The deadliest shooting in Texas history could have claimed even more lives if it weren’t for two strangers who jumped into action, authorities said.
When Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, Stephen Willeford, who lives near the church, grabbed his own gun and ran out of the house barefoot to confront the gunman.
“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.”
As Kelley sped away in a pearl-colored Ford Explorer, Willeford knew he still had a part to play. He spotted Johnnie Langendorff’s truck across the street and hailed him down.
“I said, ‘that guy just shot up the Baptist church. We need to stop him,” Willeford told CNN affiliate KHBS.
Langendorff didn’t hesitate. “I had to make sure he was caught,” Langendorff told CNN. “It was, ‘Do everything necessary to make sure that this guy is stopped.’”
With that, the hunt for a killer began.
Kelley entered the small church in the rural town east of San Antonio, firing with a rifle at the congregation attending the morning service. He killed 26 people and injured at least 20 more.
Willeford heard the commotion and ran outside with his gun as Kelley was leaving the church.
“He saw me and I saw him. I was standing behind the pickup truck for cover,” Willeford told KHBS. “It was surreal to me that it could be happening. I could not believe it.
The two exchanged gunfire. “I know I hit him. I don’t know where I hit him,” Willeford said. Law enforcement said Willeford struck him in the leg and torso.
Willeford loaded his magazine as fast as he could, his cousin, Ken Leonard, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. “He didn’t even know how many rounds he had put in the magazine.”
Kelley got into his vehicle and fired off rounds through the driver’s side open window as drove away, Willeford said. That’s when Willeford approached Langendorff for a ride.
Langendorff said he was driving by the church on the way to his girlfriend’s house when he saw Kelley and Willeford with their weapons drawn.
“There was exchange of gunfire. It lasted just a few seconds, and the shooter got in his vehicle and took off,” he told CNN.
Willeford opened Langendorff’s door, told him 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 led police to the gunman
Kelley was far out of sight as the two took off down 539, but Langendorff hit the gas. Each time he looked down at the speedometer, it was between 90 and 95 mph, he said.
Eventually, they had him in their sights. While weaving between cars on the country road they called 911 to offer directions.
The chase had lasted about 10 minutes when Kelley veered off to the side of the road as if to pull over, Willeford told KHBS. Then, Kelley hit a stop sign, lost control and came to a stop in a ditch near the county line, he said.
Willeford said he got of out the car, propped his rifle on the hood, and yelled at Kelley to get out of the car. Langendorff said he ran into the road to direct traffic.
“I never saw any movement, but I wasn’t gonna let him go anywhere,” Willeford told KHBS.
Police arrived about five minutes later and approached the gunman’s vehicle. They found Kelley dead inside, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
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.” And he has no regrets about throwing himself into such a dangerous situation.
The shooting was a horrific tragedy, Langendorff said. “I hope that everyone affected is able to rest a little better knowing that this guy, he’ll never breathe again, he said. “It doesn’t serve it justice completely. But he won’t hurt anyone else ever.”
Bravery seen at another church shooting
It was 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.
CNN’s Joe Sterling contributed to this report.