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The Willeford family | Photo provided by John Wood

Texas hero risked life to save others

With the death toll at 26, Stephen Willeford confronted — and shot — the Sutherland Springs gunman.

Heroes need prayers, too.

Stephen Willeford — the Texan who confronted and shot the gunman who killed 26 people at a rural Baptist church Sunday — could use a bunch of prayers, his close friend John Wood says.

To many, Willeford’s actions outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs made him a hero.

But the hero, who is described as a faithful Christian, was distraught when he called Wood at his Ohio home right after confirming gunman Devin Patrick Kelley’s death.

“I talked to him immediately after it happened, basically before any of the law enforcement arrived,” Wood — a retired Church of Christ minister and Air Force chaplain — told The Christian Chronicle. “He called me and said, ‘I just killed a man.’”

Stephen and Pam Willeford on a motorcycle ride in Sutherland Springs, Texas, before the shooting. The First Baptist Church can be seen in the background.

Texas Department of Public Safety Cmdr. Freeman Martin told reporters that an armed citizen, identified as Willeford, shot Kelley in the leg and torso. However, an autopsy indicated that a third shot — a self-inflicted wound to the head — likely killed Kelley.

Related: Shaken Texans come together to pray after mass shooting at church

Wood had just gotten home from worship at the Xenia Church of Christ in the Buckeye State when his phone rang.

The longtime preacher said he relied on his training in counseling as he comforted Willeford, who has long ties to Churches of Christ.

John and Diana Wood

“You do a lot of listening. You do a lot of encouragement,” said Wood, who conducted the marriage ceremony for one of Willeford’s daughters and has been asked to officiate the other daughter’s wedding next spring. “He doesn’t want to be thought of as a hero — but just kind of like the Good Samaritan, somebody who was willing to step up when it had to be done.”

Willeford was at home Sunday morning sleeping after working late the night before as an “on call” emergency plumbing maintenance man for a San Antonio hospital, Wood said. Sutherland Springs is about 35 miles east of San Antonio.

In an exclusive interview with an Arkansas television station, Willeford described hearing the shots at the nearby Baptist church and rushing into action. KHBS/KHOG-TV anchor Joshua Cole, who conducted the interview, is a graduate of Church of Christ-associated Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

“I didn’t have any time because I kept hearing the shots one after another — very rapid shots, just 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 Cole.

“I grabbed a handful of ammunition and started loading my magazine,” Willeford added. “I’m trying to survey the situation, not knowing what’s going on, and then I saw a man in a black tactical helmet … (and) a bulletproof vest. And he had a pistol in his hand, and we exchanged gunfire.”

‘My God, my Lord, protected me’

Willeford said he stood behind a pickup for cover as he exchanged gunfire with Kelley. Another man, Johnnie Langendorff, was driving his truck near the Baptist church on Sunday morning when he happened upon the confrontation, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported.

“He just shot up the church,” Willeford told Langendroff. “We’ve got to get him.”

The two chased Kelley at a high speed until the gunman lost control of his vehicle, crashed and apparently shot himself in the head.

But Willeford insisted in the TV interview that he’s no hero.

“I was scared for me, and I was scared for every one of them,” he said of the people at the church. “And I was scared for my own family that lived less than a block away. I’m no hero. I am not. I think my God, my Lord, protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done. And I just wish I could have gotten there faster.”

“You are a true hero,” Cole told Willeford. The anchor grew up attending the Oak Hills Churchformerly known as the Oak Hills Church of Christ — and said he has known the hero’s family for “a very long time.”

‘In everything he does, God is glorified’

In addition to those killed, about 20 people were wounded in Sunday’s mass shooting.

Those who know Willeford say they aren’t surprised that he risked his own life to save others.

“He’s the kind of guy who would do that, for sure,” said Chuck Morris, administration and pastoral minister for the NorthWest Church of Christ in San Antonio.

When Willeford’s children were younger, he and his wife, Pam, along with their three children attended the NorthWest church, driving an hour each way. Pam Willeford, a Harding graduate, was active in helping lead the youth group. The couple also was involved with Members of Churches of Christ for Scouting.

Stephen and Pam Willeford

“I called Steve the day after this (the shooting) happened and had a long conversation with him,” Morris said. “I was one of his ministers for a lot of years, and I was just concerned.”

Wood said he first became close with the Willeford family when he was an Air Force chaplain in San Antonio in the late 1980s. He attended the Oak Hills congregation with them. Wood “adopted” Stephen Willeford after Willeford’s parents died in a motorcycle crash with a drunk driver in 1993. Wood had sold the motorcycle to Willeford’s parents.

As Wood decribes it, Stephen and Pam Willeford were heroes long before Sunday: “They worked with teenagers and youth with the church there in San Antonio for years. A lot of kids look up to them. We’re proud of them.

“He has the character of a man,” Wood added, referring to Stephen Willeford. “In everything he does, God is glorified.”

Now, Willeford must learn to live with the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.

“That PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is going to be something that’s with him and the whole family for a while,” Wood said. “He is a blessing to many. They need lots of prayers and blessings to get through this situation themselves.”

Filed under: mass shootings National Sutherland Springs Texas Top Stories

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