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

He will be on probation for the misdemeanor offense until August 2000. "Sometimes," he reflects, "you wind up learning things the hard way. If I had it to do all over again, I'd pay more attention to what my parents were trying to tell me."

It was while working the evening shift at a Whataburger that a group of youngsters he'd known at Southwayside Baptist came in and introduced him to the church's new youth minister. "That's when I met Adam [Hammond]," Neitz says. "I liked him immediately. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me if I ever needed anything to give him a call."

The need arose quickly. Evicted from the apartment where he and Rhinehart were living, he did something he'd never before done: Neitz reached out for help, telephoning Hammond. "At that point," the youth minister recalls, "his feeling of self-worth was pretty low. We had several long talks, and found him and Shellie a new place to live."

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.

While appreciative of the help, Neitz says the thing he is most grateful for is the fact that Hammond convinced him to return to the church. "Since I've gotten back to the church, returned Christ to my life, I'm a new person," he says.

Longtime friend Josh Waters, also 19, agrees with Neitz's self-assessment. "When we were in school together," Waters says, "about the most important thing in our lives was hanging out, partying, and drinking beer. It was just what high school kids in Crowley did. I can remember a couple of times when Jeremiah's parents were out of town and he threw some pretty good parties at their house. He just liked to have fun, do silly things, and didn't worry about much else. He was really immature. "

Recently returned from a stint in the Marines, Waters was surprised at the transformation in his friend. "It was like night and day," Waters says. "He had grown up, was serious about things. With the baby coming and his involvement in the church, he seemed to have found a real purpose in his life."

Although Neitz urged him to attend the Wedgwood youth rally, Waters had to work late and thus didn't make the drive from Crowley into Fort Worth that evening until he learned of the shooting. "I knew that my younger brother and Jeremiah were there," he recalls, "so I drove up there immediately after learning what had happened." He soon learned that his brother Daniel Waters had escaped uninjured, but did not find out about Neitz's fate until the following day.

"Then," he says, "when I heard what he had done that night, I was blown away. I don't know many people with that kind of courage."

Neither does another friend, 21-year-old Richard Manzano. "I've known him for four years now," Manzano says, "and I've seen him grow up so much. There was a time when he really had a temper. I don't go to church much myself, but I've got to believe that that's where he got rid of a lot of anger he used to have. And, no, I wasn't surprised at all to hear that he stood up to the guy."

For Neitz, the attention he has received since that Wednesday evening in Wedgwood has in some ways been discomfiting; in others, it is the gateway to a new beginning. In recent days, he and his mother have had two lengthy conversations.

Jerri Gagne and her husband were out of town on the night of Ashbrook's assault on Wedgwood Baptist and didn't even learn that Neitz had been there until the following day, when he and youth minister Hammond visited her. When told what her son had done, her reaction was a mixture of emotions. "It scared me," she says. "On one hand, I felt anger over his having put himself in that kind of danger. On the other hand, what he did was incredibly heroic. At first I didn't know whether to slap him or hug him. What I did was hug him -- very tightly."

In retrospect, she says, she is not surprised that her son would take such a stance. "He and his older brother [Michael, who lives in California] were always protective of smaller kids when they were growing up. They've always been there to stand up for the underdog.

"I'm very proud of him," she says. "But, then, I was even before this happened."

Neitz's father, who continued to live on the West Coast following his divorce from Neitz's mother 17 years ago, has been in touch. And a member of the Wedgwood Baptist congregation who had two teenage daughters at the youth rally recently helped Neitz secure a full-time job with a firm that manufactures floor-cleaning equipment. He starts this week. "Eight-fifty an hour and full benefits," he says elatedly.

And the doctor tells him and Rhinehart that a healthy baby should be arriving any day now.

"I'm glad some good things are happening for him," says Manzano. "Jeremiah is a good person."

And, to many, a hero.

Carlton Stowers' latest true crime book, To the Last Breath, received the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

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