The Sutherland Springs, Texas, resident who exchanged gunfire with the suspect in Sunday’s mass shooting at a church insists he is not a hero, saying the he was “scared to death” during the encounter.
“I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done,” Stephen Willeford, a former National Rifle Association instructor, tells KHBS/KHOG television in Arkansas.
Willeford says his daughter alerted him to what sounded like shots being fired at the nearby First Baptist Church. That’s when he said he got his rifle out of his 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.
“I was scared to death, I was,” a visibly shaken Willeford told the television station. “I was scared for me. I was scared for every one of them and I was scared for my own family that lived less than a block away.”
Willeford said he loaded a magazine in his rifle and ran across the street without even taking the time to put on his shoes.
When he saw the suspect, identified by police as Devin Patrick Kelley, the two 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,” 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.”
Kelley was reportedly wearing tactical gear and wielding a variant of the AR-15 assault rifle.
When the gunman sped away, Willeford saw a pickup truck and quickly explained the situation to the driver, later identified as Johnnie Langendorff, and the two set off on a high-speed chase to run down the attacker.
Langendorff told KSAT that Willeford “came to my vehicle in distress with his weapon” and said “‘we need to pursue him. He just shot up the church.’ ”
Langendorff said he and the other man pursued the shooter at high speed before he appeared to lose control and go off the road. “The other gentleman jumped out and had his rifle on him and he didn’t move after that,” Langendorff told the TV station.
Kelley’s vehicle, a truck, hit a road sign and flip before landing in a ditch, KHBS/KHOG says. Willeford says he put his rifle on the top of the truck and yelled to the suspect “get out of the truck, get out of the truck,” but never saw any movement until law enforcement arrived a few minutes later.
Freeman Martin, regional director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said the cause of Kelley’s death had not been determined. “However, investigators found evidence at the scene that indicates the subject may have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”