In the line of fire

When a gunman terrorized worshipers at Wedgwood Baptist Church, one unlikely hero summoned the courage and faith to challenge a killer

And, of course, there are plans for a marriage as soon as a little money is saved.

His 17-year-old fiancée, excited about the daughter she will soon give birth to, nods her agreement to the optimistic plans and adds that she intends to return to her high school studies sometime after her baby arrives. She's not a "dropout," she insists with a heart-melting smile; she's only taking time off to have her child.

Both, in fact, are smiling, as if hard times and an uncertain future had never visited their home. The positive attitude is unexpected. Just as the fact that theirs is the home of one of the bona fide heroes to emerge from the horror visited on the Fort Worth church.

The story of Neitz's confrontation quickly became apocryphal among the media covering the story.
AP Wide World Photo
The story of Neitz's confrontation quickly became apocryphal among the media covering the story.
Youth minister Adam Hammond is convinced Neitz prevented more bloodshed.
Alyssa Banta
Youth minister Adam Hammond is convinced Neitz prevented more bloodshed.

Had it not been for the sudden, inexplicable act of Jeremiah Neitz (pronounced 'nights'), a young man who six months ago made the decision to turn his troubled life around and return to the church he had briefly deserted, Ashbrook's legacy might have a higher death count.

"What Jeremiah did that night," says Sheila Klopfer, a seminary student and Sunday-school teacher at the Southwayside Baptist Church, which Neitz and fiancée Shellie Rhinehart attend, "has been an inspiration to every member of our church. It has not only made people take notice of him, but it has caused each one of us to ask ourselves if we would have the same courage and conviction if put into a similar circumstance. What Jeremiah has done is issue a challenge to all of us."

As he sits in his apartment, the tragic event that became headline news throughout the world growing distant, Neitz insists that he is making every effort to put it all behind him, to occupy his mind with other things -- anything -- that will erase the sights and sounds of that evening. He tries to forget, but the images still visit, even as he sleeps. "He won't admit it," Rhinehart says, "but he's having nightmares. He'll kick and moan and doesn't stop until I wake him."

It is a memory that will be difficult to discard. As he retells the story, a somber look crosses his face. His hands fumble with a gimme cap in his lap; he stares at the floor and recalls:

"Adam Hammond, our [Southwayside Baptist] youth minister, had received a flier from the Wedgwood Baptist Church about the Wednesday-night youth rally they were planning and suggested it would be a fun evening," Neitz says. "There were about a dozen of us who planned to go, and we met at Southwayside and went together in the church van." The rally would offer a band, singing, and fellowship for 150 teenagers. Neitz was sorry that Rhinehart, feeling the effects of her final weeks of pregnancy, had decided at the last minute that she didn't feel up to joining the group and stayed at home.

It was a few minutes past 7 p.m., and Neitz was standing near the wall of the sanctuary, listening as the band Forty Days began its second number, a song titled "Alle, Alleluia." Suddenly, over the music, Neitz heard a loud "pop," and the window that separated the hallway from the sanctuary shattered at his feet.

The stunned teenager immediately rushed to take a seat by Hammond near the rear of the sanctuary. Unlike some of those in the congregation who first thought the intruder was acting out a skit, Neitz knew otherwise. "I sat down by Adam and told him, 'This is real. Something bad's happening.'" Seconds later he saw Ashbrook, wearing jeans, a black jacket, and a black baseball cap, a cigarette dangling from his lips. In one hand he held a .380-caliber pistol; in the other he had the Ruger 9mm, pointing, shooting, aiming, shooting. At one point he threw a handmade pipe bomb toward the pulpit where the band had been playing, cursing his disappointment when its explosion did no real damage. There were, Neitz recalls, screams of fear and pain as fellow worshipers were shot before they could duck beneath the cover of the pews.

By the time those attending the rally realized they were actually under siege, there was no time to run from the building. With Ashbrook spending most of his time near the back of the room near the main entrance, they were trapped.

For Neitz time froze. Though in reality the deadly rampage lasted no more than 10 minutes, it seemed to go on eternally as Ashbrook fired, yelled obscenities, reloaded, and fired repeatedly. A video, taken by 17-year-old Justin Ray before he was fatally wounded, and later viewed by Fort Worth police, offered an eerie, almost surrealistic view of the early stages of the tragedy. "He [Ashbrook] is just slowly pacing the aisle in the sanctuary, pointing a gun and firing at selected victims. On the film, he ejects the magazine, reloads, and continues firing. It wasn't rapid. It was slow and methodical, picking a target, aiming, and shooting. He didn't seem in a panic. He would stand in one place, shoot, and then move to another position and shoot again," Acting Police Chief Ralph Mendoza told the media after viewing the video.

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