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Former U.S. marshal says Tiller took steps to keep himself safe

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 4, 2009, at 10:11 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 1, 2011, at 1:20 p.m.

For a significant part of Richard Schroeder's career, first as a U.S. marshal and later as a private detective, he helped protect George Tiller.

Tiller was a nationally known late-term abortion provider and perennial focus of anti-abortion protests -- and threats.

In 1986, his clinic was bombed. In 1993, he was wounded in a shooting at his clinic. As a result, he took a significant number of steps to protect himself, Schroeder said.

Tiller wore a bulletproof vest, drove an armored vehicle, avoided open places and varied his route to and from the clinic, Schroeder said.

"That's why I say he got sucker-punched," Schroeder said -- caught completely off-guard when a gunman killed Tiller on Sunday in the foyer of his church, Reformation Lutheran, near 13th and Rock Road.

"This guy had to have stalked him before to see what was going on," Schroeder said of the gunman.

Scott P. Roeder has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting.

Police said the attacker shot Tiller one time while he served as an usher, around the time Tiller was handing out church bulletins.

"He was in what he thought was a safe zone -- a sanctuary," Schroeder said.

"The church was the last place I ever figured he'd be shot...

"I guess I'm naive in some ways... In the house of God?"

Over the years, Schroeder said he reminded Tiller to keep taking precautions. He said Tiller remained vigilant.

"When you have threat after threat after threat, it becomes old hat to you," Schroeder said.

"I've kicked myself a hundred times since Sunday. I wish I could have been there."

Tiller's killing shows that other abortion providers around the nation "need to look at the place they feel safest and re-evaluate the security and not let their guard down," Schroeder said.

"They're vulnerable anywhere they go."

Building a relationship

Schroeder, now 62 and retired from the U.S. Marshals Service, operates a private investigation business in the Wichita area.

His relationship with Tiller started out as professional but became personal as well.

Schroeder met Tiller when anti-abortion protesters swarmed Tiller's clinic on East Kellogg during the summer of 1991. At the time, Schroeder was based with the Marshals Service in Topeka.

He and a colleague came to the Wichita clinic "to get a firsthand look at what was going on." They mingled with protesters, observing.

After a federal judge ordered U.S. marshals to the clinic, Schroeder introduced himself to Tiller and discussed security measures with him.

In 1993, an attacker fired at Tiller as he was driving away from the clinic, causing minor wounds to both his arms.

The day after being wounded, Tiller went back to work. "That tells you something about the man," Schroeder said.

After the shooting, U.S. marshals protected Tiller for 30 months, Schroeder said.

Tiller started driving an armored vehicle -- what Schroeder called the "combat wagon" -- with fortified doors and thick, protective glass.

When Tiller left the clinic, he wore a bulletproof vest.

"If Doc was paranoid, he never projected it," Schroeder said.

"He was a matter-of-fact individual that was always under a tremendous amount of pressure. No normal person could handle that kind of pressure.

"He just accepted the challenge... and went on."

Tiller often wore a badge that said "Attitude is everything," Schroeder said.

'One split second'

After Schroeder retired as a U.S. Marshals division supervisor in Wichita in 2000, he helped provide security for Tiller "at peak times when he felt vulnerable," as recently as early 2008.

Sometimes, when Tiller had to leave the clinic, Schroeder rode with Tiller or drove behind him, in what Schroeder calls a "tactical position."

"I could diffuse the situation from behind. I was covert surveillance behind him."

Schroeder would remind Tiller: "When you travel Doc, be sure and travel in the right-hand lane." There are generally fewer obstacles and barriers to the right. It offers a quicker escape route.

Tiller was consistently straightforward, businesslike. "He was a very busy man," Schroeder said.

But Schroeder said he got to know Tiller on a personal level and thought of him as a friend.

One night, after Schroeder followed Tiller home, Tiller invited him in for soup and a sandwich. They watched TV commentator Bill O'Reilly, who was "giving Dr. Tiller a hard time," Schroeder said. Tiller didn't seem bothered, he said.

Schroeder said he has been devastated by the killing of the man he respected.

For years, Tiller took precautions. But, Schroeder said, the painful truth remains:

"It just takes one split second, when you let your guard down, and it all can end."

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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