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An unlikely hero describes gun battle and 95-mph pursuit of Texas shooting suspect

Johnnie Langendorff told The Washington Post how he helped race after the shooter who killed dozens of people on Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, Tex. (Video: Dina Parkinson/The Washington Post)

Johnnie Langendorff stumbled into the crossfire in a total accident.

Sunday morning was all routine until then. Langendorff — a lanky Texan with a fuzzy chin beard and the long horns of a bull’s skull tattooed across his neck — had finished breakfast. Then he drove his truck on the dusty back streets toward his girlfriend’s house nearby. When he approached the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, he noticed something odd.

As he passed the churchgoers’ vehicles parked around the white wood front of the building, he saw that one vehicle’s engine was running. It was a pearl-colored SUV, a Ford Explorer, he said. The driver’s door was open. A man clad all in black was walking toward the vehicle with a pistol. He was trading shots with another man holding a rifle.

“I never got a look at him,” Langendorff explained to reporters later, his mouth working a toothpick, when asked about the black-clad shooter. “I never really saw him. I saw the gunfire.”

Investigators hunt for motive in Texas church shooting as the grieving spans generations

The man in black hauled off in his SUV. The second man with the rifle — a neighbor identified Monday by Arkansas-based 40/29 News as Stephen Willeford — approached Langendorff. The two men were strangers.

Willeford said his daughter heard gunshots at the nearby First Baptist Church and told him she’d seen a man in all-black attire, according to 40/29 News. A former NRA instructor who had many friends who attended the church, Willeford immediately sprung into action.

“Every time I heard a shot, I knew that that probably represented a life. I was scared to death,” he told the news station. “I was scared for me. I was scared for every one of them. I was scared for my own family, who live less than a block away.”

Willeford raced across the street to the church and confronted Kelley before Langendorff joined him.

Langendorff said Willeford “briefed me quickly on what had just happened and said he had to get him.”

“So that’s what I did.”

As the two men shot off in pursuit in Langendorff’s truck, 26 First Baptist worshipers were dead or dying on the sanctuary’s maroon carpet. Dozens more were wounded. Sunday’s burst of violence would later be recognized as the fifth worst shooting in modern U.S. history, arriving just a month after 58 concertgoers were slain in Las Vegas.

Authorities said several people were killed in a shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in South Texas on Nov. 5. (Video: Patrick Martin, Elyse Samuels, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

The Texas victims’ ages ranged from 5 to 72, according to authorities, though one family said a 1-year-old died. The shooter, who authorities identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, first opened fire on the outside of the church just after 11 a.m. with a Ruger assault rifle. Kelley, clad in black tactical gear, then sprayed the building’s inside with bullets. He hastily fled the scene after engaging in a gun battle with Willeford.

Langendorff wove his truck at high speed through traffic while trying to catch the fleeing SUV. The speedometer crossed 95 mph while the driver narrated everything to law enforcement. “I was on the phone with dispatch the entire time,” he said. “I gave them the direction we were going, on what road and everything, and that the vehicle was in sight and that I was getting closer and closer to him.”

Kelley’s vehicle, however, veered off the roadway and into a ditch about 11 miles north of the church. Langendorff pulled his own truck within 25 yards.

“The gentleman that was with me got out, rested his rifle on my hood and kept it aimed at him, telling him to get out, get out. There was no movement, there was none of that. I just know his brake lights were going on and off, so he might have been unconscious from the crash or something like that, I’m not sure,” he said.

Police were on the scene within five to seven minutes, Langendorff said Sunday night. Freeman Martin, a regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told The Post that authorities had yet to determine whether Kelley was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound or hit in the gunfire at the church. Multiple weapons were found in Kelley’s vehicle.

An autopsy of Kelley showed that he was shot twice — once in the leg and again in the torso — before shooting himself in the head, Martin said during a briefing later Monday.

On Sunday night, Langendorff explained that his reaction — jumping into a car chase — was a simple calculation. “He just hurt so many people, he affected so many people’s lives, why wouldn’t you want to take him down?”

Willeford told 40/29 News Monday that four generations of his family have lived in the Sutherland Springs area.

“I’m no hero. I am not. I think, my God — my Lord — protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done,” he said. “I just wish I could’ve gotten there faster.”

Travis Andrews contributed to this report. 

More on the Texas shooting:

Who is Devin Patrick Kelley, the gunman officials say killed churchgoers in Sutherland Springs?

Texas shooting: Death sweeps across 3 generations of a single family gathered at church

Investigators hunt for motive in Texas church shooting as the grieving spans generations