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.