The man who took down the Texas church gunman
One minute he was relaxing barefoot at his home. In the next, Stephen Willeford stood behind a pickup truck, firing the shots that led to the demise of the gunman who massacred 26 people in a church.
And Willeford still had no shoes on.
The 55-year-old plumber and experienced rifleman is heralded as a hero by local police here. Kelley fatally shot 26 people and had just exited First Baptist Church when Willeford surprised him.
"I was scared for my own family, who live a half a block away," Willeford said, describing his instinct to run out of his house after his daughter told him someone was shooting up the church.
"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 40/29 News TV.
Willeford came to a vigil Monday night in honor of the victims. He was the center of attention.
More than a dozen members of the still-stunned community enveloped him in an emotional group hug that almost resembled a huddle at a pickup football game as religious music filled the air.
“He is the nicest guy you ever want to meet,” said Ron Leonard, Willeford’s cousin who has been at his side almost ever since the gunfire stopped. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. In fact, he’s kind of a little bit embarrassed by all this.”
Earlier, Leonard gently pushed back news cameras when they realized Willeford, absent from public view since the massacre, had joined more than 100 residents at the town’s athletic complex.
Willeford said he had very little time to think Sunday when his daughter told him about the shooting. He loaded his magazine and ran across the street to the church, not even taking the time to put on shoes. When Willeford saw the gunman, he exchanged gunfire.
"He saw me and I saw him," Willeford said in the TV interview. "I was standing behind a pickup truck for cover."
At least one of the shots that Willeford fired struck Kelley through the protective body armor that the killer was wearing.
"I know I hit him," Willeford said. "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."
The gunman then sped down the highway.
Willeford spotted a pickup truck at a stop sign. He ran to the truck and asked the driver for help.
"That guy just shot up the Baptist church. We need to stop him," Willeford told the driver.
Willeford had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. The armed man asked to get in Langendorff's truck, and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.
"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 said.
The pursuit reached speeds up to 90 mph. The gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed. The armed man walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn, and the attacker did not move. Police arrived about five minutes later, Langendorff said.
The assailant was dead in his vehicle. He had three gunshot wounds — two from where the armed man hit him in the leg and the torso and the third self-inflicted wound to the head, authorities said.
"There was no thinking about it. There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later," Langendorff said.
Willeford said he's no hero.
"I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done," Willeford said.
Willeford's family has lived in the Sutherland Springs area for four generations, 40/29 News reported. He had numerous friends who went to the church.
Contributing: The Corpus Christi Caller-Times