A neighbor of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, heard gunfire Sunday and sprang into action, grabbing his rifle and shooting the gunman, wounding him and forcing him to flee the scene, police say. The neighbor then enlisted another man to help him chase down the shooter, pursuing him at 95 mph for six miles.
Stephen Willeford, 55, has been identified by local sources as that neighbor, and he is being praised as a hero, the Daily Mail reports.
Willeford confronted Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, after he exited the church Sunday morning. Inside, police say, Kelley killed at least 26 people and wounded about another 20. The church is located in a small town in Wilson County, east of San Antonio, of about 360 people. Many of the victims come from the same families and include at least 10 children, officials say.
Another local man, Johnnie Langendorff , helped Willeford chase down the shooter, who later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin called Willeford a “Texas hero” at a press conference Monday.
“The number one goal of law enforcement is to neutralize the shooter. In this situation we had two good Samaritans who did that for law enforcement,” Martin said.
“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 told KHBS-TV. “I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done.”
Here’s what you need to know about Willeford and his “heroic” actions:
1. Willeford Engaged in a ‘Firefight’ With the Gunman Outside of the Church, the Sheriff Says
When Stephen Willeford, who lives across the street from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, “heard what was going on,” he “armed himself with an AR assault rifle, and engaged the suspect. They engaged in gunfire here at the church,” Freeman Martin, of the Texas Department of Public Safety said. He arrived while police were responding to the calls of an active shooter.
Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CBS News that Willeford was in a “firefight” with the shooter.
The gunman, Devin Kelley, was wounded during the exchange of gunfire with Willeford, and dropped his rifle, Martin said. He then got into his Ford Expedition and sped off from the scene, according to Martin.
“A citizen was across the street. They engaged in a firefight for just a little bit,” Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CBS News. “The suspect gets in his vehicle and takes off. This — I’m calling him hero — here in town, then stops a truck, and says, ‘I need help. This guy just shot up the church: Follow him.’”
Willeford told KHBS-TV, “He saw me and I saw him. 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.”
Kelley was shot twice, in the leg and side, authorities said.
The other man, Johnnie Langendorff, told CBS News, “I just pulled up to an intersection and saw gunfire. … He just hurt so many people. And he just affected so many people’s lives. Why wouldn’t you want to take him down?”
“It seemed everybody had headed up to the church. I’m not sure if anybody really realized that he had left and gone that direction,” Langendorff told ABC News.
2. He Got Into Langendorff’s Truck & They Chased the Shooter at Speeds of 95 MPH Before the Gunman Crashed & Took His Own Life
After Kelley fled from the scene, Martin said “this Texas hero,” Willeford, “flagged down a young man from Seguin, Texas, and they pursued the suspect.”
“The neighbor with the rifle came to my truck and he opened my door and said, ‘He just shot up the church,’ and got in,” Langendorff said on Good Morning America. “He said, ‘Chase him’ so that’s what I did. I just chased him.”
Langendorff said the pursuit reached high speeds before the gunman crashed about six miles from the church.
“We just take pursuit. And like I said, we hit about 95 trying to catch this guy until he eventually lost control on his own and went off in the ditch,” Langendorff told CBS News.
Langendorff told Good Morning America, “He kind of started veering all over the place. He took out one road sign and from there he hit the guard rail and then hit the bar ditch.”
Willeford told KHBS-TV that after the crash, he ran up to the truck and yelled “get out of the truck, get out of the truck,” but there was no movement.
Police said there is evidence the suspect had a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but authorities are waiting for an autopsy to determine how he died. He was wounded during the shootout and called his father while being chased to say that he didn’t think he was going to make it, officials said at a press conference Monday.
“It was an act now, ask questions later kind of deal,” he said on Good Morning America. “It wasn’t something that I needed to freak out about. The situation was, in a sense, under control and as long as I’m behind the wheel, I’m perfectly fine.”
3. Willeford, a Plumber Who Locals Say Is an ‘Excellent Shot,’ Woke Up From a Nap & Ran Barefoot to the Church
Willeford is a plumber, according to his Facebook page. He has also lived in Bryan and San Antonio, Texas. Langendorff told CNN that Willeford sprang into action without any thought.
“From what I know, he was just taking a nap and heard the gunshots and reacted,” he told CNN. “He came out, he was barefooted. He had no shoes on or nothing but he was ready to act. He did all the right things.”
A local source told the Daily Mail that Willeford doesn’t have military experience, but is known as an “excellent shot.” Willeford shot through the gunman’s body armor, hitting him in the side, the source said.
He is an former NRA instructor, according to KHBS-TV.
Kevin Jordan, a neighbor, told KENS-TV that he saw Willeford taking cover behind a car and exchanging gunfire with the shooter. Jordan says he doesn’t think the shooter would have stopped if it wasn’t for Willeford.
Langendorff, who was on his way to his girlfriend’s house, told Good Morning America they weren’t trying to be heroes.
“There was really no thought behind it. It was just, act to do what I thought was the right thing,” he said .”The gentleman who got in my truck … all he really got out was, ‘He just shot up the church. Follow him.’ And, you know, that’s enough for me to do anything, anything to help these people or to run the bad man down.”
Langedorff said he has seen how special the Sutherland Springs community is.
“So many people are pitching in, especially not just here but from all over the state of Texas,” he said on Good Morning America. “I’m not sure about other places yet but I know our bigger cities in Texas and stuff are all stepping up to help everybody and try and make this uneasy situation as easy as possible for the families and everyone involved and it’s great to see everybody coming together and helping everybody out.”
4. Willeford, a Motorcycle Lover, Has Been Married Since 1989 & Wrote on His Facebook Page ‘When Life Throws You a Curve Lean Into It’
Willeford has been married to Pam Farmer Willeford since July 1989, according to his Facebook page. He and his wife, who have grown children, are both pictured on his page riding motorcycles.
Willeford is also involved in an organization called Quilts of Honor, and in January 2016, he presented a handmade quilt honoring the military service of Jeff Leonard, an Army veteran who lives in La Vernia, Texas, according to the local newspaper.
And he has also dressed as Santa Claus to hand out gifts to local kids.
“Dad and I on our motorcycle ride today with a local church delivering toys to kids. Did you all know that some of Santa’s helpers ride loud motorcycles? Ya. Neither did these kids. Haha. Merry Christmas,” his daughter, Stephanie Willeford, wrote on Facebook.
His neighbor, Kevin Jordan, told KENS-TV “He’s a very good guy, very big christian, he’s the nicest man on the planet, he would do anything for anyone around here. We’ve known him for years, he’s childhood friends with my dad.”
On his Facebook page, Willeford writes in his intro, “When life throws you a curve lean into it,” an apparent reference to his love of motorcycles. The comment is eerily similar to the last sermon given by First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who brought his own Harley Davidson into the church on October 30 to drive home his message that the worshippers should “lean in” to their relationship with God, like a biker leaning into a turn.
“Lean on the Lord. Though it may not make sense in our finite mind, just as leaning into a turn may not mistake, leaning into God is the way we should go. Because God’s got it figured out, whether we do or not,” Pomeroy said during the sermon.
Pomeroy was out of town with his wife on Sunday, but his 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was killed in the shooting. He also talked during the sermon about riding with her.
“I love it when I can go out and ride on the bike. It’s been neat lately, Annabelle’s been wanting to ride with me and go with me here and there,” Pomeroy said in the sermon. “The bike was showing 34 degrees this morning and she was a trooper, she did not complain. She just sat back there behind me and rode. … And we had a good time coming in, it was a beautiful ride, yes it was a little chilly, but watching the sun come up over, the sun was just coming up.”
5. President Trump & Local Officials Have Credited Willeford for Stopping the Gunman
President Donald Trump said Monday that if Willeford hadn’t been there with a gun, more people could have been killed.
“Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse,” Trump said during a press conference in Japan.
Freeman Martin, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said they can only speculate whether the shooter would have killed more people. Martin has called Willeford a “Texas hero” and the local sheriff added his own praise.
“I say he’s a hero,” Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CNN. “Had he not done what he did, we could have lost more people. There were other weapons in the vehicle. Even though he dropped the one, there’s another church about a mile down the road, he could’ve stopped there. Who knows.”