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

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

    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.

    Texas Monthly |
    • Michael J. Mooney







    All photos by LeAnn Mueller.




    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 November 2017, 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.
    That awful November morning, Willeford’s name and photo 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 2018, 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.

    ***
    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.
    Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
    Robert Southwell, S.J.

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    What a great piece!

    Obviously the event is dramatic and newsworthy but the writing style is just remarkable for this era.

    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.
    This is the kind of color writing that makes something memorable. I have never been in any situation like this but it's a question that I would ask myself (who wouldn't?).

    Excellent post!
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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    It's a compelling story. It also highlights that the victims of tragedies are not just those that died or are maimed, but the survivors; even the survivors that acted and whose actions clearly saved lives. "Could I have done more" is a question we all must ask ourselves all the time.
    Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
    Robert Southwell, S.J.

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    I think we all imagine or hope that we would rise to the occasion if needed but in reality most of us don't.

    I'm aware that several men carry at our church but despite having a CCW, I do not. I have no particular good reason. In my case, it's probably vanity or something equally absurd.

    Our most memorable church shooting story involves a woman who stopped a killer with her firearm (not my church). She got remarkably little press coverage that I saw compared to other stories of the time.

    Since then, we now close and lock the doors when the service begins. And that's just sad beyond belief.

    When I was a kid, you could go into any church at 3:00 a.m. and just sit there or pray or cry.

    Now, we think about security and lock everything up.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gingersnap View Post
    Since then, we now close and lock the doors when the service begins. And that's just sad beyond belief.

    When I was a kid, you could go into any church at 3:00 a.m. and just sit there or pray or cry.

    Now, we think about security and lock everything up.
    Yes. And worry about the greeters just outside the door. And ushers in the lobby during service. Doors locked and unlocked are now computer controlled for only about 15 minutes opening time of any church event. Lord help everyone during outdoor picnics.
    Last edited by Lady Marva; Friday, September 20th, 2019 at 7:22 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lady Marva View Post
    Yes. And worry about the greeters just outside the door. And ushers in the lobby during service. Doors locked and unlocked are now computer controlled for only about 15 minutes opening time of any church event. Lord help everyone during outdoor picnics.
    Well, that's bit of a stretch. I go in and out of a lot churches and most just use standard doors and locks although more are installing security cameras (mostly as a way of identifying vandals or purse thieves for the police).

    In my church greeters are just whoever wants to do that sort of thing. People who carry and do it for church security reasons (known to the leadership and all that) tend to drift to the back of the church or take up offering duties and spend time in the aisles. They are very discreet.

    If a security system only allowed congregants 15 minutes to enter, we'd have like 7 people attending any service.

    It takes roughly a half an hour for a young family to round up and herd 5 kids (or search them out after Sunday school) and hustle up a few walker/chatty-dependent Elders. Not to mention the smartphone addicts who have to stand outside like smokers since we have a system that kills wifi in the church itself during services. Pretty hilarious really.

    I've been in a couple mega churches that do have security that looks just like concert venues. Metal detectors, bag inspections, people with walkies staring at the crowd, etc. but that's not typical. Most churches are now more security conscious and lock up outside of services but you don't have to take your shoes off or get a TSA-style pat down.

    Yet.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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    I remember on 9/11 stopping at my church to pray, cry, whatever. I was really disappointed that it was locked. And surprised.
    Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
    Robert Southwell, S.J.

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    Quote Originally Posted by phillygirl View Post
    I remember on 9/11 stopping at my church to pray, cry, whatever. I was really disappointed that it was locked. And surprised.
    Yes, it's just so different now. And awful.

    But I understand why so many do it today. We've never had any particularly interesting crimes or vandalism at my church. A couple of times kids have put up a skeleton or something on the front door around Halloween or TP'd the trees but that's pretty mild.

    However, we've all heard of stories where real theft or destruction is done. People don't realize how violating this is and how much it costs to replace or repair and that stuff is nowhere near as awful as shooting people or beating them.

    Years later, I still routinely try to slam open the doors during the week if I'm doing something there instead of getting somebody to unlock and let me in or out.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gingersnap View Post
    Well, that's bit of a stretch.
    Yet.
    Might depend on where you live. Otherwise, no. Not a stretch. True.

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