There was a gentle November breeze that Sunday morning. The autumn clouds were scattered throughout the sapphire Texas sky, and residents of the small town of Sutherland Springs gathered together for church, like so many other devout men and women across the nation. Some worshiped and prayed; others prepped for lunch and the Cowboys vs. Chiefs game; and still others kicked off their shoes and enjoyed the calm weather and a restful weekend. It was your typical Texas Sunday morning – where you would always want to be. Then, at some time around 11:20, Stephen Willeford, a 55-year-old plumber, relaxing in his home, started to hear what sounded like a rapped “tapping” on his window.
Stephen has lived in Sutherland Springs his whole life. The folks in the town are well acquainted with him, as they were with his parents and their parents before them. At this time, Stephen’s snow-white whiskers are starting to grow out just as the fall sets in, because every year at Christmas time, he dawns his Santa Claus outfit and goes on a motorcycle ride with the First Baptist Church to pass out toys to the under-privileged children around Wilson County.
Shortly after the “tapping” began, his eldest daughter, who was cleaning dishes in the kitchen ran into his room and said, “Dad, doesn’t that sound like gunfire?” to which Stephen replied, “It sounds like someone tapping on the window.” After checking the window, he and his daughter hurried back into the kitchen where they confirmed the tapping was indeed gunfire.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Stephen ran to his gun safe, withdrew his AR-15 rifle, grabbed a box of ammunition and proceeded out the house. Meanwhile, his daughter jumped in her car and drove around the block to see if she could spot the source. Nothing could prepare her for what she saw.
When she got back, she met her dad and said, “Dad, there’s someone in black tactical gear shooting at the Baptist Church.” He told her to call her mother who was five miles down the road with Stephen’s other daughter and her husband. “Stay put,” he told them, knowing they were far enough away that they would be in no danger. “Stay put. We have an active shooter situation at the Baptist Church. Stay where you’re at.”
He opened the box of ammunition, grabbed a handful to load his magazine and started out the door. He told his daughter to load him another mag, which kept her busy long enough for him to leave the house without her. Stephen wanted to keep her as far away from the gunfire as possible. Then Stephen left the safety and comfort of his home and marched barefoot into the epicenter of the worst massacre in a place of worship in American history.
“Every time I heard a shot,” he said, “I was thinking, ‘that was assigned to someone else.’ He was shooting at another person every time I heard a shot fired. And I didn’t have time to put shoes on.”
The church sits only less than a block away from the Willeford house, so Stephen took off on foot, passing through his neighbor’s yard. And as he approached the neighbor’s house, he spotted a gray SUV parked in the middle of the highway with the engine running and the driver’s door open.
“It was out of place,” he said, “and I was focused on that, trying to figure out that, and kinda’ looking back behind the vehicle.” And in a moment of pure clarity – “I don’t know that I had tunnel-vision or what the deal was” – Stephen saw as this black-clad malevolent murderer walk around from the front of the vehicle.
“And at this time, he had a handgun in his hand. And I didn’t know… but my daughter said he had an AR-15 but when I saw him he had a handgun. And he had a tactical helmet on – like a SWAT team would use – with a black visor; and he had Kevlar vest, and you could tell it was a bulletproof vest.” And the firefight began.
Stephen raised his gun and the killer raised his, and the bullets began to fly. One bullet hit the windshield of the pickup truck that Stephen used for cover. Another hit his neighbor’s house that came within feet of the neighbor’s son. “I’m a Christian.” Stephen said, “And I believe at that point – and maybe this sounds a little off… I believe the Holy Spirit was on me. Because I had the presence of mind to look at what was going on, and as we exchanged fire, I noticed that the side was one of those tactical vests that velcros across. Meaning he has Kevlar in the front, Kevlar in the back, nothing in the side.” And from 20 yards away, as the killer aimed for his head, Stephen fired a round directly into the killer’s side.
In a panic, the shooter got into the SUV and fired two shots through the passenger-side window. Again, with a keen eye and clarity of mind, Stephen fired straight for the pistol-holes which brought the window down, and began shooting for the murder’s head. As he took off down the highway, Stephen fired another round into the rear window where the killer’s head would be, shattering it as well.
“I looked to my left and there was another pickup-truck at the “STOP” sign that apparently witnessed the whole thing.”
Johnny Langendorff was on his way to visit his girlfriend, when as he approached the intersection, he saw two men exchanging gunfire. When the one cloaked in black tactical gear took off, a barefoot Stephen with a white Santa beard tapped on Johnny’s window and said, “That guy just shot up the Baptist Church, and we’ve got to stop him.” Johnny’s girlfriend could wait.
Stephen and Johnny took chase at full speed, flying down the highway and a major intersection. Johnny called 911 and informed dispatch as to where the killer was and what direction he was headed. Stephen then dropped his magazine, not knowing how many rounds he grabbed back at the house, and noticed that he only had one round in the mag and one in the chamber. Where two shots enough to take this guy down? There was quite a distance between the men and the killer, so would they get to him in time to stop him? Johnny simply thought, “Get him. Get him apprehended or whatever needed to happen.” To both these men, it was simply the right thing to do.
The killer was out of sight. All the officers called on the scene were heading for the church where the reports came about an active shooter. The men were on their own. But as dispatch asked where they were and if they could see him, the killer came back into view and they started to catch him. As they gained on him, the killer lost control of the vehicle and swerved violently off the road and nearly stopped. Just as Stephen began opening the door with his gun in his hand, the killer took back off, hit a highway sign, drove back onto the pavement and then ran into a ditch.
Stephen turned to Johnny, though at the time they didn’t know each other’s names, and told him to get down and take cover. With only two rounds left to fire, Stephen got out of the safety of the truck, took cover with his rifle on the hood, and yelled at the killer to get out. There was no movement, no sound from the killer. Stephen stood there still yelling and locked on target for what seemed like an eternity. Johnny had been on the phone with dispatch the whole time, but there was no backup. Five minutes went by, and still they were on their own.
In a fit, Stephen yelled, “Where’s the police?” and just about that time, having his eyes fixed on the SUV, Stephen heard on a PA system from behind him, “Driver, get out of the vehicle with your hands up.” They were no longer alone. Johnny’s reports to dispatch redirected the officer’s attention to their location because they were headed for the Church.
Again, Stephen heard, “Driver, get out of the vehicle with your hands up.” So Stephen laid down his rifle on the hood of the truck and slowly walked back with his hands up, and the officer looked at him and said “Not you!” Collecting himself, Stephen thought, “Okay, I better go back, and I went back up… but I didn’t want him to think there was any threat with me at all. So he returned to his position, fixed on the suspect. Once the officers were able to get Stephen and Johnny out from the scene, they took over the situation, only to find that the coward took his own life before the police could get to him.
Stephen Willeford and Johnny Langendorff represent the American spirit. These were not trained solders or first responders. They were not caped vigilantes out to seek justice. They were Americans who were at the right place at the right time and did the right thing. They didn’t wake up that morning expecting to be a part of a national story that Americans will be morning and debating over for years to come. One was relaxing at home; the other was headed to his girlfriend. But duty called – and they answered. Their selflessness, courageousness and decisiveness to act when they were needed may have very well saved the lives of countless more. And it is only fitting that as we mourn the dead that we celebrate these men who gallantly risked their lives for a greater cause.
But their tenacity is no isolated phenomenon. This spirit of selflessness can be found all over the nation. Men and women have time and time again placed themselves in harm’s way that they might protect and defend their fellow man. Ordinary Americans who have shown greater love for others than for life itself. Those who see every person as an equal creature, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; those who stand for justice for all mankind are the spirit of the United States. These are the everyday American heroes who protect and defend the life, liberty and happiness of everyday Americans.
Americanism is not merely a political society, predicated on liberty and justice for all – it is also a realm of principles that says every individual is a gift, a miracle. And that it is the civic duty of all Americans to defend our fellow man, to stand by those in distress – to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. America is “the beautiful” not simply for spacious skies or amber waves of grain. America is beautiful because two shining lights emerged from the darkness and brought hope to a hopeless state.
Below is a list of the dead. As we mourn for our fallen brothers and sisters, let us remain mindful that had it not been for Stephen Willeford and Johnny Langendorff – two ordinary Americans – the number might have been greater and our hearts heavier.
26 victims including 1 unborn child
Robert Scott Marshall, 56
Karen Sue Marshall, 56
Keith Allen Braden, 62
Tara E. McNulty, 33
Annabelle Renae Pomeroy, 14
Peggy Lynn Warden, 56
Dennis Neil Johnson, Sr., 77
Sara Johns Johnson, 68
Lula Woicinski White, 71
Joann Lookingbill Ward, 30
Brooke Bryanne Ward, 5
Robert Michael Corrigan, 51
Shani Louise Corrigan, 51
Therese Sagan Rodriguez, 66
Ricardo Cardona Rodriguez, 64
Haley Krueger, 16
Emily Garcia, 7
Emily Rose Hill, 11
Gregory Lynn Hill, 13
Megan Gail Hill, 9
Marc Daniel Holcombe, 36
Noah Holcombe, 1
Karla Plain Holcombe, 58
John Bryan Holcombe, 60
Crystal Marie Holcombe (pregnant*), 36
*Carlin Brite “Billy Bob” Holcombe (unborn)