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Bond set for armed vet at City Hall

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, August 15, 2012, at 9:07 a.m.

A veteran who was severely wounded in Afghanistan remained in the Sedgwick County Jail on Wednesday on a $500,000 bond, suspected of stalking members of a Topeka church known for protesting at soldiers' funerals.

The protests by Westboro Baptist Church have been widely condemned, and in the past 5 1/2 years, the church has received lots of threatening e-mails and phone calls, a Westboro official said Wednesday.

But the reaction is "taking on a different dimension lately," said church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper. Increasingly, Westboro members are being followed or harassed as they leave protests, she said.

Phelps-Roper, 53, said she couldn't think of another incident like the one that culminated Tuesday in the Wichita City Hall parking lot. Authorities say an Army veteran followed a vehicle carrying five Westboro members — Phelps- Roper and four of her siblings — to City Hall.

What made it different, she said, is that the man had guns and abundant ammunition in his vehicle, which was backed into a parking spot outside the building where they were meeting with police officials about safety concerns at protests.

In the man's vehicle, authorities found two handguns, a rifle and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources said.

The man was arrested and remained in jail Wednesday on suspicion of stalking, driving on a revoked license and false impersonation.

The man, in his 20s, lives in another county. On Wednesday, federal agents were in the man's town asking questions about him, an official there said.

Sedgwick County sheriff's investigators plan to present their investigation of the incident to prosecutors this morning, Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said. It will be up to prosecutors whether to charge the man.

The Eagle generally does not name suspects unless they have been charged.

Legal-aid offer

The man is a decorated Army veteran who was severely wounded when an improvised bomb exploded in Afghanistan, sources say.

On Wednesday, another veteran offered to help pay for the man's defense. Gregory Noller, a 57-year-old retired Army sergeant major who lives in Wichita, said he would be willing to give to a legal defense fund for the man.

"I think he has a right to legal counsel, and I don't know that he can afford it," said Noller, whose 21-year-old son is serving in the Army and could be going to war.

"One of the things that has drawn me ... to make this offer," Noller said, is that the man is a decorated veteran.

Westboro account

At protests across the nation, Westboro members claim that soldiers' deaths are God's way of punishing the United States for immorality and tolerance of abortion and homosexuality. The message, often delivered outside soldiers' funerals, has caused outrage.

The church doesn't hire security staff, Phelps-Roper said.

"We have the best security. It is the Lord our God," she said.

On Wednesday, Phelps-Roper gave this account of the incidents Tuesday: She and the other four church members, ages 42 to 54, were riding in a nondescript van on their way from Mulvane High School to Wichita City Hall.

Earlier Tuesday morning, they had held a protest at the school against what she described as immoral behavior by youths.

On the south side of downtown Wichita, a sheriff's detective stopped the church van. Earlier, the detective had observed the Mulvane protest, and on his way back to downtown Wichita he noticed a vehicle following the church van. He stopped and questioned the driver, who said he was with the church group. But when the detective stopped the church members, they told him that the vehicle was not part of their group.

The detective then pulled over the white SUV that seemed to be following the church members. The church group lost sight of the SUV as they drove to City Hall.

During the meeting with Wichita police, the church members learned of the arrest outside in the parking lot.

Later, sheriff's investigators questioned the members separately. They didn't recognize the name of the man arrested.

They learned from investigators that two handguns, a rifle and "a lot" of ammunition was in the man's vehicle, Phelps-Roper said.

"They (investigators) said, 'This is the question we have: What was he going to do? And we're going to try to learn something from him when we talk to him.' "

Contributing: Deb Gruver of The Eagle Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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