November 2018

The Hero of the Sutherland Springs Shooting Is Still Reckoning With What Happened That Day

A year in the life of Stephen Willeford, who disrupted the mass murder in his small town’s First Baptist Church and became known as the ultimate good guy with a gun.

Stephen Willeford

Stephen Willeford had just taken a bite of chocolate cake when the stranger approached. It was a warm evening in August, and Willeford was eating at Baldy’s American Diner, just a few miles from his home in Sutherland Springs. He was in a dark corner of the restaurant, out of sight of other patrons in the main dining room, but the stranger and his wife happened to pass by on their way to the restroom.

When the man spotted Willeford, he lingered for a few seconds, staring.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said. He looked to be in his late thirties and was wearing a faded U.S. Marine Corps T-shirt. “I just have to say, you look really familiar, and I can’t figure out how I know you. Can I ask your name?”

Willeford is the sort of guy who blends into most crowds. At 56, he’s balding, a little stocky, and moderate in height, about five feet, seven inches. He is gregarious by nature, almost jolly, which is apt, because he sports a scruffy white Santa Claus beard. His kids used to tease him because he seems to know someone everywhere he goes, and even when he doesn’t, he makes fast friends with strangers. But these days—ever since last November, when media crews from around the world descended on his tiny hometown, the latest ground zero in a mind-numbing string of mass shootings across the country—he knows all the quietest corners of his favorite restaurants. His life barely resembles the one he had before.

“My name is Stephen,” he said, his voice gentle and slow.

The stranger pondered this for a moment, but nothing clicked. “May I ask what it is you do for a living?” By now the man’s wife had emerged from the restroom and stood beside him, puzzled.

It had been nearly a year since that awful November morning, and Willeford’s name and photo had appeared in news stories around the world. The president of the United States had praised him during a press conference and later shaken his hand. A Fox News pundit had thanked God that he “came in and stepped up to the plate and was courageous.” Strangers had sent gifts worth thousands of dollars and invited him on exotic, all-expense-paid trips. Other strangers invoke his name daily while arguing on Twitter. He’s become a coveted public speaker. In May, he appeared before thousands at an NRA convention. Recently, when he addressed a crowd of roughly two hundred at a church near Dallas, more than twenty men lined up to shake his hand and pose for photos.

It had all come to feel like a surreal, never-ending dream.

“I’m a plumber,” Willeford said to the stranger, smiling.

This seemed to be all the man needed. “I thought so,” he said. “I know who you are.” Then he turned to his wife. “Honey, this is the guy who stopped the bad man.”

First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

On most Sunday mornings, Willeford would have been 45 minutes away, in San Antonio, at the Church of Christ he and his family had attended since his kids were young. But on November 5, 2017, he decided to stay home and rest up. He was scheduled to be on call the upcoming week at San Antonio’s University Hospital, and he knew he’d inevitably be summoned for a middle-of-the-night plumbing emergency. He had drifted to sleep sometime before 11:30 a.m. when his oldest daughter, Stephanie, came into his bedroom and woke him up. She asked if he heard gunfire.

He did hear something, but to Willeford it sounded like someone was tapping on the window. He looked outside but didn’t see anyone. He pulled on a pair of jeans and went to the living room, where the walls were less insulated. The sound was louder there. It was definitely gunfire, he realized, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

He rushed into a back room and opened his steel gun safe, where he stows his collection of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Without hesitation, he snatched one of his AR-15s. He’d put the rifle together himself, swapping out parts and upgrading here and there over the years. It was light, good for mobility, and could shoot quickly. It wasn’t as accurate as some of his other rifles but good enough to hit the bowling pins he and his friends used for targets. He loaded a handful of rounds into the magazine.

Meanwhile, Stephanie had jumped in her car to drive around the block to investigate. Willeford’s neighborhood, in central Sutherland Springs, consists of modest ranch-style homes and trailers. The town itself is tiny, about six hundred people, a blue-collar agricultural community. Stephanie returned a minute or so later. She told her father she had seen a man wearing black tactical gear at the Baptist church just down the street, about 150 yards away.

Willeford and his family know almost everyone who attends the church. Some of the elder members of the congregation knew his great-grandparents. Each Christmas, he rides his Harley with a motorcycle group from the church that delivers toys to poor kids across the county.

He called his wife, Pam, who was five miles away, drywalling the house the family was building for their youngest daughter, Rachel, who was almost three months pregnant at the time, and her husband. Willeford told Pam that there was an active shooter at the church and asked her to stay put. The last thing he heard before hanging up was her pleading, “Don’t go over there!”

Then he barreled out the front door, down the street toward the church. He didn’t even bother to put shoes on.

Stephanie tried to follow, but he turned and asked her to go back inside and load another magazine for him (he wanted to give her a task so she wouldn’t leave the house).

As he approached the old white chapel, he screamed as loud as he could, “Hey!” To this day, he’s not sure why—he knows that giving away your position is foolish, tactically—but friends inside the church later told him that when the gunman heard Willeford’s cry, he stopped shooting and headed for the front door. “It was the Holy Spirit calling the demon out of the church,” he tells people.

Just as Willeford reached the front yard of Fred and Kathleen Curnow, whose house faces the church entrance, a man wearing black body armor and a helmet with a visor emerged from the church. Willeford scrambled behind the front tire of Fred’s Dodge Ram. The gunman raised his pistol and fired three times. One bullet hit the truck. One hit the Dodge Challenger parked behind him. One hit the house.

Willeford propped his AR-15 on the pickup’s hood and peered through the sight. He could see a holographic red dot on the man’s chest. He fired twice. He wasn’t sure he’d hit him, though he was later told that the man had contusions on his chest and abdomen consistent with getting shot while wearing body armor. Regardless, the gunman stopped shooting and ran for a white Ford Explorer that was idling outside the chapel, roughly twenty yards from where Willeford had positioned himself.

As the shooter rounded the front of the Explorer, Willeford noticed that the man’s vest didn’t cover the sides of his torso. Willeford fired twice more, striking the man once beneath the arm—in an unprotected spot—and once in the thigh.

The man leaped into the vehicle, slammed the door, and fired twice through the driver’s side window. Willeford aimed for where he thought his target’s head would be and pulled the trigger, shattering the driver’s side window completely. The Explorer sped away, turning north onto FM 539, and Willeford ran into the street and got off another shot, this time shattering the SUV’s rear window.

The vehicle roared out of view. For a moment, it seemed he had gotten away. Then Willeford looked to his left and noticed a navy-blue Dodge Ram stopped at a nearby crossroad.

Johnnie Langendorff, a 27-year-old who had driven down from Seguin, thirty minutes north, that morning to visit his girlfriend, had arrived at the intersection across the street from the church just as the gunman walked out and began firing at Willeford. Langendorff had already dialed 911 when Willeford, whom he’d never met, ran toward him, barefoot and brandishing a warm AR-15.

“That guy just shot up the church,” Willeford shouted. “We need to stop him.”

The next thing Willeford remembers hearing was the sound of Langendorff’s doors unlocking. He hopped in the truck, and they sped after the Explorer.

Going north from Sutherland Springs, FM 539 is a two-lane blacktop that winds around craggy hills, through open pastures, past a handful of ranch houses toward Guadalupe County. As they raced after the Explorer, Langendorff topped 90 miles per hour, overtaking four or five other cars along the way. He stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher and updated their location every time they passed a cross street. They’d traveled seven or eight miles when they came around a bend and, for the first time, spotted the Explorer a few hundred feet ahead.

“If we catch him, we may have to put him off the road,” Willeford said.

Langendorff nodded. “I already figured that.”

As they closed in on the SUV, it swerved back and forth across both lanes and then, abruptly, careered off the road into a ditch. Langendorff pulled up about five yards behind the Explorer. Willeford clutched the AR-15 in his right hand— he only had two rounds remaining, not enough to survive another shootout—and reached down to open the door with his left. Just as he was stepping out, the Explorer peeled off, plowing through a street sign on its way back to the road. Willeford closed his door. Langendorff stomped on the gas. The SUV made it only a few hundred yards before veering off the road, smashing through a fence, and rolling to a stop roughly thirty feet into a field.

Willeford went to bed feeling anonymous, which was fine with him. “We had no clue what was about to happen,” he says.

Langendorff put the truck in park on the road, about fifty yards from the Explorer. Willeford told Langendorff to duck under the dash as he, for the second time in a span of ten minutes, posted up behind the front tire of a Dodge Ram, perching his rifle on the hood. He screamed at the man in the SUV, who didn’t budge or utter a sound. (He says he isn’t proud of the language he used that day, that he was angry in the moment.) He’s not sure how long he stayed there before hearing the voice of a police officer on a PA behind him.

“Driver, put down your weapon and come out with your hands up,” Willeford remembers the officer saying. When the officer repeated himself, Willeford laid his rifle on the hood and turned toward the squad car.

“Not you!” the officer shouted.

Soon, other officers arrived. To Willeford’s recollection, there were a dozen, at least, from jurisdictions all over the area. Rather than assault the vehicle, they decided to dispatch a drone to inspect the SUV for any movement inside. An officer arrived with the drone after nearly an hour, and through its camera they could see that the gunman was dead in the driver’s seat. Willeford watched as the officers cautiously converged on the Explorer, until they were close enough to peer through the window. The fatal wound was a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

Willeford believes that what happened that day was a battle between good and evil. He says he was terrified, but he thinks the calm he experienced was the Holy Spirit taking over. He tells people he thinks it was the Lord’s hand shielding him as the man doing evil fired over and over again in his direction. And looking back now, he feels like God had been shaping him every day of his life, carving him into the perfect tool for that day.

He grew up with a deeply rooted love for his community, a devotion that was instilled in him by previous generations. During the Depression, his great-grandfather started a trade route between Sutherland Springs and Seguin, bolstering business and helping farmers and shopkeepers in both towns stay afloat through hard times. Growing up, Willeford worked at a local dairy owned by his family. “I squeezed more tits before I was eight than you will your whole life,” he likes to joke.

He started shooting when he was 5 years old. His father had him aiming a bolt-action .22 rifle at Coke cans in the backyard. As he grew older, he was drawn to competition shooting. By his mid-thirties, he could hit the string of a moving balloon from a hundred yards away. With his instruction, all three of his kids, who range in age from 23 to 28, were expert pistol shooters by the time they turned 9. For years, his family’s Church of Christ Bible study group met at a local gun range, gathering each week to shoot for a few hours before going over Scripture.

He’d even had discussions with a police officer friend, long before his encounter with the gunman, about where to aim on a moving target wearing body armor: the side, the hip, the leg. More preparation from God, he believes.

There was a stretch in his life, starting in 1993, when he felt like the Old Testament character Job. On the day before Willeford’s thirty-first birthday, his parents were both killed by a drunk driver. They’d been out for a Labor Day motorcycle ride when a man with four prior DWIs collided with them head-on. The accident was on FM 539, not far from where he and Langendorff concluded their chase. A few weeks later, an arsonist burned down his parents’ house—before he’d had time to sort through his childhood memories.

The day after his parents’ funeral, he and Pam learned she was pregnant. But during a second-trimester checkup, there was no heartbeat. And not long after that, Willeford lost his job. “We maintained our faith through all of it, though,” he says.

So Willeford is “no stranger to pain,” he says, but he remembers crying more the first week after the shooting than he had the rest of his life combined. The first time came on the side of the road, when he was talking to officers. Everything was just so overwhelming.

He was at the scene for four hours, answering questions from various agencies. Because the chase had crossed county lines and because officers from several different jurisdictions responded, Willeford had to tell his story to representatives from three county sheriffs. Then there was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. And then the Texas Rangers. (Later that night, he’d have to repeat it all over again to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.)

His wife, Pam,  showed up at the scene within an hour, relieved to see Willeford alive. He was still undergoing interviews, so she asked a few firefighters if they could give him her Crocs. Even though it was late autumn, the temperature had peaked at close to 90 degrees that day, and she worried about the torrid asphalt against his bare feet.

Every time he talked to someone new, Willeford wanted to know about the people in the church. He wanted names. He wanted to know how many people were hurt. But he couldn’t get a straight answer.

“How bad is it?” he asked over and over.

For most of the afternoon, he was convinced he’d be going to jail, despite repeated assurances from the officers interviewing him. He’s always told people: if you use your gun, even in self-defense, expect to spend a night in jail before it’s all sorted out. He talked to five different law enforcement agencies, but his worries were assuaged only after the district attorney for Wilson County, Audrey Louis, introduced herself and put him at ease. She told him she had friends in that church, and she gave him a hug.

When he finally got home early that evening, the neighborhood was a chaotic mess of police cars, reporters, stunned onlookers, and sobbing mourners. More than twenty people awaited him inside his house: friends from San Antonio, neighbors, extended family who’d heard about what had happened. Everyone was calling, texting, waiting for the latest news on TV. That’s how Willeford and his family first learned how bad it really was.

There were 26 dead and 20 injured. One victim was 77. Another was eighteen months old. Eight of those murdered were children. One victim was pregnant. Three married couples died together, as did a set of three young siblings. A family Willeford had known for years, the Holcombes, lost nine members. Lead pastor Frank Pomeroy, who typically carries a gun to services, was out of town that day, but his 14-year-old daughter was among the  dead. Before going outside to shoot at Willeford, the gunman had gone through fifteen 30-round magazines.

The memorial lining the fence around the new church building, under construction.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Stone markers dedicated to victims outside of the old chapel.

Stone markers dedicated to victims outside of the old chapel.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Left:

The memorial lining the fence around the new church building, under construction.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Right:

Stone markers dedicated to victims outside of the old chapel.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Willeford assumed the reporting was wrong. The air felt thick and hard to breathe. Nothing made sense.

At a press conference that night, Governor Greg Abbott confirmed the grim facts. He thanked the litany of officials and agencies who had responded to what they now realized had been the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. A Department of Public Safety representative told the scrum of cameras that a local citizen had responded to the shooting with his own rifle and then chased down the suspect. A reporter asked if that citizen’s name was going to be released to the public. The answer was no.

Willeford went to bed feeling anonymous, which was fine with him. Preferable, in fact. “We had no clue what was about to happen,” he says.

Most mass shootings barely even register with the American public anymore. In 2017 alone, there were more than three hundred shooting incidents in which at least four people were injured or killed, and few of them made national headlines. Sutherland Springs was different, though.

For one, the sheer number of victims was staggering. That it also happened in a small town, the kind of tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone, contributed to the shock. But there was another element that made the tragedy a singular event. There was Stephen Willeford.

For years, the mass shootings that have garnered national attention have resulted in a predictable public debate between advocates of stricter gun control measures and people arguing that, as NRA leader Wayne LaPierre famously put it after twenty schoolchildren were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Willeford had become a lead character in a national debate. He was the ultimate good guy with a gun.

When he woke up the morning after the shooting, there were a few fleeting seconds before he remembered what had happened and all the grief and sadness returned. He got up and turned on the news, and he was surprised to see his name and face on the screen. Soon he was staring at a live broadcast from his front yard.

For the next few days, it seemed as though every fifteen minutes someone new knocked on his door and asked to speak with him. Reporters from networks and newspapers all across the world piled notes and business cards on his doorstep. He was marooned in his own home. Eventually the sheriff warned reporters to stay off his property or risk jail time. But officers also told him that he’d have to give an interview at some point if he ever wanted the circus to move on.

One of the first interviews he agreed to was with conservative YouTube personality Steven Crowder (Willeford’s daughter Rachel is a fan). It was the day after the shooting, and his emotions were still raw. “I’m having all kinds of issues,” he confessed. “I can’t put my finger on what my feelings are.”

He refused attempts to lionize his efforts. “I want the focus to go to the families, to the community that I grew up in, the people that I love there, the people that I know,” he said. “The church was a very small congregation, and [26] people are dead. Children are dead. Twenty or so are injured. That’s decimated their congregation. There’s very few left in their congregation.”

He became emotional while lamenting the fact that he couldn’t grieve with the rest of the community. “They’re having a memorial at the baseball stadium, and the media’s gonna be there. Guess who can’t be there if the media’s there? I wanna hug some of these people.”

Because information within the community was unreliable at that point, and officials had yet to release the names of the victims, “I don’t even know which ones of my friends made it and which didn’t,” he told Crowder.

In the following days, several politicians arrived in town. Willeford spent time with Senator Ted Cruz and Vice President Mike Pence. His district’s U.S. representative, Henry Cuellar, invited him to be his one allotted guest at the 2018 State of the Union Address. Later,  Senator John Cornyn called.

One day in December, not long after Willeford had gone back to work at the hospital, he was repairing a steam leak with his supervisor when his cellphone buzzed. He showed his boss who was calling: the office of Senator Cornyn. They wanted to arrange a meeting when Willeford was in Washington, D.C., for the State of the Union. He’d just gone back to fixing the leak when he got a call from Cuellar. And not long after that, Cruz called.

In January, Willeford and his wife were flown to Washington, D.C., for the State of the Union. While there, they spent time with Cruz and Cornyn, and they were escorted on special tours, right past the signs that read “No Tours Past Here.”

“I feel like the prettiest girl at the prom,” Stephen told Pam. “Everyone wants to dance with me.”

A few months later, he was invited to be a guest of honor at the NRA’s national convention in Dallas in May. The organization paid for a block of suites for him and his family at the Omni Hotel, where, for the first time in his life, he ordered room service. At the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, he delivered a speech to a crowd of thousands. “We are the people that stand between the people that would do evil to our neighbors,” he said. “I’m nothing special. Look at you guys. Every one of you would do what I did. And I love you all.” He received multiple standing ovations.

In the halls, everywhere he went, a crowd formed. There was an endless stream of handshakes and photos, more thank-yous, more names he’d try to remember but wouldn’t. He once again spent time with Cruz and  Pence, and he had his picture taken with Donald Trump. “I think I could meet Trump tomorrow and he wouldn’t recognize me,” Willeford says. “But Mike Pence would. And Ted Cruz knows me well.”

Willeford is fully aware why he’s so popular among a certain segment of society. He knows that he’s become a symbol; his actions that day make the perfect story for gun rights advocates to tell. Not only did he use his personal firearm to stop an active shooter, he did it with an AR-15, the same type of gun used in many mass shootings, including this one. Willeford has starred in an NRA commercial. “It’s not the gun, it’s the heart,” he says. And he agrees with many of the arguments strangers are making when they cite his name. If AR-15s were banned, he would have been less well equipped to defend himself and his friends, he says.

But he didn’t ask to be a citation in someone else’s debate. His experience is more than a data point. Those seven minutes ravaged his community.

All he ever prayed for was a simple life. He wanted only to be a faithful man, a good husband and father, an upstanding member of the rural community where his family has resided for seven generations. He finds it strange to be constantly thanked for—and reminded of—one of the most painful experiences of his life. He says he can’t wait for a whole day to pass when it never comes up. He doesn’t consider himself a hero. The word makes him uncomfortable.

“If you’re breaking it down into heroes and survivors, I’d rather be with the survivors,” he says. “I got shot at too.”

Late this summer, Willeford wanted to “put a few rounds through” a new AR-15 given to him by the owner of the San Antonio–based Sons of Liberty Gun Works, so he drove a few miles outside of town, onto the property that his great-grandfather purchased with profits from that Depression-era trade route. He entered the gate, and the shocks on his old Mercury Grand Marquis squeaked as he rolled past a dozen mama cows and their calves. He made his way to the back of the plot, where he maintains a makeshift gun range.

The AR-15 given to Willeford by the founder of the San Antonio–based Sons of Liberty Gun Works.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

When the owner of Sons of Liberty learned that the rifle Willeford had used on the morning of the shooting had been confiscated and had yet to be returned, he insisted on building him a new one. It’s painted a desert camouflage, with a brown Texas flag on one side and a passage from Romans 13:4 on the other: For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

It’s one of several guns presented to Willeford in the past year.

He loaded a few rounds and aimed the AR-15 at a paper target fifty yards away. He took three shots, and all three struck the two-inch-wide red bull’s-eye.

“Oh, this is nice,” he said. “It’s lighter than it looks.”

He pulled out another AR-15 that had been given to him, painted like the Texas flag. That one, he said as he loaded a magazine, is probably the most similar to the custom rifle he used outside the church. He also fired off a few rounds with a suppressed Daniel Defense 300 Blackout, a gift from a friend. When finished with the rifles, he loaded his Kimber 1911 pistol. He tossed an empty water bottle into the grass thirty or forty feet away and fired at it four, five, six times, making the plastic bottle dance across the pasture. The entire afternoon, he didn’t miss once. 

He could have stayed out there all day—and sometimes he does—but there were storm clouds on the horizon, so Willeford packed each gun into its case and loaded them into the trunk of the Grand Marquis. Then he drove slowly through an alleyway of trees and paused beside a narrow stream that flows across the property. His family’s plot used to be three times as big, but his older brother and younger sister sold their portion of the land years ago, something that Willeford would never consider. This is where he comes to think. Once, when a young man asked permission to date his daughter, he brought him here to camp  before giving his blessing.

Currently he rents the acreage to someone with a cattle business, which pays just enough to cover the property tax. But Willeford’s dream is to one day build a house here. And maybe a house for each of his children and their spouses, all of whom live nearby. “We’d all be here, on my great-grandfather’s land,” he said. “The grandkids could all run from house to house and play together.”

Willeford at the gun range on his family’s land.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Over the previous few months, he’d been approached by book publishers and speaking agents offering potentially lucrative deals. He’d been told he could start a security consulting company to help churches protect against shooters. He has good reason to believe that the gun he used that day is the type of thing a wealthy gun collector would be willing to pay a lot for. (Law enforcement recently returned the rifle to him in a ceremony at the church.) Willeford pondered whether this all might be a way to build his dream house.

He likes his job at the hospital in San Antonio, where several children from the church were treated after the shooting. He’s proud to tell people that every child treated there that day is still alive. He doesn’t mind the hour-long commute, and the benefits are great. He doesn’t want to take on anything that might jeopardize that.

He worries about Pam sometimes. She says she’s still in a fog, and she has trouble sleeping. While he gets to talk about his experience all the time—which he finds strange, but it’s a sort of therapy nonetheless—Pam mostly keeps to herself. But she suffered trauma that day too.

She still remembers his phone call, remembers rinsing the drywall off her hands and rushing to the church with her daughter Rachel. She remembers Rachel comforting a young girl outside who’d lost her mother and three siblings. Rachel asked the girl about her favorite movie. As the two of them sat together and began singing songs from Moana, Pam noticed blood matted in the girl’s hair. That’s when it struck her how bad this really was.

Before the massacre, the average attendance at the church was about fifty people. Now it’s around two hundred. Against all odds, it has become a place of healing.

She searched for Willeford but found only the brass shells he’d left behind. She heard there had been a crash and insisted her daughter not go with her to the scene. She didn’t know what she’d find when she got there.

Now, she often travels with Willeford—to Dallas, to Washington, D.C., to his various speeches. As people line up to thank him, to shake his hand and marvel at what he did that day, Pam mostly stays to herself, texting her kids or scrolling through pictures of their granddaughter. She’s supportive of her husband, but like Willeford, she’s unsure what they’re supposed to do next.

So this is what they pray about most.

“We’re just looking for some direction,” he says.

Willeford sees the crosses outside the Baptist church every day. Each bears the name of a victim. He sees the impromptu memorial that formed along the fence beside the chapel. It’s still up, nearly a year later. Most of the flowers have wilted, but new tributes to loved ones still show up on occasion. Just seeing the little white building, which has been the center of town since long before Willeford’s time, is a constant reminder.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the community expected that the old chapel, the site of so much carnage, would be demolished. But it wasn’t. The pews were removed, the windows were replaced, the walls and ceiling were painted white. The room became a memorial, with white chairs marking where each victim was sitting that morning.

Thanks to donations that came in after the shooting, the church is erecting a new building—much bigger than the one before—in what was an empty field on the same plot of land. For now, the congregation gathers for Sunday services inside a temporary building on the property. Before the massacre, the average attendance at the church was about fifty people. Now it’s almost two hundred.

Willeford’s family had always attended the Church of Christ. That’s where he was raised and where he and Pam raised their three kids. (They used to joke that Church of Christers went to Sunday services earlier so they could beat the Baptists to lunch.) But the church was 45 minutes away, in San Antonio, and after the shooting, he wanted to worship alongside his fellow survivors. That’s what compelled him to join the Baptist church this summer.

Soon after, at a Sunday service in June, Willeford met Danielle Kelley. Her husband was the man in tactical gear that morning, the man who’d caused all this pain, the man Willeford had shot twice. Kelley’s mother is a longtime member of First Baptist. Neither woman was there during the shooting, but Kelley’s grandmother was among those killed.

Willeford talked to Kelley for only a few minutes that day, but he often replays the conversation in his mind. She told him she didn’t feel any ill will toward him, that she understood he’d done the right thing. Willeford was grateful. He doesn’t regret his pursuit of the gunman, but he’s glad he didn’t have to fire the fatal shot. “We aren’t designed to take the life of another person,” he says. “It damages us. It changes us.”

Kelley told Willeford she was focusing on raising her two children, both under the age of four, as a single mother. He realized that her baby and his granddaughter were born less than a year apart. If they both grow up here, they’ll almost certainly know each other.

Then the young mother mentioned her deceased husband.

“You know,” she said, “he wasn’t always evil. He just lost himself.”

Willeford said he knew exactly what she meant. He told her about his older brother, Delbert, who’s serving twenty years in Colorado for attempted murder. He’d been a good man, successful in business, always kind to Willeford’s kids. “But one day he lost himself too.”

Willeford told her he believes that evil spirits can enter into anyone’s life if they allow it. Then he asked the woman if they could pray together.

Willeford doesn’t have nightmares about that day. Or, if he does, he’s fortunate not to remember them when he wakes up. Most of the time it’s not difficult for him to maintain a positive outlook. He knows there is far more good in this world than bad.

But sometimes his thoughts can wander.

Occasionally he asks himself: “How could anyone see a crying child and shoot them?”

Willeford doesn’t have nightmares about that day. Or, if he does, he’s fortunate not to remember them when he wakes up.

And now that investigators have reviewed video of the event, Willeford knows the order in which the victims were shot. Survivors have told him exactly what was happening the moment they heard him yelling outside—the second the gunman stopped executing people and left.

So in those moments, when his mind is unoccupied, here is what Willeford is fated to ponder: if he’d arrived fifteen seconds sooner, Kris Workman might still be able to walk. If he had been there a minute earlier, Workman’s mother, Julie, might not have a bullet hole in her leg. If he’d gone running when he first heard the tapping on his bedroom window, maybe he could have saved some of the children.

When these thoughts start to consume him, he’s learned to remind himself he did the best he could. Sometimes, to get his mind off of it, he spends time with his four-month-old granddaughter. Sometimes he walks across the street to his friend Mike Jordan’s house.

Willeford doesn’t drink much—he’s never had more than two beers in one sitting—but he enjoys hanging out on Jordan’s front porch, sipping his buddy’s home brew. On most Saturday nights, Willeford and some of his closest friends gather at Jordan’s. They each bring a gun or two, drink one of Jordan’s latest concoctions, and trade crude jokes and old stories.

On a recent Saturday, they downed a homemade IPA as one of Willeford’s friends showed off his new AR-15. Jordan brought out his .454 pistol, while Willeford proudly displayed the rifle he was given by the Sons of Liberty. He passed it to Jordan, who read from the Bible verse printed on its side. Jordan checked the chamber to make sure it was empty before pressing it to his shoulder to look through the sight.

“Nice,” he said.

As he handed it back to Willeford, Jordan told the group, with a smile, that if he had been home that day, it all would have been different. “I can see the church doors from my bathroom window,” he said. He would have responded the same way Willeford had, only he would have shared the free guns with his friends, he teased.

Willeford just laughed and shook his head.

They stayed there on the porch, drinking and talking—about the time Jordan hit a water line while shooting at a skunk; about how the media shouldn’t use meaningless phrases like “assault rifle”; about whether there will be a circus surrounding the one-year anniversary in a few weeks—till it was nearly midnight.

Willeford was up early for breakfast at church the next morning, though. Before the sermon, Pastor Pomeroy led a Bible study over coffee and biscuits in one of the church’s large classrooms behind the old chapel. On this day, there were about forty adults in the room, with a few kids darting in and out.

Before the discussion began, Willeford made his way around the room to greet as many people as possible. At one table was David Colbath, who was shot eight times that day. At another was Jennifer Holcombe, who lost her husband and eighteen-month-old daughter in the shooting in addition to seven other family members. Willeford waved to a little girl whose pelvis had been shattered by a bullet. The room was full of people healing together.

When everyone had taken a seat, Pomeroy, who was still mourning the death of his own daughter, explained that today’s discussion would be about the book of Acts, chapter 16, in which the disciple Paul figured out what God wanted for him—something that seems particularly relevant to the lives of the survivors right now.

“You can see, God doesn’t speak in a thunderous voice,” Pomeroy told the group. Others around the room agreed.

Willeford nodded. Then he interjected, “Sometimes I wish he would.”

“Remember,” Pomeroy said, “man can’t always comprehend God’s plans.”

“I know,” Willeford said. “But if God would just tell me what to do, I’d run at it like a bulldog.”

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Soon they all walked over to the temporary building where the church currently holds Sunday services. As Willeford settled in for the sermon, there was an announcement: instead of Pomeroy’s preaching, the congregation would be treated to a presentation by the children from the church’s vacation Bible school. For nearly an hour, Stephen and Pam watched three dozen children sing and dance and perform skits about dedicating themselves to Jesus Christ.

“This,” he whispered, “is the future of Sutherland Springs.”

When the service ended, the Willefords lingered, catching up with some of the other survivors until it was close to 1 p.m. Then they headed home, past the small white chapel, past the site of the shoot-out, past the flowers and crosses in the makeshift memorial, and past the church’s marquee. The top of the sign is blue, with an image of a white dove and a Bible next to a cross. Below that it reads, “Evil did not win!”

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Hero’s Burden.” Subscribe today.

Tags: Crime, Longreads, Longform, Longreads, Stephen Willeford, Sutherland Springs, Sutherland Springs shooting, True Crime

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