Special Reports

Anti-abortion group leaders recall contact with suspect

Scott Roeder, the man accused of murdering George Tiller, attended portions of Tiller's recent trial in Sedgwick County District Court, according to leaders of an anti-abortion group.

Cheryl Sullenger and Troy Newman of Operation Rescue said Tuesday that Roeder contacted their organization to obtain dates and times of court proceedings in the March trial, in which Tiller was accused of failing to obtain a second opinion for late-term abortions from an independent physician. Tiller was ultimately acquitted on all charges.

Sullenger and Newman said they saw Roeder in the courtroom at least once that they remember clearly, and he may have been in the courtroom on other occasions as well.

Sullenger said she thinks that's why her name and phone number were found scrawled on what appears to be an envelope in Roeder's car. Roeder was arrested by Johnson County deputies about three hours after Tiller was shot to death in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in east Wichita on Sunday morning.

The handwritten note was photographed on the dashboard of Roeder's car and has been widely circulated on the Internet.

Sullenger's name and number on the note has stirred controversy because she served about two years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in 1988. She has since renounced violent action and advocated for opposing abortion within legal bounds.

As an organization, Operation Rescue has strongly denounced the Tiller shooting.

Operation Rescue had invited the public to watch Tiller's trial and participate in group prayers at the beginning of each court day, Sullenger and Newman said. Sullenger said she was the main person fielding calls.

"I was constantly the 411 for this," Sullenger said. "The guy called me on the phone to find out what the court times were.... He's called me a number of times."

After Tiller was acquitted, Roeder told a fellow activist that the whole process was a "sham."

"He seemed to be passionate about that," said Eugene Frye, a Kansas City area anti-abortion activist for the past three decades. "He felt justice had not been served."

On Tuesday, Sullenger said she tried to avoid direct contact with Roeder and often didn't answer his calls because "the guy frankly made me uncomfortable."

Newman and Sullenger said they had seen Roeder around anti-abortion events but they didn't know him well.

Newman said Roeder was not a member of Operation Rescue, had not donated any money to it, had not worked as a volunteer and was not active at events.

"He's just one of those guys who hang out on the fringes of a movement," Newman said. "It's like, 'Oh, there's that guy, what's his name again?' "

'The Prom Queen'

Newman's description of Roeder tracks closely with a description from one of Newman's adversaries, onetime abortion-rights demonstrator Doug Ittner.

Ittner said he was a member of a "clinic defense" group of young people who used to counterdemonstrate against abortion protesters who frequently gathered outside Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, on East Kellogg.

Ittner said he recognized Roeder on Tuesday, following Roeder's first appearance in court and the release of the first clear photos of him since the shooting.

He said when he saw Roeder at the clinic in 2002, Roeder would stand apart from the organized groups demonstrating against the clinic, carrying a cross and a bundle of red roses. The anti-abortion movement uses the red rose as a symbol, and Roeder had one in the back window of his blue Ford Taurus when he was stopped by police after the Tiller shooting.

"We called Roeder the prom queen because he just stood out there with those roses," Ittner said.

The group tried to engage him in conversation, but "he wasn't very talkative," Ittner recalled.

"Either he wouldn't say anything, or he'd just start shouting profanity," Ittner said.

Strange phone calls

Mark Gietzen, head of the anti-abortion group Kansas Coalition for Life, said he had some brief phone contact with Roeder but did not know him by sight.

"He certainly wasn't part of our group," Gietzen said.

The coalition organized 1,846 consecutive days of protest outside Tiller's clinic, but has suspended demonstrating since Tiller's death because the clinic is closed, he said.

Gietzen said his only contacts with Roeder were three phone conversations in August when Roeder called and demanded an address for one of the coalition's members.

Gietzen said the address he had was outdated and Roeder was upset when he wouldn't find him a current address.

On the third call, Gietzen took the man's name and added him to the group's e-mail list, he said. But Gietzen said he never followed up to get the address or to try to get Roeder to become active in the coalition.

"I didn't like the way he acted," Gietzen said.