Police begining probe of abortion doctor's murder

Wichita EagleMay 31, 2009 

WICHITA — The angry reaction from both sides of the abortion debate that exploded onto the Internet in the aftermath of the murder Sunday of one of the few doctors in the United States willing to perform late-term abortions has drawn the attention of police who are trying to understand if George Tiller's killer acted alone.

Tom Stolz, the deputy chief of the Wichita police department, said investigators will look into the Internet comments because the discussion could bear on public safety. He didn't elaborate further.

Statements from both supporters and opponents to abortion were highly charged.

"George Tiller was a mass-murderer," Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said in a statement. "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God."

National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy said: "The cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller this morning in church is a stark reminder that women's bodies are still a battleground, and health care professionals are on the frontlines."

President Obama expressed anger at the shooting. "I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."

Police identified the 51-year-old man arrested in the shooting as Scott P. Roeder of suburban Kansas City. Stolz said police will "investigate this suspect to the Nth degree, his history, his family, his associates, and we're just in the beginning stages of that."

Tiller had long been a focal point of protests by abortion opponents because his clinic, Women's Health Care Services, 5107 E. Kellogg, is one of three in the country where late-term abortions are performed.

He was shot and wounded in both arms at his clinic in 1993.

Tiller, 67, was shot once just after 10 a.m. as he stood in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church, 7601 E. 13th, where he was a member of the congregation.

Wichita police said that the suspect was arrested without incident on I-35 in Johnson County in suburban Kansas City about three hours after the shooting following a statewide broadcast description of the suspect and the car he was driving.

Wichita police said it appeared the suspect acted alone and that they are investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.

Police said they expect the man to face a charge of murder and two counts of aggravated battery. Charges may be filed as eearly as Monday.

In a news conference at Wichita City Hall, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said police will "investigate this suspect to the Nth degree, his history, his family, his associates, and we're just in the beginning stages of that."

Tiller had long been a focal point of protests by abortion opponents because his clinic, Women's Health Care Services, 5107 E. Kellogg, is one of three in the country where late-term abortions are performed.

He was shot and wounded in both arms at his clinic in 1993.

According to police and other sources, here is what happened:

For the 10 a.m. service, Tiller was serving as an usher at the church, one of six ushers listed in the church bulletin. He was handing out bulletins to people going into the sanctuary minutes before being shot.

At 10:03, Tiller was one of about six to 12 people in the foyer, outside the sanctuary. His wife was at the church.

A man armed with a handgun shot Tiller once, according to the preliminary investigation.

Three to four people saw the shooting.

Two men confronted the suspect and exchanged words with him, but police would not say what.

"They were both threatened, and the gun was pointed at them," Stolz said.

That is why the suspect could face the aggravated assault charges, Stolz said.

Within minutes, paramedics arrived and pronounced Tiller dead at the scene.

Officers arrived and immediately started interviewing witnesses.

Police obtained the suspect's description, the vehicle license tag, and vehicle description -- a powder blue 1993 Ford Taurus -- and broadcast it and the tag number to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The car was registered to Scott Roeder of Merriam in Johnson County.

Police also obtained a photo of the suspect, who has a criminal record. Officers began checking motels and other places for the suspect.

Before the shooting, the church was "packed," said Shirley King, one of the congregants. New members were joining. A baptism was on the agenda.

When King heard a "pop" sound, she thought it was special effects from the percussionist. Some people glanced toward the rear of the church, curious.

Tiller's wife, Jeanne, was sitting with the choir downstairs, King said. An usher came, and motioned for Jeanne Tiller to come with him.

"The rest of us were listening to the prelude, but then came the piercing screams of a woman who obviously had witnessed a horrible sight," King wrote in an e-mail.

"A few people immediately jumped up, but quickly one of our church leaders said, 'Everyone please be seated. Please remain calm. We have had an incident and we are taking care of it. Remain in your seat.' "

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 the "pop."

"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.

Once they learned of the shooting, Watkins said:

"We were just really shocked. We were kind of dumbfounded. We couldn't really believe it had happened."

The suspect's car was spotted shortly before 2 p.m. just south of Gardner by two Johnson County Sheriff's deputies -- Andy Lento and Tyson Kilbey. The sheriff's office had suspected that the man would be coming back to his home on I-35 and Kilbey and Lento waited for him.

As the car went north, Lento and Kilbey followed and were quickly joined by three other sheriff's patrol cars.

Lt. Mike Pfannenstiel of the sheriff's office said officers pulled the car over just south of the main Gardner exit and got out with guns drawn. The man then got out of his car with his hands up.

"We took him down without incident," Pfannenstiel said, adding that the man appeared to be driving the speed limit and made no attempt to elude the deputies.

At the 4 p.m. news conference, Stolz said authorities were bringing the suspect to Wichita.

He said that police expect to present the case to the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office on Monday.

At 7 p.m., a vigil service was held at Reformation.

Tiller's family issued a statement through Wichita lawyers Dan Monnat and Lee Thompson:

"Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather. 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."

Mickey Cohlmia, a member of the neighboring St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, said: "It is absolutely disheartening....I think it shows where our world is today.... There is no safe place."

The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, in a statement on its Web site, said:

"We are shocked at (Sunday) morning's disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down. 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. We pray for Mr. Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ."

Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who conducted an investigation into Tiller, said in a statement he was "stunned by this lawless and violent act which must be condemned and should be met with the full force of law. We join in lifting prayer that God's grace and presence rest with Dr. Tiller's family and friends."

Tiller and his clinic have faced continuous threats and lawsuits.

A Wichita jury ruled in March that he was not guilty of illegal abortion on 19 criminal charges he faced for allegedly violating a state law requiring an "independent" second physician's concurring opinion before performing later term abortions. Immediately following the ruling in this criminal case, the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts made public a similar complaint against Tiller that was originally filed in December 2008.

Protesters blockaded Tiller's clinic during Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" protests during the summer of 1991, and Tiller was shot by Rachelle Shannon at his clinic in 1993. Tiller was wounded in both arms, and Shannon remains in prison for the shooting.

The clinic was bombed in June 1986, and was severely vandalized in May. His lawyer said wires to security cameras and outdoor lights were cut and that the vandals also cut through the roof and plugged the buildings' downspouts. Rain poured through the roof and caused thousands of dollars of damage in the clinic. Tiller reportedly asked the FBI to investigate the incident.

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