Ryan Newell is "Army to the bone," friends and family say of the decorated military veteran who joined the service at 17, lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan and now stands accused of stalking members of a controversial Topeka church.
Proud of his service and proud of his country, he never blamed anyone for his injuries and felt guilty, his grandmother said, that he survived when two of his brothers in combat did not.
Prosecutors charged Newell, 26, with five misdemeanors Thursday, including stalking and three counts of criminal use of a firearm in an incident involving the Phelps family of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. He also was charged with false impersonation of a law enforcement officer.
The Phelps family often protests at military funerals, saying that the deaths of soldiers are God's way of punishing the country for homosexuality.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"I knew he detested those guys that protested against the GIs that got killed, which I don't blame him there. I do, too.... It was their freedom he was protecting, too," said Newell's grandfather, Jim Crosby, though he noted they had never discussed the Phelps family.
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 that carried Westboro church members.
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.
The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro 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.
"I just can't imagine him wanting to hurt anybody," his grandmother, Bonnie Crosby, 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.
Newell, who appeared in the courtroom through a video connection with the Sedgwick County Jail, was seated in a wheelchair and was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. He was ordered to have no contact with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Phelps family.
Two lawyers appeared in court offering to represent Newell, who grew up in Goddard. He told Judge Ben Burgess that he had also received offers from a number of other lawyers.
Burgess quipped, "The more the merrier, I suppose."
Newell remains in jail on $500,000 bond.
Newell received many medals for his service, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, his grandfather said.
"He was very proud of those."
His grandmother said Newell "felt that being in the Army was the best thing he could have done."
"I can understand, I think partly, what I felt when those people were out there yelling...'' she said of Westboro members. "I don't particularly like them going to funerals. I can understand why he didn't like that. Because he went to go do a job, and he lost his legs doing that job."
Newell lost his legs when an improvised bomb exploded while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2008.
"He wasn't supposed to be the gunner that night," Bonnie Crosby said. "He was supposed to be driving the vehicle. The guy in charge was tired. He let Ryan be the gunner. That saved his life that night. He really didn't like that. It bothered him. It bothers him if anybody over there is killed."
Westboro did not protest at funerals of the soldiers who were killed in the bombing that wounded Newell, said Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper.
Reactions in Marion
News of Newell's arrest hadn't reached many people Wednesday in Marion, where Newell lived.
Marion barber Bill Holdeman was planning to go hunting this weekend with Newell's father-in-law.
"I thought he was going out hunting with us," Holdeman said.
"I didn't know anything about this, but I can see why it would shake him up," Holdeman said of the church's protests at military funerals. "I don't think there's any service guy who likes those... up there in Topeka.
"If he's against them," Holdeman said of Newell, "I'm sure the hell for him."
A customer sitting in Holdeman's barber chair getting a buzz cut said, "Well, good for him," when he learned about what investigators say Newell did. "It's time for someone to take a stand against those people."
A Marion retiree who did not want to be named said that he helped build the Newells a home through the nonprofit group Homes for Our Troops. The home is specially designed to accommodate Newell's disability.
Workers started the house in March and finished at the end of June. Most materials and labor were donated.
The volunteer said he didn't know Newell before the project and "while we were working there, he was fairly quiet. He would come around occasionally."
He said he, too, was surprised about Newell.
"It's kind of disappointing," he said.
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.
Ryan and Carrie Newell met when his mother was in a nursing home, his grandparents said. Carrie worked at the nursing home. They were married over the phone while he was overseas.
Bonnie Crosby described her grandson as "just a good kid, we thought."
He liked sports growing up and played baseball and "liked to swim and the whole bit."
When he decided to go into the military, she said, "We didn't want him to go. His mother didn't want him to go, either. But that's what he wanted to do."
Newell's mother, Beverly, died seven years ago of a malignant brain tumor. Newell was serving in Iraq at the time, Bonnie Crosby said, and was called home when doctors thought his mother had five days to live.
He was able to get home in time, Bonnie Crosby said.
The Crosbys said they talk to Newell about once or twice a month and kept in touch with him by letter and phone when he was overseas. They visited him when he was recovering at a military hospital.
The Crosbys visited Newell and his wife and children at Thanksgiving. Newell and his wife have two children of their own and two other children who live with them.
"I think he looked better that day than I'd seen him in a long time," Bonnie Crosby said.
Newell, she said, has had some problems with his prosthetic legs.
"He's just had a lot of health problems," she said.
Desire to help police
Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell said federal agents came to talk to him Wednesday.
He said he knew Newell pretty well, although it had been a while since he had seen him.
"He's a pretty likable guy," Whitwell said. "Everyone around here likes Ryan."
Whitwell said he went to school with Newell's wife in Marion and got to know Newell before he left for Afghanistan. Newell asked about using the Police Department's firing range for training.
After he was injured and returned home, Newell asked Whitwell about helping out with the Police Department.
"He's very knowledgeable about weapons and has a ton of tactical training," Whitwell said.
Newell never spoke about the Phelps family to him, Whitwell said.
"I hate to see him going through more than he's already going through," Whitwell said.