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

"What impressed me when I spoke with him was that he was in no way trying to take credit for doing anything special. He's a young man with a strong belief that he was willing to make a great sacrifice for."

Adds youth minister Hammond, "I don't even know if Jeremiah realized at the time what he'd done." He is, however, convinced the teenager's action saved lives.

"There's no doubt about it," Hammond says. "I think he was there for a reason. I don't know what it was. If he did make the man stop and think, I don't know how he did it. But something happened between them. He [Ashbrook] had six more clips in his pocket when he decided to stop the shooting and take his own life."

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.

Hammond, married and the father of two, recalls crouching on the floor in front of the pew where he'd been sitting, listening to the steady stream of shots being fired off by Ashbrook. "From where I was, I could watch his feet as he moved around. I could hear the sounds -- the screams, the shots, and each empty clip as it fell to the floor.

"I could hear him yelling out against religion, cursing, saying something about the Masons. And there would be more shooting. I was praying. I was sure I was going to die."

At some point as he lay on the floor of the sanctuary, Hammond became aware that a young girl who had been seated in a nearby pew had been shot. "I looked down on the floor and saw that her blood was all over my clothes.

"It was just a few seconds after that when I heard Jeremiah talking to the man," he says. "I kept pulling on his pants leg, telling him to get down. When I heard that last shot, I was certain that Jeremiah was going to die.

"The whole thing was just so unreal, from beginning to end."

Neitz says that Hammond has been a big help to him as he attempts to sort out the events at Wedgwood Baptist Church. "He's been like another father to me," Neitz says. "I talk to him every day. I can go to him with any problem I have. I thank God every day for Adam -- and for my church. The church is my family.

"What happened last week has brought us [the church membership] even closer together. I love that."

Rhinehart, who has been with Neitz for a year and a half, has also noticed a change. "People are getting to know each other more," she says. "The adults and the young people are mingling and talking. There are people -- a lot of the adults -- who didn't even really know who Jeremiah was until all this happened. Now they look up to him. That makes me very proud.

"There was a time in his life," she adds, "that I know he wondered if God really had a purpose for his life. Now he knows He does."

Hammond sees the effect the shooting has had on the young man. "For the first few days," the youth minister says, "he was trying to act as if nothing had happened; that it was something he could put behind him and move on. Now, though, the magnitude of what he experienced -- what we all experienced -- seems to have set in, and he's been much more somber and reflective."

Not long ago, Neitz's life was on a downward spiral. Moving to Fort Worth from Vallejo, California, four years ago, he was active in the church for a while and then strayed. "I let too many other things become important to me -- a car, material things, me and my own needs," he admits.

Once an easygoing high school student who sang in the choir, started at tackle on the Crowley High football team, and enjoyed the teen life with his friends, Neitz suddenly found himself dealing with a number of frustrations as his junior year approached. Because of academic difficulties in grade school, he'd been held back and realized he would be too old for future eligibility on the football team despite the fact that he was two years away from graduation. Then came the announcement from his mother and stepfather that they would soon be moving to nearby Burleson, away from friends and familiar surroundings.

Neitz chose to drop out -- out of school, out of a family life he felt was too strict and governed by too many rules. Then reality set in. Cooking at a fast-food restaurant, he soon found, was a difficult way to make ends meet. And for the first time in his life, he got in trouble with the law. "I stole something that didn't belong to me," he says only when pressed for an explanation. "I did something I shouldn't have, and I felt guilty about it. When I heard that a friend of mine was about to be arrested for what I'd done, I went to the police and told them it was me."

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