'Hero' neighbor exchanged gunfire with Texas church shooter

ByCourtney Fischer via KTRK logo
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
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A former NRA instructor grabbed his rifle and ran barefoot across the street to open fire on the gunman who slaughtered 26 people at a small-town Texas church.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas -- It's taken investigators more than 24 hours to collect and remove all evidence from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were shot and killed and 20 others hurt in the largest mass shooting in Texas history.

By Monday night, investigators had learned that the shooter, 26-year-old Devin Kelley, shot himself in the head after opening fire during the Sunday service.

But before that, Kelley had a shootout with Stephen Willeford, a neighbor who lived near the church.

"The people of that church - they're friends of mine, they're family. And every time I heard a shot, I knew that probably represented a life," Willeford said.

VIDEO: Everything we know about Devin Kelley

Willeford said his daughter first alerted him a man was shooting at the church, and the former NRA instructor didn't hesitate. He grabbed his rifle from his safe and ran barefoot down the street, straight toward the gunfire.

"I was scared to death," Willeford said. "I was scared for me, and I was scared for every one of them."

Willeford said he locked eyes with Kelley, who was wearing all black, a ballistic vest and a mask. The two fired at each other, and Kelley was hit in the torso and in the leg.

Kelley dropped his rifle and took off in his Ford Expedition. Willeford and another man chased him for 6 miles. Kelley crashed his SUV, and authorities found him dead. They said he called his father then shot himself in the head.

Why Kelley did this is still unclear.

If Willeford hadn't been there, investigators fear more people would have lost their lives.

"I'm no hero. I am not," he said. "I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done."

Investigators said Kelley had problems with his estranged wife, who attended the church. In 2014, he was convicted of domestic abuse. Recently, authorities said, Kelley sent his mother-in-law threatening text messages.

"We know there was conflict between the families. Whether that was revenge or not would be speculation on my part," said Freeman Martin with the Department of Public Safety.