Faith's Fusillade

The gunman moved methodically, killing cowering churchgoers, before one of them stood up for the final confrontation. Then came the last shot.

 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.

Then, on a hymn-filled Wednesday evening two months ago, 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 antigovernment tirades to local newspapers and in personal journals.

Neitz was overcoming his troubled past when the showdown came.
Neitz was overcoming his troubled past when the showdown came.
Reporters outside the church heard that a worshiper had challenged the murderer.
AP/Wide World Photo
Reporters outside the church heard that a worshiper had challenged the murderer.

His final fury was launched in private at his modest home, where he bashed holes in the walls with a shovel and crowbar, and 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, ten 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.

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 ten 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 six-foot, 190-pound former Boy Scout and high school football lineman named Jeremiah Neitz, a young man whose brief life has been 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.

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