51-year-old man arrested in murder of George Tiller outside his church

Man expected to face murder, aggravated assault charges

The body of a shooting victim is removed from the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan., Sunday, May 31, 2009. Media outlets have identified the victim as George Tiller, the controversial abortion provider who has long been the subject of protests.

In 2008, Wichita physician George Tiller makes notes while listening to the testimony of former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline in Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita. Tiller was accused of violating a 1998 state law requiring that a second, independent Kansas physician sign off on most late-term abortions. Tiller’s attorneys subpoenaed Kline, saying he was overzealous in his investigation of Tiller. Tiller was shot to death in May 2009.

Late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, a prominent advocate for abortion rights wounded by a protester more than a decade ago, was shot and killed Sunday at his church in Wichita.

Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said Tiller, 67, was serving as an usher during morning services when he was shot in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church. Stolz said the gunman fired one shot at Tiller and threatened two other people who tried to stop him.

A 51-year-old suspect was arrested in suburban Kansas City three hours after the shooting, Stolz said. Police had been looking for a gunman who fled in a 1993 light blue Ford Taurus registered in the Kansas City suburb of Merriam, Kan.

Although Stolz refused to release the man’s name, Johnson County sheriff’s spokesman Tom Erickson identified the detained man as Scott Roeder. He has not been charged in the slaying. Sunday night, he was taken from the Johnson County jail where he had been held for six hours. He was expected to be taken to Wichita for questioning.

Court records and Internet postings show that a man named Scott Roeder has a criminal record and a background of anti-abortion postings on sympathetic Web sites.

The women’s clinic run by Tiller is one of three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, when the fetus is considered viable, and has repeatedly been the site of protests for about two decades. A protester shot Tiller in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985.

Stolz said the suspect likely would face one murder charge and two counts of aggravated assault. Charges probably will not be filed until Monday, he said.

Stolz said all indications were that the man acted alone, although authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.

Stolz said that Tiller apparently did not have a bodyguard with him in church, although the doctor was routinely accompanied by one. An attorney for Tiller, Dan Monnat, said the doctor’s wife, Jeanne, was in the choir at the time of the shooting.

Monnat said that Tiller recently had asked federal prosecutors to step up investigations of vandalism and other threats against the clinic out of fear that the incidents were increasing and that Tiller’s safety was in jeopardy. However, Stolz said authorities knew of no threats connected to the shooting.

Adam Watkins, a 20-year-old who said he has attended the church his entire life, said he was sitting in the middle of the congregation when he heard a small pop at the start of the service.

“We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped,” Watkins said.

Another usher came in and told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Tiller’s wife out.

“When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened,” Watkins said.

He said the service continued even after an associate pastor announced that Tiller had been injured.

“We were just really shocked,” he said. “We were kind of dumbfounded. We couldn’t really believe it had happened.”

He and other church members said anti-abortion protesters have shown up outside the church on Sundays regularly.

“They’ve been out here for quite a few years. We’ve just become accustomed to it. Just like an everyday thing, you just looked over and see them and say, ‘Yup they’re back again.'”

He added: “We had no idea that someone would come into our church and do such a bad thing like that — inside of a church.”

Tiller’s attorneys issued a statement on behalf of his wife, four children and 10 grandchildren.

“Today’s event is an unspeakable tragedy for all of us and for George’s friends and patients. This is particularly heart-wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace,” the statement said.

“Our loss is also a loss for the city of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality heath care despite frequent threats and violence.”

Reformation Lutheran Church held a special service Sunday evening. Dr. Michael Bates, who has known Tiller for more than 25 years, attended and described it as a simple service featuring Bible readings. Reporters were kept out of the service.

As for the Tiller family, Bates said, “They’re pretty withdrawn of course, still in shock.”

At a vigil in downtown Wichita, about 10 people from Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church held signs emblazoned with such messages as “Abortion is bloody murder” and “Baby killer in hell.” The church is known for picketing military funerals.

The protesters and about 20 Tiller supporters shouted at each other. A large number of police officers stood by to make sure the scene stayed under control.

The vigil was attended by about 200 people.

Earlier, Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri had said it was working with law enforcement to secure its facilities Sunday even after the suspect was in custody.

Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue issued a statement denouncing the shooting.

“We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down,” said Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president. “Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning.”

But Randall Terry, a veteran anti-abortion activist who founded Operation Rescue and whose protests have often targeted Tiller, called the slain doctor “a mass murderer,” adding: “He was an evil man — his hands were covered with blood.”

Nancy Keenan, president of abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, praised Tiller’s commitment to providing abortion services.

“Dr. Tiller’s murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centers that serve women across this country. We want them to know that they have our support as they move forward in providing these essential services in the aftermath of the shocking news from Wichita,” Keenan said.

President Barack Obama also expressed outrage over the killing.

“However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence,” Obama said.

Tiller remained prominent in the news in recent years, in part because of an investigation started by former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, an abortion opponent.

“I am stunned by this lawless and violent act, which must be condemned and should be met with the full force of law,” Kline said in a written statement. “We join in lifting prayer that God’s grace and presence rest with Dr. Tiller’s family and friends.”

Prosecutors had alleged that Tiller had gotten second opinions from a doctor who was essentially an employee of his, not independent as state law requires. A jury in March acquitted Tiller of all 19 misdemeanor counts.

Abortion opponents also questioned then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ ties to Tiller before the Senate confirmed her this year as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary. Tiller donated thousands of dollars to Sebelius over the years.

As one of the few doctors in the nation to perform late-term abortions, Tiller had been a high-profile target of abortion opponents for decades. His clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was bombed in 1985, and Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 by abortion protester Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon of Grants Pass, Ore.

In 1991, the Summer of Mercy protests organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion activists to this city for demonstrations marked by civil disobedience and mass arrests. After those protests, Tiller kept mostly to his heavily guarded clinic, although in 1997 he opened it to three tours by state lawmakers and the media.

The clinic is fortified with bulletproof glass, and Tiller hired a private security team to protect the facility.

At his recent trial, he told jurors that he and his family have suffered years of harassment and threats and that he knew he was a target of anti-abortion protesters.

Federal marshals protected Tiller during the 1991 Summer of Mercy protests, and he was protected again between 1994 and 1998 after another abortion provider was assassinated and federal authorities reported finding Tiller’s name on an assassination list.

Someone named Scott Roeder, then 38, was charged in Topeka, Kan., in 1996 with criminal use of explosives for having bomb components in his car trunk and sentenced to 24 months of probation. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal the next year after a higher court said evidence against Roeder was seized by law enforcement officers during an illegal search of his car.

At the time, police said the FBI had identified Roeder as a member of the anti-government Freemen group, an organization that kept the FBI at bay in Jordan, Mont., for almost three months in 1995-96.

Someone posting to the Web site of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in May 2007 used the name “Scott Roeder” in response to a scheduled vigil to “pray for an end to George R. Tiller’s late-term abortion business.”

“Bleass everyone for attending and praying in May to bring justice to Tiller and the closing of his death camp,” the posting read. “Sometime soon, would it be feasible to organize as many people as possible to attend Tillers church (inside, not just outside) to have much more of a presence and possibly ask questions of the Pastor, Deacons, Elders and members while there? Doesn’t seem like it would hurt anything but bring more attention to Tiller.”

A vigil in memory of Tiller is planned for 8 p.m. in Lawrence’s South Park.

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