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‘My community couldn’t wait’: Hero of Sutherland Springs talks to El Pasoans about how he stopped a mass shooting

EL PASO, Texas -- A man with a gun helped save the lives of possibly dozens of people inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Stephen Willeford is in El Paso sharing his story about what happened Nov. 5, 2017. He's also here to shed light on a new documentary.

A Miracle on 4th Street opened this week and is playing at Premiere Cinemas inside Bassett Place.

Willeford sat down with ABC-7 anchor Stephanie Valle:

SV: I'D LIKE TO HEAR WHAT YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THAT DAY, ON NOV. 5 2017.

SW: On Nov. 5 2017, I was home from church. I normally went to church in San Antonio, but I stayed home that day because I was working as a maintenance plumber at a hospital and I was going to start my on-call.
The shooter started shooting and my daughter recognized the gunfire and came into my bedroom where I was checking my email and stuff, and she said, "Dad, doesn't that sound like gunfire?" The mind tries to make something that's normal out of something very abnormal. I said, "It sounds like someone tapping on my window." She said, "Come into the kitchen. It's louder." I walked into the kitchen and I could hear it. It was very much gunfire. I ran to my safe and pulled out an AR-15 and ran to the next room and grabbed a handful of ammunition and my daughter ran outside and jumped in her car and went up the block to see what was going on. I called my wife and said, "Where you at." I said, "Stay where you are." She said, "What's going on?" I said, "There's an active shooter at the Baptist church." And she said, "Don't go over there," and I hung up on her. My other daughter ran into the house and said, "Dad, there's a guy in black tactical gear shooting the church up." I said, "Did you call 911?" She said, "I did. They're aware of it." So, what that told me is that the police were coming to an active shooter and I'm running across the church to stop him with a rifle. The Wilson County Sheriff is the closest department there is and they were coming as fast as they could. They weren't anywhere near and my community couldn't wait.

SV: I'M SO AMAZED THAT YOUR FIRST REACTION IS TO RUN AND GET A GUN AND GO IN THERE. WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND?

SW: I'm a shooting instructor and a competitive shooter also for many years. I competed and trained people to shoot for moments that you hope never happens. And if you're gonna play the game, you've gotta be honest with yourself. And you gotta make that decision well ahead of time, make that decision if it happens, this is what I'm gonna do. It's a mindset.

SV: WHEN YOU HEARD THAT GUNFIRE, YOU SAID, THIS IS WHAT I'M GOING TO DO. YOU GOT YOUR GUN, YOU RAN OUTSIDE. TELL ME WHAT YOU SAW WHEN YOU GOT OUTSIDE OF YOUR HOUSE.

SW: As I ran across the street I yelled out, and that doesn't make good sense. I'm a Christian, I believe very much that the Holy Spirit was in charge at that moment. And as I yelled out I believe that it was calling a demon out within him.
He had shot Chris Workman in the back. Chris went down paralyzed from the waist down. He shot Chris' mother through the breast. And he was walking over to finish him off when I yelled out. They heard me in the church. And he came out of the church immediately and started shooting at me. He had on black tactical Class 3 body armor. And Class 3 body armor will stop rifles. And I hit him in the left chest, I hit him in the abdomen, both those shots were stopped by his body armor.
But his vehicle was sitting in the middle of the street with the engine running and the driver-side door open and he started heading to the vehicle. He had shot the truck in front of me, shattered the windshield of the car behind me and he hit the house behind me. He was able to get into his vehicle and as he turned to get in, I put one in his side and I put one high in his legs where the body armor wasn't. He got in his vehicle and he put two shots through the side window, I put one where I perceived his head to be, and it split across his forehead. He had a ballistic-style helmet on and it just broke across his forehead. He accelerated and was running away as fast as he could. I ran out into the middle of the street. He was about 150 yards away and I put one last shot through the back window. It shattered the back windshield, penetrated the driver-side seat and hit him just right in the right shoulder blade. And he topped the hill and left.
And I'm standing in the middle of the street, thinking, 'It can't end this way. He's getting away.'
And I looked off to my left and there was a pickup truck stopped at the stop sign and I ran over and tapped on the window. I didn't even know Johnny at all, I never met him before in my life. I tapped on the window and said, that man just shot up the Baptist church and we have to stop him. Next thing I heard were the locks come open on Johnny's truck and I climbed in the cab. We gave chase for 11.6 miles and the shooter knew we were chasing him. Johnny was on 911 with dispatch. And he hadn't even said a word to me, he just unlocked the truck, I climbed in and we took off. And we're splitting cars and running down the road at amazing speed and we're trying to find crossroads to be able to tell dispatch where we were. Tell them, 'Look, he's left the church. We're chasing him. We're going down 539-' … we were telling them streets as we passed them. And he wasn't even within eyesight. We didn't see him. And at some point we started catching him and it was really intense because I dropped the magazine and- I didn't have a full magazine- I dropped the magazine and I looked and I had one round in top of the magazine and one in the chamber. I knew I had two rounds left and he had Class 3 body armor.
So it was getting pretty intense and when we saw him - and I knew it was him because we saw a gray Ford Explorer with the back windshield shot out - I told Johnny, "You know, if you catch him, you're going to have to put him off the road. And the very first words that Johnny said to me- he said, 'Yep, I already figured that.' So, Johnny, he was there for that purpose, for that moment. Not anybody would've just let me into the car and gave chase. But Johnny did. We're not known for our sanity, necessarily. Johnny chasing him down the road and he was ready to put him off the road.
The vehicle had- by the time we started catching him, he had pulled off to the side of the road with a, a road sign right in front of him and stopped. And Johnny kind of pulled up to the back of the car again, and I let the passenger side window down, and I put the rifle through it, and I opened up the door with my left hand and I was gonna get out, and I was gonna use the door as a shield and reengage him. But before my foot hit the ground, he accelerated. He took the sign out, it flipped over the vehicle, and went back up on the road and Johnny took off after him. I barely got my foot back in before we were back off chasing him again. He ran another 3-quarters of a mile up the road. This time he swerved off to the left-hand side of the road and through a fence and out into a field. And he stopped. And Johnny stopped on the road and I told Johnny, 'Just get down below the dash and just stay out of, ha, out of gunfire.'
And I got out and I put my rifle over the hood of the truck and waited there another 5-7 minutes before the police actually showed up. It was the longest 5-7 minutes of my life.

SV: THE WAY YOU TELL THE STORY, I KNOW YOU'VE TOLD IT QUITE A BIT, BUT EVERYTHING SEEMS SO DOWN TO AN INSTINCT FOR YOU. I IMAGINE THIS HAS TO DO WITH THE TRAINING YOU'VE HAD. TELL ME ABOUT THE TRAINING. YOU SAID YOU'RE A GUN INSTRUCTOR. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SHOOTING?

SW: Oh, I took an interest- my father taught me how to shoot when I was five years old and when I became a teenager I took a real interest in shooting, in competitive. I just love the sport. It's great and so I threw my competition shooting and moving in shooting at bowling pins and swing targets and things.
If you're ever in a gunfight and you're just standing and shooting in one spot, you're a target. So my competition and the things I did beforehand made me ready for that moment.

SV: I CAN'T HELP BUT MARVEL AT HOW CALM YOU SEEM TO TELL THE STORY. WERE YOU EMOTIONAL WHEN THIS WAS HAPPENING? WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOU SAW SOMEONE WALKING OUT OF THE CHURCH WHO CLEARLY LOOKED LIKE HE WAS READY TO GO IN THERE AND KILL PEOPLE AND NOT GET HURT HIMSELF?

SW: Well, I truly believe God's hand was on me. Again, I'm a Christian and I believe God spoke to me and kept me calm. I was terrified, don't get me wrong. The craziest question I ever get asked was, 'Were you scared?' 'No, I wasn't scared at all. I was terrified.'
But how can you be terrified and dead calm at the same time? I believe it's only through God's hand that you can do that and I believe God was with me that day and spoke to me and kept me calm.

SV: AFTER THE SHOOTER COMMITTED SUICIDE, AND I'M SURE LAW ENFORCEMENT SPOKE TO YOU, WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CHURCH?

SW: I kept asking the officers at the crash scene, 'How bad is it?' And their standard answer was, 'Really bad.' They didn't know how many people had died.
It wasn't until that night when I got home -- and I stayed at the crash scene for four hours -- until I got home and later on that evening, before the numbers started coming out. And they still hadn't said who had died.
And I knew so many people who were in there.
I was so concerned, but I couldn't walk out of my house without being mobbed by media and stuff.
They were all over our little community and we had never seen anything like that before.
I kind of became a prisoner in my own home for a bit.

SV: TWENTY-SIX PEOPLE DIED THAT DAY AND 23 WERE INJURED, AND YOU KNEW SO MANY OF THEM. LIKE YOU SAID, THE TOWN WAS 600. IT'S A HUGE PORTION OF THE TOWN.

SW: And being fourth-generation in a town of 600, there's lots of connections. I tease and tell people that I married my wife - she's from St. Louis, MO - and I tell them, I had to marry someone from St. Louis or my family tree wouldn't branch.

SV: IT MUST HAVE BEEN SO PAINFUL, THOUGH.

SW: It was. It was the worst time in my life.

SV: THERE SOMEONE IN THAT CHURCH WHO MEANT A LOT TO YOU? DID ALL OF THEM MEAN SOMETHING TO YOU?

SW: They're my community. They all mean something to me. Um, I mentioned Chris Workman. His wife, Colby Workman, grew up with my daughters. They were in the same home school co-op with my daughters. Colby Workman spent sleepovers with my daughters when she was growing up and my daughters went to the Harris house and did sleepovers with Colby. Family. They're more than just neighbors and friends. They're family.

SV: OBVIOUSLY, YOUR LIFE HAS DRASTICALLY CHANGED SINCE THAT DAY. WHY DO YOU FEEL COMPELLED TO TALK ABOUT THAT DAY, WHICH IS SUCH A PAINFUL DAY?

SW: Well I guess, maybe some of it is my therapy. To be able to talk. To be able to train churches- I work with churches and train churches to be more prepared for this kind of situation. Hopefully it'll never happen, but to be ready for it if it does. Again, I say it's a mindset, a survival mindset. It's deciding that you won't let things go down the way the shooter thinks they will. And you need to make that decision ahead of time. You just can't take it for granted anymore that it won't happen. It would be nice to think that we live in a perfect world. But this is a fallen world and evil exists. And the best thing you can do when evil rears its head is stop it as best as you can. I train churches now to be ready. You are your own first responder.

SV: YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE HERE WHEN THE GOVERNOR WAS HERE FOR THE ROUNDTABLE ON VIOLENCE. AND OBVIOUSLY THERE'S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT GUN REFORM WHEN THIS COMES UP. WHAT, AS A GUN OWNER AND AS A GUN ADVOCATE, AND SOMEONE WHO CLEARLY KNOWS HOW TO USE A GUN, WHAT DO YOU ENVISION WOULD BE WHAT IS NEEDED TO PROTECT RIGHTS OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU, BUT ALSO MAKE SURE THE GUY IN THE BODY ARMOR CAN'T GET WEAPONS LIKE THAT. AND DOES THAT EXIST.

SW: There is some answers. And Sen. Cruz- the Cruz Grassley Act- they proposed a bill and what it would do is background checks, they call it "try and cry." In other words, if you're a felon and you try to buy a gun now, now, you go out and try to buy a gun and you get denied because the background check - this guy at Sutherland Springs would have been denied because he had felonies, he had reasons that he wouldn't, but the government dropped the ball, the Air Force didn't report all his felonies and all his problems, if they had been reported and he would have tried to buy a gun and been turned down, the Cruz Grassley act would have said, we're coming to your door because you're a felon, you can't own a gun. You've had mental problems in the past. We're going to come to your door and arrest you because you filled out government forms and you lied on them. That's another felony.
Nowadays, somebody tries and fills out the little form and does the background check and they get turned down, they go home and there's no consequences for that.
There's things like that that we can do that will make a difference. But it was blocked in the house.

SV: OBVIOUSLY, YOU HAVE A VERY LOUD VOICE AND YOU HAVE ALL THE REASON IN THE WORLD TO PUSH FOR THIS. ARE YOU ACTIVE IN TRYING TO GET SOMETHING DONE IN TERMS OF GUN REFORM?

SW: I'm active in every way with everything having to do with firearms. I have a YouTube channel now. You can find me at Barefoot Defender. I just had a state rep come shoot with me and we sat under my oak tree and talked about his law that he's putting forward and basically saying the state of Texas will not recognize any new federal firearms laws. The state of Texas needs to take the bull by the horns and we can do things.
When I was here I talked to Gov. Abbott about try and buy and he said we could make that work at the state level.
You are your own first responder. You can't have a police officer everywhere and evil exists in this world and go out there and if you're just shooting, aiming at flat targets, then you're training marksmanship, and you're not training for what it takes to stop an armed intruder.
Go out there and shoot and move, get involved in local gun ranges and competitions and - you're not shooting competition to win, necessarily. You're shooting for the training. And you're competing against yourself. Just better your own scores and be ready and have the mindset that you will defend innocents.

Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.

Comments

5 Comments

  1. When god was assisting the founding fathers by putting the 2nd amendment in our Constitution, what was he/she doing to help write the Constitutions of Great Britain, France, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Germany? Those countries do not allow every jackass with a few bucks to purchase firearms without a background check. Is your god in the habit of only assisting citizens of the US?

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