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Friday, August 1, 2014

Fellow veterans offer funds, support for comrade jailed in Westboro case

BY DEB GRUVER
The Wichita Eagle

Veterans from across the country are reaching out to support a Marion man charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and other crimes against members of a controversial Topeka church, saying they know what he has gone through since he lost his legs in Afghanistan.

Michael O'Connell, a Vietnam veteran from New Jersey, said he will fly out to Kansas to help Ryan Newell, 26, if necessary.

O'Connell said he was 19 when he went to Vietnam and didn't get help for emotional problems until 40 years later.

"We were shut down for many, many years," O'Connell said Friday.

He emphasized that he understood why Newell would want to act out against Westboro Baptist Church, whose members regularly protest at military funerals, saying soldiers die because of the country's tolerance of homosexuality.

"He's probably struggling, and I understand his anger," O'Connell said. "He's a patriot. He probably needs help. You can't go through that change in your life... without help."

Many veterans called The Eagle late last week wanting to know how to help pay to get Newell out of the Sedgwick County Jail and pay for his lawyers.

Some said they did not condone his actions: Sheriff's officers say they stopped Newell on Tuesday when they noticed him following members of the church on their way back from Mulvane. Investigators say he initially told officers that he was protecting church members; later he said he was a reserve law enforcement officer.

Sheriff's officers say they found his vehicle backed into a spot in the City Hall parking lot while Westboro members were inside discussing safety concerns with Wichita police officials.

The weapons charges accuse Newell of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with "intent to use" an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun. Besides the weapons, Newell also had more than 90 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle, sources said.

Al Shrigley of Maine, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army, plans to "write him a note and tell him that I'll do what I can to help him.

"To me what these people do at the funerals of the fallen soldiers is equal to somebody burning the American flag in my presence. If somebody did that I would gladly, with a big smile from ear to ear, go to jail because I would not allow it to happen."

He called the church's protests at military funerals a "terrible, terrible thing" and said they are dishonoring the very people who helped preserve their right to freedom of speech.

"I don't know the Phelpses from the Schmelpses, but my God, don't you dare do it in front of me," Shrigley said.

Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said she expects Newell to be treated as a hero.

The church issued a news release Thursday that said anyone "who pays a dime for (Newell's) legal matters is a co-conspirator and enemy of God."

Rob Zettle, a professor of psychology at Wichita State University, said it's likely people will see Newell as sympathetic.

Many people who might not ordinarily approve of what Newell is accused of doing may feel differently because of the Phelps family.

"But another piece is who the 'stalker' is," Zettle said. "It's hypothetical, but if you or I were arrested for stalking the Phelpses, people might not have the same reaction to our arrest. This is obviously someone who has paid a dear price for his service in the military. He's certainly a sympathetic character."

Kim Parker, the chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County, said she recognizes "that the public's sympathies may weigh heavy."

But, Parker added, "We decide cases based on the facts and the law. We don't decide cases based on whether we like or dislike the victim or the suspect."

Jerry Jackson, a Wichita veteran, is organizing a fund for Newell and other veterans.

Jackson said he knows Newell through the American Legion Riders. Friends have said that Newell rides a three-wheeled motorcycle, or trike.

"There's a group of us who ride together," he said.

Today they will help collect aluminum cans at American Can Company, 1410 E. 21st St. North, to raise money for Newell. The event will start at 8 a.m. A fund has been set up through Medical Community Credit Union, and donations can be made on Newell's behalf there.

Other groups have started funds for Newell's defense as well.

Jackson said his desire to help doesn't mean he believes what Newell is accused of doing is right.

"I don't condone what he done, but people just do not understand mentally what these vets go through," Jackson said.

Jackson said nobody he has talked to who knew Newell "saw this coming."

"Ryan is not alone in this. These vets need help," Jackson said. "I have met and associated with hundreds and hundreds of Ryan Newells."

Contributing: Tim Potter of The Eagle Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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