SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — A barefoot Texas man who grabbed his rifle and opened fire on the gunman in the deadly church rampage here was hailed as a hero Monday, along with a pickup driver who led a chase of the suspect after hearing one clear exclamation: ‘‘We need to go get him!’’
Johnnie Langendorff said he was driving to Sutherland Springs on Sunday when a man who had been exchanging gunfire with Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, suddenly landed inside his pickup truck.
‘‘He jumped in my truck and said, ‘He just shot up the church, we need to go get him.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go,’ ’’ said Langendorff, a 27-year-old Seguin resident.
Langendorff said he didn’t know the name of the armed resident who had sheltered behind a parked pickup truck while exchanging gunfire with Kelley. But when the armed resident jumped into his truck, the pair immediately pursuing Kelley’s vehicle in a chase that clocked speeds upwards of 90 miles per hour.
Sutherland Springs resident Julius Kepper said the man who returned fire was his neighbor, Stephen Willeford, whom he has lived next door to for about seven years.
Kepper said he was home when the shooting started Sunday and heard Willeford exchange gunfire, but by the time he got out of his house police already were arriving.
Willeford, 55, told The Dallas Morning News that he was the first person to confront Kelley. ‘‘I didn’t want this, and I want the focus to be on my friends,’’ he said. ‘‘I have friends in that church.’’
At a news conference Monday, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin did not identify Willeford as the resident riding with Langendorff but said he was toting an “AR assault rifle.’’
Langendorff said Kelley eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed, prompting the resident to cautiously approach the vehicle with his gun drawn. But Kelley didn’t move.
Police arrived about five minutes later, said Langendorff, who did not know if the resident had wounded Kelley during their earlier gunfire exchange. Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
‘‘There was no thinking about it,’’ Langendorff said. ‘‘There was just doing.’’
Asked if he felt like a hero, Langendorff said: ‘‘I don’t really know how I feel. I just hope that the families and people affected by this can sleep easier knowing that this man is not breathing anymore and not able to hurt anyone else.’’
Kepper described Willeford as a gun and motorcycle enthusiast who regularly takes target practice at property out in the country and has as many as five Harley-Davidsons.
Kepper and other neighbors said Willeford’s family has been in the Sutherland Springs area for at least three generations, including a father and grandfather who were in dairy farming. Stephen Willeford is married with two grown children and works as a plumber, Kepper said.
Kepper said he is not surprised Willeford would exchange gunfire with the church gunman. Others in the neighborhood would have done the same if they knew what was happening, he said. “He was just the first one there,’’ Kepper said.