Area resident hailed as hero for engaging Texas gunman

2017-11-07 20:25
Investigators work at the scene of a deadly shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Investigators work at the scene of a deadly shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Sutherland Springs — A former National Rifle Association instructor who grabbed his rifle and ran barefoot across the street to open fire on the gunman who slaughtered 26 people at a small-town Texas church was hailed as a hero on Monday, along with the pickup truck driver who helped chase the killer down.

Stephen Willeford, 55, said he was at his Sutherland Springs home on Sunday when his daughter alerted him that she'd heard gunfire at the First Baptist Church nearby. Willeford said he immediately retrieved his rifle from his weapon safe.

"I kept hearing the shots, one after another, very rapid shots — just 'Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!' — and I knew every one of those shots represented someone, that it was aimed at someone, that they weren't just random shots," Willeford said on Monday during an interview with television stations KHBS/KHOG in Fort Smith and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Willeford said he loaded his magazine and ran barefoot across the street to the church where he saw gunman Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, and exchanged gunfire.

"He saw me and I saw him," Willeford said. "I was standing behind a pickup truck for cover. I know I hit him. He got into his vehicle, and he fired another couple rounds through his side window. When the window dropped, I fired another round at him again."

As Kelley sped away, Willeford said he ran to a pickup truck stopped at an intersection and told the driver, "That guy just shot up the Baptist church. We need to stop him."

The driver, Johnnie Langendorff, said he had been driving to Sutherland Springs on Sunday to pick up his girlfriend when a man who'd been exchanging gunfire with Kelley suddenly landed inside his truck.

"He jumped in my truck and said, 'He just shot up the church, we need to go get him.' And I said, 'Let's go,'" Langendorff, a 27-year-old Seguin resident, told The Associated Press on Monday, adding that the ensuing pursuit eventually clocked speeds upwards of 90 mph.

Willeford said he and Langendorff kept a 911 operator advised as the high-speed pursuit continued. He said Kelley ultimately hit a road sign and flipped his vehicle into a roadside ditch.

Willeford said he then exited Langendorff's pickup, perched his rifle on the rooftop and trained it on Kelley's vehicle. He then yelled: "Get out of the truck! Get out of the truck!" But Kelley did not move.

'Act now. Ask questions later'

Langendorff said police arrived about five minutes later. Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"There was no thinking about it," Langendorff said. "There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later."

Asked if he felt like a hero, Langendorff said: "I don't really know how I feel. I just hope that the families and people affected by this can sleep easier knowing that this man is not breathing anymore and not able to hurt anyone else. I feel I just did what was right."

Though he did not identify Willeford by name, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said at a news conference on Monday that the armed resident who confronted Kelley was toting an "AR assault rifle and engaged" the shooter.

Martin later praised Willeford and Langendorff: "The number one goal of law enforcement is to neutralise the shooter. In this situation, we had two good Samaritans who did that for law enforcement."

Julius Kepper, Willeford's next-door neighbour for the past seven years, described Willeford as a gun and motorcycle enthusiast who regularly takes target practice at property out in the country, and has as many as five Harley Davidson motorcycles.
"Avid gun collector, a good guy," Kepper said.

Kepper and other neighbours said Willeford's family has been in the Sutherland Springs area for at least three generations, including a father and grandfather who were in dairy farming. Stephen Willeford is married with two grown children and works as a plumber who installs lines on major projects such as hospitals, Kepper said.

He called Willeford a "free spirit" sort who loves motorcycles despite losing both parents to a motorcycle crash when he was a young adult. "It was almost the same spot where they ran (the shooter) off the road," Kepper said.

Celebrating bravery

Kepper said he's not surprised Willeford would exchange gunfire with the church gunman. Others in the neighbourhood would have done the same if they knew what was happening, he said.

"Just like everybody else around here. He was just the first one there," Kepper said.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday praised Willeford's actions, after talking to law enforcement officials and visiting the church in Sutherland Springs. He lauded the "ordinary citizen" who engaged the gunman.

"One individual demonstrated bravery and courage. We need to be celebrating that bravery and courage," Cruz said.

Still, Willeford proved a reluctant hero.

"I didn't want this and I want the focus to be on my friends," Willeford told The Dallas Morning News for a story published on Monday that also confirmed he was the first person to confront Kelley. "I have friends in that church. I was terrified while this was going on."

No one answered the door at the Willeford residence on Monday. Food that had been delivered to the house was stacked up on the front porch.


Read more on:    us  |  us shootings

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Inside News24

 
/News
 

And the Paws24 and Hill's winners are ...

Find out who the winners of our Paws24 pet pics and Q&a competitions are...

 

Paws

Keep your family and pets safe from rabies
5 scientific benefits of owning a cat
Why we love cats
8 great natural remedies for your pet
Traffic Alerts
Traffic
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.