Recalling last talk with Tiller, friend says he'd seen shooter before

Wichita EagleJune 7, 2009 

Ken Hobart was one of the last people to speak with George Tiller.

They talked about Walt Disney World.

The two men were serving as ushers Sunday at Reformation Lutheran Church in east Wichita, and Tiller had recently returned from taking his grandchildren to the theme park in Orlando, Fla., Hobart said.

Tiller told him that he had forgotten how much fun it was to go there.

Hobart asked Tiller whether the family had gotten caught in recent heavy rains in Florida.

Tiller said, "No, it rained a couple of times, but it wasn't a big deal," Hobart said.

Typical Sunday morning small talk, soon forgotten under ordinary circumstances. Now, probably etched in memory.

Minutes after their conversation, Tiller, a well-known abortion provider, was shot to death in the church's lobby just outside the sanctuary.

Hobart, who is married to an Eagle newsroom employee, didn't see the fatal shot fired. He had stepped inside the sanctuary to check with his daughter, who was scheduled to do a reading in the service.

But Hobart did hear the shot.

"It sounded like a loud clap," Hobart said. "I looked at the choir. I thought maybe they were using a clap board."

When he realized the sound wasn't a musical effect, Hobart went back out into the lobby and stepped into a scene of barely controlled chaos. Some people were rushing to lock exterior doors. A woman stood nearby with a phone to her ear talking to 911 and urging them to hurry.

"I looked down to my left and saw someone lying on the floor," Hobart said.

His first thought was that it was a protester. Because Tiller was a member, the church had been a frequent target of anti-abortion protesters and "they've done things to try to shock us before."

Then, he realized it was no staged protest and that it was Tiller lying on the floor.

"I'm just in shock," he said. "My God, I've never seen anything like that."

Hobart said he rushed back inside the sanctuary to tell his daughter to stay put because he didn't want her coming out and seeing the scene.

He said he was passed by Tiller's wife, Jeanne, who "was calling for her husband."

When Hobart returned to the lobby, he saw the church pastor, the Rev. Lowell Michelson, "trying to comfort Mrs. Tiller."

Shortly after that, police arrived and started clearing the crime scene, sending the people who were in the lobby outside, Hobart said.

"People were huddled, crying," he said.

By then, "It seemed very obvious at that time that he had probably passed away," Hobart said.

A group of adults quickly gathered children together in a grassy area outside the church, telling them stories and playing games with them to distract their attention from the police activity, he said.

Scott P. Roeder, 51, has been charged with first-degree murder in Tiller's death.

Hobart said he didn't recall seeing Roeder as he greeted congregants that morning.

"I'm pretty sure I've seen him before," Hobart said. "I might have handed him a bulletin, who knows?"

Hobart's fellow usher, Gary Hoepner, witnessed the shooting. Earlier this week, he told the Associated Press and KAKE-TV that he had seen Roeder in the church before and that Roeder had left odd notes in the collection plate, including one reading, "Do you believe in taxes?"

Roeder had been affiliated with the Freemen movement, whose ideology holds that the federal government, its taxes and its currency are illegitimate. He also was a well-known anti-abortion protester in the Kansas City area.

Hoepner said a detective has asked him to refrain from talking about the shooting itself and avoid making further comments about Roeder's conduct in the church leading up to Sunday.

But he did say that the shooting and its aftermath have left him emotionally shocked and exhausted.

"I took off (work) this week and I don't know if I'll be back next week," he said. "It's just worn me out."

Hoepner said he was surprised to see a news report in which anti-abortion leaders confirmed that they had seen Roeder at least once and possibly more at a recent Sedgwick County District Court trial involving Tiller.

Tiller was acquitted on charges that he had failed to obtain a second signature from an independent physician before performing late-term abortions. Roeder told a fellow abortion opponent that he thought that verdict was "a sham."

"When I heard that he (Roeder) had been at the trial, I thought maybe he's been around for a while," Hoepner said.

He said it was likely that the other congregants had welcomed Roeder.

He said church members -- having felt the sting of protest directed at them -- had a gift for being inviting to others who might not have felt welcome in other congregations.

"We've got a very friendly church," Hoepner said. "I don't know if Roeder was greeted (by others). More than likely, he was."

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