In the line of fire
When the time comes for historians to reflect on the decade of the '90s, one of the troubling issues they will face is the headline-grabbing litany of violence that all too regularly has visited unlikely places. Misguided outcasts sprayed lethal gunfire into schools in Pearl, Mississippi; Littleton, Colorado; and West Paducah, Kentucky. The same horror found its way to a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles and business offices in Atlanta.
And then, on a hymn-filled Wednesday evening last month, Wedgwood Baptist Church on the southern edge of Fort Worth felt the terror.
On September 15, 47-year-old Larry Gene Ashbrook became the nation's latest time bomb. Living alone since the death of his 85-year-old father last July, Ashbrook was described by neighbors in the city's quiet Forest Hills section as strange and solitary -- "Weird Larry," some called him. He had been discharged from the Navy in 1983 for marijuana use, was convinced that authorities conspired to brand him a serial killer, and wrote rambling anti-government tirades to local newspapers and in personal journals.
But his final fury was launched in private at his modest home, where he bashed holes in the walls with a shovel and crowbar, poured concrete into the toilets and motor oil onto the shower heads. He destroyed family photographs and ripped the family Bible apart, page by page. He poisoned fruit trees growing in the front yard.
Then Ashbrook armed himself with two handguns purchased seven years earlier in Grand Prairie, 10 clips of ammunition, and a homemade pipe bomb, and climbed into his beat-up old Pontiac sedan.
The time had come to express his rage publicly.
As he wound his way through the quiet, middle-class neighborhood that surrounds Wedgwood Baptist, a youth rally was already under way in the church's sanctuary. Teenagers from numerous churches in the area had accepted invitations to extend the celebration of a nationally proclaimed "See You at the Pole" day, which had been set aside for school students to meet for morning prayers at flagpoles on campuses throughout the country. About 150 youngsters were already singing along to the music of a Christian rock band when Ashbrook, a dark-colored baseball cap pulled low over his brow, steered his car into a handicapped parking space near the entrance.
As Ashbrook approached the sanctuary, custodian Jeff Laster, 36, asked that he put out his cigarette before entering the building. Ashbrook pulled a Ruger 9mm semiautomatic from beneath his jacket and critically wounded Laster with a shot to the chest. He then turned to Sydney Browning, the 36-year-old children's choir director who was seated on a couch in the foyer, killing her with a single shot. Stepping over the bleeding, unconscious Laster, the gunman walked down the hall and killed Shawn Brown, 23, who was staffing a booth set up to sell Christian music CDs. Then he fired a shot into a window separating the hallway and sanctuary.
Finally arriving at the entrance to the main room, Ashbrook burst through the double doors and began methodically walking along the back row, shooting into a stunned and screaming crowd. In the next 10 minutes, eight people, including Ashbrook, would die.
In the days to come, the media, clergy, parents, and survivors reviewed the nightmare in minute-by-minute detail. They attended memorial services and held prayer vigils for injured friends and family. Ashbrook's brother and two sisters issued a written statement of grief and donated his body to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, asking that it be used for research.
And somewhere, all but lost in the strained recollections and reams of reporting, was this story:
At some point during Ashbrook's murder spree, a young man stood and challenged the gunman face-to-face, urging him to stop the bloodshed, pointing out that he needed God in his life. Some of those who mentioned the brief incident ended the anecdote with the assumption that the unnamed teenager's courageous stand had cost him his life.
Wrote Time magazine: "That's a version being offered by someone who was there, but it's unconfirmed. Yet even if it is pious invention, it gives a glimpse of the way some evangelical Christians, children and adults alike, are thinking about the string of killings around the U.S."
The story -- one of remarkable faith and courage; one that may well have prevented the carnage from being worse -- is not pious invention. Rather, it is that of a 6-foot, 190-pound former Boy Scout and high school football lineman named Jeremiah Neitz, a young man whose brief life is a mixture of winding turns, troubles, and triumphs.
A week had passed since the Wedgwood nightmare, and the outside darkness was doing little to mask the lingering summer heat. Inside a small, sparsely furnished upstairs apartment on the southern edge of Fort Worth, a young couple, unmarried but expecting their first child, sat in front of a fan that had been stirring the steamy late-summer air since the air conditioning went out. They had no idea when the landlord might get it repaired, only hoping it would be soon.
The 19-year-old father-to-be, a Crowley High School dropout on probation for a misdemeanor theft, is simultaneously working toward his GED and being a breadwinner. The wages he earned first as a fast-food cook then as an apprentice electrician have made it impossible for the couple to afford a phone or an automobile. When he gets his IRS refund, he says, then maybe he can find a used car.
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.
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.
"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.'"
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.