An Unusual Gunpoint Witness
by Lynn Vincent
An unlikely instrument of God?s grace?off-again, on
again youth group member, with a criminal record, no job, and on the verge
of losing an apartment?points a suicidal gunman to Christ, even as he
looked down the barrel of a semiautomatic Ruger. Here is the story of
More than a hundred
gunshots had already ripped through the Wedgwood Baptist Church sanctuary
when Jeremiah Neitz faced off with Larry Gene Ashbrook. Ashbrook pointed
his hot Ruger 9-mm semiautomatic at Jeremiah. The 19-year-old pointed
Ashbrook toward Jesus Christ.
Standing a pew-length
away from the man who had just murdered seven people because they were
Christians, Jeremiah told Ashbrook: "What you need is Jesus Christ in
your life." Ashbrook, a twisted loner, refused God?s 11th-hour
gospel offer and shot himself in the head. But that night, Jeremiah joined
the Christians at Columbine in standing up for God while staring down the
barrel of a gun.
A member of South
Wayside Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Jeremiah had attended the youth
rally at nearby Wedgwood on Sept. 15 to celebrate the national high-school
prayer event, ?See You at the Pole?. Once at the rally, the South
Wayside teens and their youth pastor, Adam Hammond, took seats at the rear
center of Wedgwood?s huge, balconied sanctuary to hear the Christian
rock band ?Forty Days?. "We were inside, listening to music, when
we heard these popping noises," says Jeremiah. "Adam and I were
going to walk out to see what was going on and the glass just shattered in
the (sanctuary) doors. We ran and yelled ?Get down! Get down!? and got
down in our seats."
By the time Ashbrook
entered the sanctuary, he had already murdered two Wedgwood members and
injured at least three more. "The guy just came in the room and
started shooting everybody," Jeremiah says. "I got up (off the
floor) and sat in the pew and just started praying."
seeing Jeremiah praying during the rampage. "He had his hands folded
and he was closing his eyes and bowing his head," recalls 12-year-old
Caleb Payne, who could see Jeremiah from his spot near the front of the
sanctuary. "I thought the gunman was going to shoot him."
prayerful posture irritated Ashbrook. By the time he spotted the youth,
the shooter had already riddled the sanctuary with bullets and killed five
more people. But witnesses say he appeared frustrated that most of his
hostages did not cower before him in fear. Many, who could not see the
dead and injured sprawled beneath the pews, believed Ashbrook was part of
a scheduled skit. Kids popped up from behind pews chanting, "Shoot
me! Shoot me!" Muffled laughter rippled up from the floor of the
auditorium. Standing in the back, Ashbrook lashed out at the praying
Christian: "You believe in all this religious bull____? Your religion
"No, sir, it
doesn?t," replied Jeremiah, turning in his seat to face the gunman.
does!" spat Ashbrook, becoming more agitated.
"No, sir, it
doesn?t," repeated Jeremiah: "What you need is Jesus Christ in
your life." Gunfire rang out as Ashbrook fired several more shots.
But he did not fire at Jeremiah. Witnesses say Jeremiah?s words seemed
to shock and confuse Ashbrook. The gunman slumped down into a pew on the
rear wall of the sanctuary, a look of disbelief on his face.
When Ashbrook sat
down, Jeremiah stood up.
Mr. Hammond, who was
lying on the floor near Jeremiah?s feet, pulled desperately on the youth?s
pant leg, begging him to duck down out of the shooter?s line of fires.
But Jeremiah would
not be moved. "I looked at (Jeremiah) and thought, ?What is this
guy doing??" remembers Trey Herweck, a 24-year-old seminarian and
youth worker who watched the strange confrontation unfold. Mr. Herweck
thought Jeremiah seemed "fearless."
Then Ashbrook leveled
his gun at Jeremiah?s head. "Sir, you can shoot me if you
want," Jeremiah said: "I know where I?m going?I?m going to
gunman was going to come over and shoot all of us," remembers Mr.
Hammond. "I honestly didn?t think this would make the gunman stop.
I thought it would enrage him."
When the next gunshot
rang out, Mr. Hammond expected to see Jeremiah fall to the floor dead.
Instead, Ashbrook had put his Ruger to his own head and fired a
Later, outside, as
survivor?s sobbed and emergency lights spun over the post-shooting scene
now so sickeningly familiar in America, Jeremiah collapsed in the grass.
Youth pastor Hammond "was telling me I said that stuff. I just
freaked out and fell out in the grass and laid there for like a minute or
so. It just hit me what I had done."
his exchange with Ashbrook?an exchange some believe may have preempted
the shooter?s use of the more than 60 bullets he had left?but he says
it didn?t "seem like me saying the words. I said it in a conscious
state," he says, but remembers that it was like watching himself in a
In fact, Jeremiah?s
analysis of the face-off is somewhat like that of an extra who suddenly
finds himself center-stage in a big-budget action sequence:
Why did he get down
on the floor, but then get back up in the pew and sit down?
What made him turn
around and confront Ashbrook?
Why didn?t Ashbrook
shoot you dead?
Jeremiah says, all just?happened. As far as he?s concerned, God
stopped the gunman and used Jeremiah to tell Ashbrook about Jesus one last
Jeremiah is an
unlikely clutch evangelist?perhaps even more unlikely than Columbine?s
Cassie Bernall, who when her killer asked her if she believed in God, said
yes, prompting him to shoot her in the face. While Cassie had been walking
confidently with Christ for two years before she died in April, Jeremiah
had been struggling to reconnect with his faith for just over two months
before Wedgwood. A former football player who had dropped out of high
school, Jeremiah moved out of his parents? house at 18 and quickly fell
in with?to use his word?"gangstas." He got his girlfriend
Shellie, 16, pregnant and he asked her to move in with him. Convictions on
charges of theft and assault landed Jeremiah on probation. He lost his
job, and the guy who shared his apartment, Jeremiah says, skipped out on
"I was two days
from being evicted from my apartment," he remembers, adding that to
keep the apartment, he would have had to come up with more than $600. His
rope was getting short when he remembered someone who had once told
Jeremiah to call if he ever needed anything: Adam Hammond.
Mr. Hammond had
pastored Jeremiah in the South Wayside youth group when Jeremiah was 14.
When Jeremiah turned to "the wild life," the two drifted apart
for more than a year. But when Jeremiah needed help, Mr. Hammond was
there. The same day Jeremiah called him, a Wednesday in July, Mr. Hammond
helped him find a job and a cheaper apartment.
Jeremiah did not have $75 to pay the deposit on the apartment. As it
turned out, Mr. Hammond and the youth group had been picking up trash as
part of a community-service project and someone discovered a $100 bill
among the refuse. The kids all prayed that God would give them a chance to
use the money for some ministry need. Mr. Hammond kept the bill in his
desk drawer?until Jeremiah?s need surfaced.
To pay the deposit,
he handed Jeremiah the cash. "Here?s a hundred dollars from
God," Mr. Hammond said.
Jeremiah says that
while he called Mr. Hammond looking for money, what he found in the end
was love. "The kids in my youth group were so happy to see me,"
he says. "They were like, ?Jeremiah! Jeremiah!? and just hugging
me and everything. I realized I do have good friends who really care about
me, unlike the gangstas I was hanging out with before. I also realized
that God was the most important thing in my life and that I had lost that.
I needed to regain that relationship I had with God before I quit going to
Jeremiah now comes to
church and spends 30 minutes a day praying and reading his Bible. Shellie
is due to deliver Jessica Elizabeth any day and Jeremiah is looking
forward to being a father. The couple knows now that their current
arrangement of living together conflicts with God?s design for families.
Because Shellie?s mother refuses to grant permission for her to marry?unemancipated
minors cannot marry without a parent?s consent?they plan to wed as
soon as Shellie turns 18 in January.
For Mr. Hammond,
Jeremiah?s story is about not giving up on people. "God has shown
me that there are no unimportant people in His eyes."
Jeremiah still doesn?t
know why Ashbrook committed suicide after their confrontation. But he does
know this: that God is using the incident to glorify Himself. "I
think He?s trying to work through me with all this media (coverage) to
tell everybody that there is a God and that He really does care about
us," says Jeremiah, whose story has aired on ABC?s 20/20.
"Nobody would expect to hear that from somebody like me."
"Reprinted by permission from WORLD Magazine, Asheville, NC (800)