church.

Then he entered the church and fired.

The suspect was found dead in his vehicle near the border between Wilson and Guadalupe counties.