WICHITA — The wounded veteran charged with conspiring to harm members of a controversial Topeka church came to the group's protest in Mulvane last week and asked about the police presence there, an official said today.
The man, who since has been identified as Ryan Newell, represented himself as being an ATF agent, said Dave Williams, the Mulvane public safety director.
Newell, a 26-year-old Army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan, is charged in Sedgwick County District Court with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, a felony. Newell also has been charged with five misdemeanors: stalking, three counts of criminal use of weapons and false impersonation. He remains in the Sedgwick County Jail on a $500,000 bond.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker said in a statement today that prosecutors are not opposed to reducing Newell's bond if there are conditions for his release to protect community safety and "the defendant gets the help he needs."
Last Tuesday, Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives arrested Newell. He was backed into a parking place outside Wichita City Hall in his vehicle 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.
A sheriff's detective who was monitoring a protest by Westboro outside Mulvane High School saw Newell follow church members on their trip from Mulvane to downtown Wichita, Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw has said.
Earlier that morning, Newell had approached a Mulvane police officer at an entrance to the high school, about a quarter-mile from the protesters and counter-protesters, said Williams, the Mulvane safety official.
When Newell asked the officer how many officers were there, the officer replied, "They're scattered all over," Williams said.
The officer later realized that the man who approached him was the same man arrested outside Wichita City Hall, Williams said.
Newell told the police officer that he was an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Williams said.
Hinshaw, the sheriff, has said that Newell told a sheriff's detective who stopped Newell after the protest that he was a reserve officer.
Williams said he had nine officers, including himself, monitoring the protest and controlling the crowd, knowing there were hard feelings on both sides. The church had five people there: four protesters and a van driver. Williams estimated there were 200 to 250 counter-protesters, including veterans and gay-rights supporters.
Newell's defense lawyer, Boyd McPherson of Wichita, declined this afternoon to comment on Williams' account of the Mulvane protest.
A number of funds have been set up to pay for Newell's legal defense, McPherson said. Newell has received an outpouring of support from around the Wichita area and across the nation.
Westboro has been widely condemned because it has protested at hundreds of soldiers' funerals. It claims that the deaths are God's way of punishing the nation for immorality.
The church was at the high school protesting what it sees as immorality by youths.
"My position was to keep the peace and hope nobody gets hurt on both sides," said Williams, a retired Wichita police lieutenant.
"I felt uneasy the whole time," he said.
When he saw the number of counter-protesters, he said, "I knew we were going to be in for a very long day" even though the protest lasted only about 30 minutes.
"You're constantly looking over your shoulder," he said.
The church protesters chanted, and some of the counter-protesters yelled and sang, he said.
No one was arrested.
Meanwhile, Westboro has planned more protests in Mulvane, in Marion and Goddard.
Sunday, Westboro members will protest at Marion and Goddard churches; next Tuesday, at Marion and Goddard high schools, the Mulvane Police Department and Mulvane American Legion; and on Dec. 19 at Mulvane churches, Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said this afternoon.