The Humble Heroes of Sutherland Springs & the Guns of the Most Deadly Church Massacre

Real superheroes don’t wear spandex. On November 5, 2017, the real superhero was taking a nap.

In November of 2017, Stephen Willeford worked as a plumber at the children’s hospital in San Antonio, Texas. He lived in Sutherland Springs, population 600, about an hour away. The commute was onerous, but Stephen was a small-town sort of guy.

Trained as a plumber, Stephen Willeford was just a regular guy.

Stephen was, like many of us, just a responsible American who enjoyed shooting. He was an NRA certified firearms instructor and member of the nearby Church of Christ. On Sunday morning November 5, 2017, however, he was facing a long week on call at the University Hospital. As a result, he played hooky from his own church to take a nap. He lived with his family across the street from the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

The Monster Among Us

Something about Devin Kelley just wasn’t wired correctly. Trouble followed him everywhere.

Devin Patrick Kelley was the antithesis of Stephen Willeford. Devin Kelley was a card-carrying professional loser. Raised in New Braunfels some 35 miles away, Kelley was suspended seven times during high school for infractions ranging from insubordination and profanity to drug offenses.

Kelley spent time in an inpatient behavioral health facility due to his persistent criminal and antisocial behavior.

Kelley enlisted in the Air Force in 2009 upon graduation from high school. Three years later he was charged with assaulting his wife and fracturing his toddler stepson’s skull. He threatened the charging officer with physical violence and was admitted to an inpatient behavioral health treatment facility.

Tessa Brennaman, Kelley’s first wife, lived in constant fear of him.

His wife later reported that he had held a loaded handgun to her head and waterboarded her over stuff like speeding tickets. They divorced in short order. In 2014 after a fairly long trek through the military justice system, Kelley was separated from the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge.

Danielle was Devin’s second wife. They married after he returned home from the Air Force. Danielle’s family was a regular part of FBC Sutherland Springs. Devin had a fulminant relationship with his mother-in-law.

Leaving the military did little to improve Kelley’s rancid disposition. He was investigated for assault and rape within months of his arrival back in Texas. In 2014 Kelley married a high school friend whose family attended the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

Arming the Animal

Kelley was not legally authorized to own firearms, yet he easily acquired them due to the systemic failure of a variety of flawed gun control mechanisms.

The nature of Kelley’s discharge from the military and his domestic violence history should have prevented his passing the background check required to buy a gun, but this information was not entered into the NICS system. As a result, Kelley lied on a variety of official forms and bought weapons through legal channels. He even landed a job as a security guard.

Kelley bought an EAA revolver (like this one) legally at Holloman Air Force Base.

Kelley bought a SIG SAUER P250 and European American Armory Windicator .38 revolver at the Base Exchange at Holloman Air Force Base. In April of 2016, he falsified his 4473 at an Academy Sports store in San Antonio and purchased a Ruger AR-556 rifle. Along the way, he also accumulated a Glock 19 9mm, a Ruger SR22 pistol, and a Ruger GP100 .357 Magnum revolver.

The Massacre

At some point, darkness took complete control of this man. Family members said later it was as though he was possessed.

At 11:20 am Kelley exited his Ford Explorer outside FBC Sutherland Springs wearing black fatigues and body armor as well as a facemask adorned with a skull. He shot two parishioners outside the church before pushing his way into the sanctuary. Over the next 11 minutes, Kelley expended about 700 rounds. Police later found fifteen empty rifle magazines.

Stephen Willeford’s daughter, Stephanie, alerted her father to the noise across the street.

Stephen Willeford’s oldest daughter, Stephanie, woke him up to tell him she thought she heard gunshots. Stephen’s first thought was that somebody was tapping on his bedroom window. When he went into the living room he recognized the sound.

Like many of us, Stephen did not keep loaded magazines for his weapons. He had to snap a few rounds into a mag on the fly.

Rushing to his gun safe, Willeford thumbed a few cartridges into a magazine and grabbed his favorite AR15, a homebuilt parts gun he had customized himself. Stephen ran out of the house and headed for the church, the sounds of gunfire growing louder. He directed his daughter to go back and load magazines. He admitted later that this was just to keep her out of danger. Stephen Willeford was barefoot.

Stephen’s wife, Pam, begged him not to go to the church.

As Stephen crossed the 150 yards to the church he called his wife. She was on the other side of town helping another daughter drywall their house. He told them to stay put and avoid the church. As he hung up the phone his wife was shouting, “Don’t go over there!”

The Firefight

Stephen Willeford wasn’t a cop or a soldier. He asserts that God guided his actions that fateful day.

As he approached the church Stephen heard the carnage inside. He involuntarily screamed, “Hey!” as loud as he could, violating every tactical dictum about what to do when approaching a violent crime in progress. He tells people now that, “It was the Holy Spirit calling the demon out of the church.” This was the precise moment the slaughter inside FBC Sutherland Springs stopped.

Willeford responded as he had trained, shooting Kelley twice in the chest with his customized AR15 rifle.

Devin Kelley somehow heard Willeford’s shout and left the church to investigate. Upon seeing Stephen with a gun he fired three rounds, striking a Dodge Challenger, a nearby house, and the Dodge Ram Willeford was using for cover. Stephen steadied his holographic reticle on the man’s chest and stroked the trigger twice. Kelley dropped his rifle but was not otherwise inconvenienced.

Willeford realized that he was going to have to shoot around Kelley’s plates.

On a certain primal level, Stephen now recognized that Kelley was wearing body armor. As the shooter made for his vehicle, Willeford got his angle and shot the monster once underneath his arm and again in the thigh. As Kelley roared away in his Explorer, Willeford estimated where his head should be and blew out the vehicle’s windows.

The Chase

Johnnie Langendorff was at the right place at the right time to help bring Devin Kelley’s rampage to an end.

27-year-old Johnnie Langendorff had driven down from Seguin, 30 minutes away, to visit his girlfriend. Willeford, a stranger to him, ran up to his truck carrying a rifle and said, “That guy just shot up the church. We need to stop him.” Langendorff unlocked his doors.

Willeford and Langendorff had never met before they joined forces to run Devin Kelley down.

The two men chased Kelley for about six miles, passing several cars and topping 90 miles per hour. They kept the 911 dispatcher on the phone updating their location. Willeford had two rounds remaining.

Willeford and Langendorff’s pursuit drove Kelley away from inhabited areas and into a farmer’s field where he ultimately took his own wretched miserable life.

Kelley stopped his truck and Willeford moved to exit the vehicle. Kelley then sped off again, this time swerving erratically from blood loss before tearing through a fence and coming to a stop in a nearby field. The cops arrived soon thereafter. Devin Kelley called his parents expressing extreme remorse and then shot himself in the head.

The Guns

The Ruger AR-556 is a rack grade direct gas AR rifle.

The Ruger AR-556 is an entry-level direct gas impingement version of Gene Stoner’s classic black rifle introduced in 2014. The AR-556 followed on the heels of Ruger’s previous piston-driven SR-556. The SR-556 was an exceptional firearm, but it cost nearly $2000.

Kelley had customized his AR-556 with Magpul furniture and a red dot sight.

The AR-556 is a no-frills AR designed to compete with similar weapons such as the S&W M&P15 Sport.

Devin Kelley bought his Glock 19 through commercial sources after lying on his Form 4473. To presuppose that criminals will obey the administrative rules concerning gun ownership borders upon insanity.

The Glock 19 is a mid-size 9mm combat pistol that has seen widespread distribution. Sporting the familiar Glock Safe Action striker-fired trigger system and a 15-round magazine, the G19 is employed by the military, civilian, and Law Enforcement users pretty much anyplace folks wield guns. The G19 offers a chassis that is small enough to conceal yet large enough to control.

The Ruger GP100 revolver was introduced in 1985.

The Ruger GP100 is a rugged double-action magnum revolver. Available in a variety of chamberings with barrels between three and six inches long, the GP100 employs a transfer bar ignition system.

I presume this is the rifle Willeford used to stop Devin Kelley’s murderous rampage.

I couldn’t ascertain any definitive specifics about Stephen’s gun. The most probable photograph I could find showed a direct gas impingement AR sporting Magpul furniture, an EOTech Holosight, and a tactical light along with a magwell adaptor. As the AR15 is the most modular firearm ever created it lends itself to customization.

Ruminations

To imagine that some law or rule was going to miraculously transform this genuine piece of work into a model citizen represents magical thinking.

Much hay has been made over the fact that Devin Kelley was able to buy his guns through commercial sources. Really? Does any rational person actually believe that his failing a NICS check could have somehow stopped this perennial loser psychopath from shooting up that church?

The Sutherland Springs massacre was the fifth deadliest mass shooting in American history. It all appeared to be Devin Kelley’s failed attempt to get back at his mother-in-law. She was not at the church at the time and was otherwise physically unharmed.

It appeared that Kelley’s sole motivation was to settle a squabble with his wife’s family. Among the 26 dead were 9 children, one of whom was unborn. Another 20 worshippers were wounded. Sutherland Springs was the worst church shooting in American history.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy was not present that Sunday but tragically lost his daughter in the attack. He announced as I was putting this article together that he was running for the Texas State Senate.

The pastor at FBC Sutherland Springs was Frank Pomeroy. Frank typically carried a firearm during services. However, he was away with his wife on November 7th. His 14-year-old daughter was among the victims. Visiting pastor Bryan Holcombe died along with eight of his family members.

True heroism is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These guys were thrown together by fate to thwart a madman.

Stephen Willeford and Johnnie Langendorff are archetypal American heroes. Quiet, humble, and selfless, these guys did whatever it took to stop a monster rampaging through their little Texas town. Willeford had no military or LEO experience yet said he had trained all his life for that moment.

It’s not hard to perceive spiritual forces behind the horrible events at FBC Sutherland Springs. Willeford sees himself as God’s instrument to stop the carnage.

A committed Christian, Stephen attributes his success to God’s Providence. Given the inevitable state of Devin Kelley’s ears after firing 700 rounds inside an enclosed building, it does make one wonder how he could have otherwise heard Willeford’s shout outside the church.

Out of tragedy pours grace. The man who stopped the massacre and the killer’s widow both worship together among the body of believers so traumatized by Devin Kelley’s actions.

Stephen Willeford moved his church membership to FBC Sutherland Springs. Danielle Kelley, Devin Kelley’s widow, worships with them as well. This ravaged church has welcomed her with open arms.

Stephen Willeford put his years of experience on the range to use when he stopped a psychopath. This sordid tale is fraught with lessons to be learned by responsible American gun owners.

When I finished typing this piece I went downstairs and stuffed two PMAGs with sixty rounds of M855 62-grain ammo. Those two magazines will still work long after I don’t. I also stashed a spare pair of shoes nearby.

Stephen Willeford is an American gun enthusiast who risked everything to save his friends and neighbors.
Law Enforcement investigators seized Willeford’s rifle for a time during the subsequent investigation. A prominent black rifle manufacturer gave him this one as a replacement.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Ti December 5, 2020, 1:30 pm

    After reading this a few weeks ago, I dug out a Pmag D-60 I had in my parts box. It feeds beautifully, but is a pain in the ass to load. I just packed that boy with M855 and put it in the safe.

  • alfie November 12, 2020, 7:37 am

    I have often wondered about form 4473 and the ncic back ground check. The only way that this form will work if by the firearm buyer is to be honest in filling out the form. I have made mention a few times to the dealers where I do business and both times the FFL dealer just smiles, yes we know and agree with you.

  • Ej harbet November 9, 2020, 8:27 pm

    I have always kept multiple loaded mags for my weapons.
    This guy is a hero and i hope if the call he got happens to me ill be up to the task.
    I bet he keeps a few loaded mags now

  • JCitizen November 9, 2020, 1:31 pm

    I hope they finally closed the gap in the NCIC reporting that let this madman buy anything he wanted. It would be interesting what lie he made on the 4473 form, because that would have had to be a big lie to circumvent NCIC – that system isn’t one to okay false information, or at least there should be a simple way to augment that using data base cross checks. The information shouldn’t have made sense in the large data bases they keep, but there is also a well known algorithm that can easily double check that too. However with the lack of reporting to the service from the military, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Any one arrested for domestic violence is a guaranteed block to an NCIC check, so I have to wonder if he was never booked?!! They should have done that at the very least. Even if he was never convicted, it would have put a hold on the sale, and tipped the dealer off, that something wasn’t right.

    That beautiful picture of the Church with the rainbow in the back ground nearly made me cry! :'(

  • Joe Bhe November 9, 2020, 10:24 am

    Fulminant. Nice!

    • NC2025 November 11, 2020, 10:33 am

      Anyone CONVICTED of DV is blocked. Thank God it takes more than an arrest because women can say anything and the cops will take you in and book you only to drop everything a few weeks later when they get the full picture.

  • Fal Phil November 9, 2020, 9:23 am

    An unloaded gun is as useful as a club. Always keep a loaded magazine in the safe with your primary defense weapon.

  • Mike in a Truck November 9, 2020, 6:16 am

    “Come on up for the Rising. Come on up lay your hands in mine. Come on up for the Rising tonight. ” – Bruce Springsteen ( who is a political doofus but a fantastic artist)

  • Steve in Detroit November 9, 2020, 5:37 am

    And to think Democrats, including Joe Biden, think that a Law will stop insane, depraved and criminals from doing something. These fools refuse to concede that only Law Abiding people follow the Law. These same dems praise the politicians in their party that rule over the crime infested large urban areas that have more in common with a third world city than Main Street America. I hope President Trump prevails in Court over these mail in vote cheating leftists, because if he Does Not, it’s going to be a long four years.

    • Lee in Utah November 10, 2020, 12:00 am

      Steve how come it is guys like you are so shallow the only reason you can come up with is to blame Democrat’s for all the gun owners problems. Do we really think a bunch of rednecks showing up at the parades or demonstrations, what ever the hell it was helped the publics perception of you and I? We have to many bad actors constantly stirring things up and it’s the responsible gun owners who needs to help shut ’em down. As an FYI, I own more guns then you and will accept your challenge to out shoot me the next time you’re coming through Utah. Op’s forgot to mention I’m a long time Democrat and wheel chair bound. Should make it easy for you.

      • Brandon November 11, 2020, 2:35 am

        As a life long Democrat, if you were retional, you’d have left them after this year, as if this is the year that would actually lush a rational person over the edge. What is going on with the left right now is utterly disgusting. Why anyone would want to associate themselves with that is beyond reason. Period.

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