Wounded vet charged with five misdemeanors in Westboro incident

WICHITA — Prosecutors today charged a decorated, double-amputee veteran with stalking and three counts of criminal use of weapons in an incident involving members of a controversial Topeka church.

Ryan J. Newell, 26, an Army veteran living in Marion, made his first appearance in Sedgwick County District Court through a video connection with the Sedgwick County Jail.

He also was charged with false impersonation of a law enforcement officer.

All the charges are misdemeanors.

His bond remains at $500,000.

The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro Baptist Church members and putting them in fear for their safety.

The weapons charges accuse him of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with "intent to use" an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun.

Two lawyers appeared in court at today's first appearance offering to represent Newell. He told Judge Ben Burgess that he had received offers from a number of attorneys wanting to represent him.

Burgess quipped, "The more the merrier, I suppose."

Newell, who appeared in a wheelchair and was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, was ordered to have no contact with members of the church.

Newell's maternal grandmother saw him on Thanksgiving and said, "I think he looked better that day than I'd seen him in a long time."

She said he had never talked to her about the Phelps family but she knew he didn't like their protests at military funerals.

"He was for the United States, and he would give his life for it," she said.

The grandmother said she and her husband talked to Newell once or twice a month in recent months and wrote to him while he was serving abroad. They visited him in the hospital after he was injured in Afghanistan.

Newell had been having some health problems, she said, but his spirits were good at times.

"I just can't imagine him wanting to hurt anybody," she said, adding she learned about her grandson's arrest from his brother.

Many residents in Marion had not heard about Newell's arrest Wednesday. Neither had the local newspaper.

Newell's wife, Carrie, appeared tired and worn when she answered the door at their home Wednesday. She declined to talk to a reporter, as did her father.

Marion residents put on a parade for Newell when he returned home from Afghanistan and pitched in to help build his family a new home through the nonprofit group Homes for Our Troops.

A big sign in the Newells' yard designates his home as one built through the organization. The home was designed to accommodate his injuries.

Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives arrested Newell mid-morning Tuesday in the Wichita City Hall parking lot after a detective saw him following a van with members of Westboro Baptist Church, Sheriff Robert Hinshaw has said.

The church members were meeting in City Hall with police officials. Detectives found Newell in a vehicle backed into a parking space. In the vehicle, investigators found two handguns, a rifle and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources have said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went to Newell's home, and his wife turned over items including firearms to law enforcement, said a source close to the investigation.

The Topeka church has drawn wide condemnation because its members protest at soldiers' funerals nationwide. The members claim that war deaths are God's punishment for immorality.

Newell lost his legs after an improvised bomb exploded while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2008. Some of his fellow soldiers died in the attack.

The church did not protest at funerals of the soldiers who were killed in the bombing that wounded Newell, said Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper.

Newell has received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, a relative said.

Marsha Hephner, 69, of Arkansas City, said she thinks Newell will receive widespread sympathy.

"I think it doesn't even matter what side of the political spectrum you are on," Hephner said. "What these (Westboro) people are doing is wrong. I'm a liberal liberal, and I do believe in freedom of speech, but what these people are doing, they offend the words 'freedom of speech.' "