Colleagues say Tiller knew something was coming

George Tiller's casket arrives Saturday June 6 2009 at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita for his funeral service.
George Tiller's casket arrives Saturday June 6 2009 at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita for his funeral service. Fernando Salazar / Wichita Eagle

Two weeks before Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in his church, he called colleague Susan Hill in North Carolina.

Tiller wanted her to send pictures of activists who'd recently been threatening Hill and her staff. He said he was seeing new anti-abortion protesters outside his clinic and wondered if they were traveling around.

"I said, 'I don't know, George. I think there's something coming.'," recalled Hill, who operates clinics in four states. "He said, 'I do, too.'

“We knew it. You smell it. Strange things were happening in our Mississippi clinic and in North Carolina. Strange people were coming around. And he admitted that for the first time, he really believed that something was going to go down.”

In the days since Tiller's death, abortion rights activists across the country say they sensed an uptick in incidents and threats before the shooting. That included more people at protests, more clinic vandalism and more protesters singling out certain clinic employees or physicians with threats.

Police and prosecutors are still trying to piece together everything that happened in Tiller's death. On Friday, the Justice Department launched an investigation into whether any federal laws had been violated.

The probe will include a thorough review of the Tiller case and seek to determine whether anyone else was involved.

Last year, the Feminist Majority Foundation surveyed clinics across the country and found one in five had experienced blockades, stalking or other incidents of intimidation in 2008. That was a slight increase from 2005.

Now abortion rights activists worry about further incidents, especially with a president in the White House who supports abortion rights.

That's when extremists can feel desperate, activists say.

"I think when they're out of power, they feel much more threatened," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “I hope we don’t see history repeated.”

In the early 1990s, during Bill Clinton's presidency, violence escalated at clinics across the country. It subsided when George W. Bush was elected.

On Sunday, Tiller was passing out church bulletins when a gunman shot him once. Nearly four hours later, Scott P. Roeder — a man suspected of vandalizing a Kansas City, Kan., clinic the day before — was arrested in Johnson County, outside Kansas City.

Numerous anti-abortion groups, including Operation Rescue, have condemned Tiller's killing, saying they want to work through peaceful and legal means to bring change and justice.

When people gather to remember Tiller today in a Wichita church, U.S. marshals and Wichita police will have extra forces in place. Authorities won’t discuss details.

The federal investigation launched Friday is expected to focus on potential violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE.

The law, enacted 15 years ago, established criminal penalties and civil remedies for violence, damaging conduct or obstruction that affects clinics, providers or patients.

The Clinton administration brought 36 prosecutions under the law between 1994 and 2000.

Under Bush, there were half as many prosecutions, according to statistics provided by the Department of Justice.

Despite the law, some physicians say they still don’t get the protection they need.

Warren Hern, director of the Boulder (Colo.) Abortion Clinic and one of the handful of U.S. doctors who performs late-term abortions, said he and his clinic are constantly harassed.

"I’m practicing medicine. I'm doing something legal," Hern said. "Why should I have to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, to keep from getting shot and to protect my patients? This is madness."

Whether the heightened security measures will continue in the future is unclear.

“There has to be a way to stop this,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “This is way beyond freedom of speech. It’s a campaign of terror.”

She added: “If you’re going to win by a bullet, fear, intimidation and terror, you no longer have democracy.”

Roeder wasn't considered a main player in the anti-abortion movement in the Kansas City area.

Activists have known of him for years. He would show up at clinics, typically chatting with regular protesters but not carrying signs of his own.

“Scott was really just an individual we didn’t take serious,” said Eugene Frye, an anti-abortion activist in the Kansas City area for the past three decades. “He wasn’t someone who was drawing attention.”

They considered him, they said, to be on the fringe of the movement.

Roeder, who most recently lived in an apartment in Kansas City's Westport district, now sits in a Wichita jail cell on charges of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. He wasn't charged with capital murder — which can carry the death penalty — because Tiller’s death didn’t include any of the seven criteria needed by law.

Those include killing a kidnap victim held for ransom, killing a police officer or prison employee, killing more than one person or being part of a murder for hire.

From jail Thursday, Roeder told The Associated Press that he “was being treated as a criminal” and hadn't been convicted of anything.

Those who know him say Roeder believes the killing of an abortion provider is a justifiable homicide.

“In this situation, Scott viewed Tiller as the violent person,” Frye said. “Scott didn’t see himself as that. He saw this man as perpetrating murder on these innocent babies. … Scott had that conviction.”

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