The deadliest shooting in Texas history could have claimed even more lives if it weren’t for a local resident who confronted the gunman, and another man who joined him to chase down the shooter, authorities say.
Stephen Willeford lives next to First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. After Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire inside the church on Sunday, Willeford heard the commotion, grabbed his own gun, ran out of his house barefoot and confronted the gunman.
“He said he was loading the magazine as fast as he could, he didn’t even know how many rounds he had put in the magazine,” said Willeford’s cousin, Ken Leonard, during an interview with CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
“What do you say to the man who stepped up when he heard the gunshots? I’d say he’s a hero,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. Had he not done what he did, we could have lost more people.” Twenty-six people at the church were slain, and 20 were injured.
Leonard said his cousin shot Kelley in the side and twice in the neck.
“He saw that the guy was wearing body armor, and there was a velcro strap, from the back to the front,” explained Leonard, speaking live on Monday. “He knew from that … that the vulnerable spot was going to be in the side. And so that’s where he shot him.”
Willeford shot at Kelley before the gunman sped away in a pearl-colored Ford Explorer. Willeford then hailed a man across the street and got in his truck, telling him to chase down Kelley.
“I had to catch the guy,” the motorist, Johnnie Langendorff told CNN on Monday. “I had to make sure he was caught and at that point the gentleman riding with me said you may have to use your truck to get him off the road and there was no hesitation. It was do everything necessary to make sure that this guy is stopped.”
At a news conference Sunday night, investigators offered a timeline of the attack at the church and described the role Willeford played.
The gunman entered the small church in the rural town east of San Antonio, firing with a rifle at the congregation attending the morning service.
He was just driving by
Langendorff said he was driving by the church on the way to his girlfriend’s house when he saw gunfire between Kelley and Willeford.
Langendorff told CNN that both men had weapons drawn.
“There was exchange of gunfire. It lasted just a few seconds, and the shooter got in his vehicle and took off,” he said. Authorities said Sunday that Kelley fled the scene in his own vehicle.
Willeford opened Langendorff’s door, said the gunman had shot up the church and urged the driver to step on it.
“We got to chase him,” Willeford said, according to Langendorff. He said he answered, “Let’s go.”
They gave chase in his truck for 11 miles and called police dispatch to tell them where they were and in what direction they were headed. The chase was 10 to 12 minutes long.
“The vehicle was in sight and I was picking up, getting closer and closer to it. We hit about 95 (mph) … trying to catch this guy until he eventually lost control on his own and went off into the ditch,” Langendorff told CNN affiliate KSAT.
“The gentleman that was with me got out and rested his rifle on my hood and kept it aimed at him (the shooter), telling him to get out. There was no movement, there was none of that. I just know his brake lights were going on and off, so he might’ve been unconscious from the crash or something like that. I’m not sure.”
Langendorff felt the suspect, who crashed his vehicle near the county line, “just gave up.”
When police arrived about five minutes later, they approached the suspect’s vehicle and found the gunman inside dead of a bullet wound.
Asked by CNN what he was thinking at the time, Langendorff said, “Nothing. Get him.” Why? “Because that’s what you do, you chase a bad guy.”
The shooting was a horrific tragedy, Langendorff said, but he hopes the families of the victims can sleep better knowing the shooter “was taken care of.”
And he has no regrets about throwing himself into such a dangerous situation.
“I hope that everyone affected is able to rest a little better knowing that this guy, he’ll never breathe again. It doesn’t serve it justice completely. But he won’t hurt anyone else ever.”
Bravery seen at another church shooting
Investigators “are continuing in their efforts as they put all the pieces of a very complex puzzle together to try to provide their community all the answers they need and deserve,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said.
It’s the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history — and the fifth deadliest in modern US history.
Willeford’s actions were similar to another man’s act of bravery during a another church shooting earlier this year in Antioch, Tennessee.
As the service at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ was ending on September 24, a gunman — whom police identified as 25-year-old Emanuel Kidega Samson — entered the church with a pair of pistols and started firing. An usher at the church, Robert Engle, sprang into action — struggling with the suspect, even as he was being pistol-whipped, police said.
“Mr. Samson didn’t expect Mr. Engle to encounter him, to struggle with him, to try to stop the shooting,” said Don Aaron, the spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
During the altercation, the gunman accidentally shot himself in the chest with his own weapon, police said.
When the gunman fell, Engle, despite his head injuries, ran to his car and came back with a pistol of his own, police said.
Engle, who has a permit for a handgun, then made sure Samson stayed on the ground until officers arrived, Aaron said.
Clarification: This story has been revised to remove a statement by Ken Leonard that Devin Patrick Kelley carjacked a vehicle when the gunman left the scene of the shooting.