SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) – A barefoot Texas man who grabbed his rifle and opened fire on the gunman who slaughtered 26 people at a small-town church was hailed as a hero Monday, along with the pickup truck driver who helped chase the killer down.
“I didn’t want this and I want the focus to be on my friends,” Stephen Willeford, 55, told The Dallas Morning News for a story published Monday that also confirmed he was the first person to confront Devin Patrick Kelley, 26. “I have friends in that church. I was terrified while this was going on.”
Johnnie Langendorff said he was 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 pickup 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.
Langendorrf said he didn’t know the name of the armed resident who had sheltered behind a parked pickup truck while exchanging gunfire with Kelley. But when the armed resident jumped into Langendorff’s truck, the pair immediately began pursuit of Kelley’s vehicle in a chase that clocked speeds upwards of 90 mph.
Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said at a news conference Monday that the armed resident riding with Langendorff was toting an “AR assault rifle and engaged” the shooter.
Langendorff said Kelley eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed, prompting the armed resident to cautiously approach the vehicle with his gun drawn. But Kelley didn’t move.
Police arrived about
5 minutes later, said Langendorff, who did not know if the resident had wounded Kelley during their earlier gunfire exchange. 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.”
While Langendorff did not identify the man who returned gunfire with Kelly before jumping into his truck, Sutherland Springs resident Julius Kepper said the man was his neighbor, Willeford, whom he has lived next door to for about 7 years. Kepper said he was home when the shooting started Sunday and heard Willeford exchange gunfire, but by the time he got out of his house and looked around police already were arriving.
Kepper 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 Davidsons.
“Avid gun collector, a good guy,” Kepper said.
Kepper and other neighbors 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.
Kepper said he’s not surprised Willeford would exchange gunfire with the church gunman. Others in the neighborhood 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 praised Willeford on Monday, 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.
Martin echoed those sentiments, saying: “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.”
No one answered the door at the Willeford residence Monday. Food that had been delivered to the house was stacked up on the front porch.
Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.