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BREAKING NEWS George Tiller suspect may be charged Monday

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 31, 2009, at 11:18 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 9, 2009, at 5:13 p.m.

— With one bullet, a gunman ended the life and the controversial career of abortion doctor George Tiller, killing him as he stood in the foyer of his church Sunday.

Monday, a 51-year-old Johnson County man could be charged with murder and aggravated assault in the shooting of Tiller, who had been shot before by an anti-abortion foe.

The crime has drawn condemnation and outrage from the president and stirred strong emotions across the nation.

Tiller, 67, was shot once just after 10 a.m. Sunday as he stood in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church, 7601 E. 13th St., where he was serving as an usher. The gunman threatened to shoot two men who tried to apprehend him.

Wichita police said that the suspect was arrested without incident on I-35 in Johnson County about three hours after the shooting, following a statewide broadcast describing the suspect and his car.

Although Wichita police would not name the suspect, the Johnson County Sheriff's Office identified him as Scott P. Roeder, according to the Associated Press.

Wichita police said it appeared the suspect had acted alone but that they are investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.

Police on Sunday said they expected the man to be charged with murder and two counts of aggravated battery.

In a news conference at Wichita City Hall, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said police will "investigate this suspect to the Nth degree, his history, his family, his associates, and we're just in the beginning stages of that."

Tiller had long been a focal point of protests by abortion opponents because his clinic, Women's Health Care Services at 5107 E. Kellogg, is one of a few in the country where late-term abortions are performed.

He was shot and wounded in both arms at his clinic in 1993.

Sunday's shooting stoked emotional debate on the Internet between supporters of abortion rights and abortion opponents.

Without elaborating, Stolz said investigators will look into the Internet comments because the discussion could bear on public safety.

Tiller's family issued a statement through Wichita lawyers Dan Monnat and Lee Thompson:

"Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather. Today's event is an unspeakable tragedy for all of us and for George's friends and patients.

"This is particularly heart wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace."

A timeline

Police and other sources described what happened in the church.

For the 10 a.m. service, Tiller was serving as an usher, one of six ushers listed in the church bulletin. He was handing out bulletins to people going into the sanctuary minutes before being shot.

At 10:03, Tiller was one of six to 12 people in the foyer, outside the sanctuary. His wife, Jeanne, was at the church.

A man armed with a handgun shot Tiller once, according to the preliminary investigation. Three to four people saw the shooting.

Two men confronted the suspect and exchanged words with him, but police would not say what was said.

"They were both threatened, and the gun was pointed at them," Stolz said.

That is why the suspect could face the aggravated assault charges, Stolz said.

Within minutes, paramedics arrived and pronounced Tiller dead at the scene.

Officers arrived and immediately started interviewing witnesses.

Police obtained the suspect's description and vehicle description -- a powder-blue 1993 Ford Taurus -- from witnesses at the church and broadcast it and the tag number to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The car was registered to Scott Roeder of Merriam, in Johnson County.

Police also obtained a photo of the suspect, who had a prior conviction for criminal use of explosives, which was overturned on appeal, according to court records.

Officers began checking motels and other places for the suspect.

Before the shooting, the church was packed, said Shirley King, one of the parishioners. New members were joining. A baptism was on the agenda.

When King heard a "pop" sound, she thought it was special effects from the percussionist. Some people glanced toward the rear of the church, curious.

Tiller's wife, Jeanne, was sitting with the choir downstairs, King said. An usher came, and motioned for Jeanne Tiller to come with him.

"The rest of us were listening to the prelude, but then came the piercing screams of a woman who obviously had witnessed a horrible sight," King wrote in an e-mail.

"A few people immediately jumped up, but quickly one of our church leaders said, 'Everyone please be seated. Please remain calm. We have had an incident and we are taking care of it. Remain in your seat.' "

Adam Watkins, 20, who said he has attended the church his entire life, said he was sitting in the middle of the congregation when he heard the "pop."

"We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it... had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped," Watkins said.

Once they learned of the shooting, Watkins said:

"We were just really shocked. We were kind of dumbfounded. We couldn't really believe it had happened."

The suspect's car was spotted shortly before 2 p.m. just south of Gardner by two Johnson County sheriff's deputies -- Andy Lento and Tyson Kilbey. The Sheriff's Office had suspected that the man would be coming back on I-35 to his home, and Kilbey and Lento waited for him.

As the car went north, Lento and Kilbey followed and were joined by three other sheriff's patrol cars.

Lt. Mike Pfannenstiel of the Sheriff's Office said officers pulled the car over just south of the main Gardner exit and got out with guns drawn. The man got out of his car with his hands up.

"We took him down without incident," Pfannenstiel said, adding that the man appeared to be driving the speed limit and made no attempt to elude the deputies.

At the 4 p.m. news conference, Stolz said authorities were bringing the suspect to Wichita.

He said that police expect to present the case to the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office today.

At 7 p.m., a private vigil service was held at Reformation. Tiller's wife, his children and grandchildren attended. Two police officers stood in the back of the sanctuary.

The Rev. Lowell Michelson, senior pastor of Reformation Lutheran Church, said that part of the message of the vigil focused on the message that "love is stronger than hate."

That was clear, he said, in the congregation's response to one another.

"I think the way that folks gathered around Jeanne tonight in large numbers speaks volumes not only about the support and encouragement we get from Jesus Christ," he said, "but also the way the Holy Spirit works."

Reaction to shooting

President Obama released a statement on the shooting.

"I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."

Mickey Cohlmia, a member of the neighboring St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, said: "It is absolutely disheartening.... I think it shows where our world is today.... There is no safe place."

The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, in a statement on its Web site, said:

"We are shocked at (Sunday) morning's disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down. Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning. We pray for Mr. Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ."

Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who conducted an investigation into Tiller, said in a statement he was "stunned by this lawless and violent act which must be condemned and should be met with the full force of law. We join in lifting prayer that God's grace and presence rest with Dr. Tiller's family and friends."

Warren Hern, a Colorado physician and close friend of Tiller's -- who described himself now as "the only doctor in the world" who performs very late-term abortions -- said Tiller's death was predictable.

"I think it's the inevitable consequence of more than 35 years of constant anti-abortion terrorism, harassment and violence," he said.

When Obama was elected last fall, Hern predicted that anti-abortion violence would increase, he said. Because Obama supports legalized abortion, Hern said, its foes "have lost ground.... They want the doctors dead, and they invite people to assassinate us. No wonder that this happens.

"I am next on the list."

Ongoing threats

Tiller and his clinic have faced continuous threats and legal action.

A Wichita jury ruled in March that he was not guilty of illegal abortion on 19 criminal charges he faced for allegedly violating a state law requiring an "independent" second physician's concurring opinion before performing late-term abortions.

Immediately following the ruling in this criminal case, the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts made public a similar complaint against Tiller that was originally filed in December 2008.

Protesters blockaded Tiller's clinic during Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" protests during the summer of 1991, and Tiller was shot by Rachelle Shannon at his clinic in 1993. Tiller was wounded in both arms. Shannon remains in prison.

The clinic was bombed in June 1986 and was severely vandalized in May. His lawyer said wires to security cameras and outdoor lights were cut and that the vandals also cut through the roof and plugged the buildings' downspouts. Rain poured through the roof and caused thousands of dollars of damage in the clinic. Tiller reportedly asked the FBI to investigate the incident.

Contributing: Kevin McGrath, Conor Shine and Stephanie Barnard of The Eagle; Kansas City Star; Associated Press; Los Angeles Times

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