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

"I was sitting there, just praying it would end," Neitz recalls, "and then as he approached me, I turned and looked at him. I really couldn't see his face that well because of the dim lighting and the way he had the cap pulled down on his forehead, but he seemed very calm."

As the gunman neared Neitz, youth minister Hammond, having already taken cover on the floor, began to pull at the teen's pants leg, urging him to get down before he, too, was shot.

Recalls Neitz: "I don't know why, but I just sat there, looking at him as he came toward me. When he got to within about five feet, he pointed one of his guns at me and just glared. I told him, 'Sir, you don't have to be doing this.' He told me to 'shut the hell up.' Then he asked me what my religion was, and I told him I was a Christian, a Baptist. He said 'that sucks' and that it was 'a stupid religion.'"

Jeremiah Neitz confronted gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook at Fort Worth's Wedgwood Baptist Church.
Alyssa Banta
Jeremiah Neitz confronted gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook at Fort Worth's Wedgwood Baptist Church.
Larry Gene Ashbrook cursed religion as he fired into a youth rally at Wedgwood.
AP Wide World Photo
Larry Gene Ashbrook cursed religion as he fired into a youth rally at Wedgwood.

Still seated in the pew, hands folded in his lap, despite Hammond's urgings that he get down, young Neitz continued to look into the eyes of the killer. "No sir," he replied, "it doesn't suck. It's a wonderful thing. God put me on this earth for a reason. I'm certain of that."

Without a reply, the 47-year-old Ashbrook sprayed several more rounds through the sanctuary, yelled, "This religion is bullshit," then returned his gaze to Neitz. "That's the only time I really noticed his face," he remembers. "What I saw was pure rage.

"That's when I stood up," he says. "I looked at him and told him, 'Sir, what you need is Jesus Christ in your life.' I told him that I knew where I was going when I died and asked, 'What about you?' He just looked at me for another second or two, then said, 'f-off,' sat down, and shot himself."

Nearby, another act of courage had just been played out. Seventeen-year-old Mary Beth Talley was handing out programs to late-comers when the shooting began and had raced toward the mother of longtime friend Heather MacDonald, 18, who is physically disabled. Seeing that Heather's mother was having difficulty getting her daughter onto the floor and out of the line of fire, Talley draped her body over her friend as she heard Neitz, whom she did not know, confronting Ashbrook.

"I heard him telling the man that he needed Jesus Christ," she says, "and I started praying that God would protect him." Seconds later a bullet ripped into her right shoulder.

Then there would be the final shot, one that youth minister Hammond was certain had been aimed at Neitz. In the confusion that followed, the story quickly circulated that the outspoken teen was among those whose lifeless bodies remained inside the church after the shooting had ended.

"What I did," Neitz says, "was get up and walk outside just as soon as he killed himself." There he did what he could to help those who had been wounded. "There was this one kid -- I don't know his name -- who I helped out of the church and onto the lawn out front. He had been shot in the back. All I can remember was that he was a short kid and was wearing a black shirt."

Nearly two hours passed after the last shot had been fired before Neitz was given a ride home by a woman who attends his church. Rhinehart, meanwhile, had been pacing, tearfully watching the event as it was being reported live by local television stations. "They weren't giving any names," she remembers, "only saying that there were a lot of people still inside the building and that they were dead. I kept praying that Jeremiah was OK, wishing I had gone as planned so I could be there and find him."

Finally, she borrowed a neighbor's phone and called the Southwayside Church and learned that none of its members who had made the trip to the youth rally had been killed or injured.

Neitz says he doesn't recall what prompted him to confront Ashbrook.

"I've tried to think back about what was going through my mind at the time," he says, "and I come up with nothing. There just wasn't time to think. But I do know that I never thought I was going to die. I had this feeling that God was there for me, helping me to face up to the guy. All I was thinking was that I had to do whatever I could to make him stop shooting people. I'm no hero, but maybe I got to him. I don't know how, really, but I think that's why what happened [Ashbrook's suicide] happened. He had more [ammunition] clips in his jacket. He could have killed a lot more people. I just did what I felt I had to do."

Did Neitz's action persuade Ashbrook to end the shooting and, ultimately, his own life? "I can't say for sure," says Fort Worth Police Department homicide detective Mike Carroll, who later interviewed Neitz. "Maybe he did frustrate Ashbrook with what he was saying. There's no way we'll ever really know. All I can say is that I'm impressed by what he did that evening. It was a very brave thing. You have to admire that.

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