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Attorney: Vet pleads guilty to lesser charges in Westboro stalking case

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 23, 2011, at 11:10 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, August 15, 2012, at 9:07 a.m.

When authorities arrested and charged Ryan Newell in Wichita last year, it made national news.

People from coast to coast reacted with sympathy for him. Strangers offered to pay for his legal defense.

Newell was a 26-year-old Army veteran from Marion who had lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan. He was charged with stalking and conspiring to harm members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, a group widely condemned because it protests at soldiers' funerals across the country.

On Thursday, all three parties — the prosecution, the defense and the alleged victims in the Newell case — seemed at peace with the day's news: that Newell had pleaded guilty to lesser, misdemeanor charges and will receive probation.

As word filtered out about the development, Newell's defense attorney, Boyd McPherson, was being contacted by CNN.

And McPherson was getting e-mails — one, for example, from a Kansas father whose son has been deployed overseas, saying, "Thanks for taking care of Sgt. Newell." And another message from a soldier at Fort Bragg, N.C., saying, "Awesome news! I'm glad it was able to turn out the way it did."

In Sedgwick County District Court, Newell pleaded guilty to two counts of false impersonation of an officer — each "non-person" misdemeanors. He is receiving a six-month sentence on each count but is being released on a two-year probation.

"We had been working on a resolution for... six months," McPherson said. "I think both the District Attorney's Office and I wanted to feel comfortable that the case was at a point where it could be disposed of."

Before the plea agreement, Newell had been charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and these misdemeanors: stalking, unlawful use of a weapon and false impersonation.

On Nov. 30, Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives arrested Newell after his vehicle was found backed into a parking place outside Wichita City Hall while five Westboro Baptist Church members met inside with police officials about security concerns at the church's protests. He had a high-powered rifle, two handguns and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources have said.

McPherson said in a telephone interview Thursday that Newell did have firearms in his vehicle but that there wasn't proof he intended to use them unlawfully.

Westboro spokeswoman Margie Phelps said Thursday afternoon: "We appreciate the work the District Attorney's Office did, and we're pleased with the outcome, and we hope Mr. Newell gets the help he needs. ... We're supposed to be merciful."

Phelps was one of the church members who had been meeting with police officials when Newell was arrested. The church members had been protesting in Mulvane earlier that day and believe that Newell followed them from the protest, she said.

The Topeka church has been widely condemned because of its protests at soldiers' funerals across the nation. Westboro contends that soldiers are dying because God is punishing the nation for its immorality.

Kim Parker, chief deputy district attorney, said of the outcome in Newell's case: "Our goals are, as usual, to protect the community, to ensure that we have some sort of rehabilitative effort ... to make sure we don't have this type of activity going on again.

"And in working with the defendant and his attorney on this matter, Mr. Newell has been able to access a number of programs that otherwise were not available to him."

Newell had been released from jail with the stipulation that he report to the VA Hospital for treatment, authorities have said.

Newell came to court Thursday morning in a wheelchair and wearing a T-shirt with an Army insignia, McPherson said.

His client was in "very good spirits," McPherson said.

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

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