A Johnson County man is expected to face charges today in Sunday’s slaying of Wichita physician George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions.
Scott P. Roeder, 51, of Merriam, was arrested on Interstate 35 near Gardner nearly four hours after Tiller was shot to death just after 10 a.m. in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. Roeder was a member of an anti-government group in the 1990s and a staunch abortion opponent.
"We took him down without incident," Lt. Mike Pfannenstiel of the Johnson County sheriff’s office said of Roeder.
Tiller, 67, was shot once while serving as an usher at the church, where he was a longtime member. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. Six to 12 people were in the foyer at the time of the shooting, and Tiller’s wife was sitting with the choir downstairs.
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Adam Watkins, 20, said he was seated in the middle of the congregation when he heard a "pop ... We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped."
Two men tried to apprehend the suspect, but the man pointed a gun at them and threatened them before fleeing, authorities said.
The suspect’s car, a 1993 powder blue Ford Taurus that was registered to Roeder, was spotted just south of Gardner by two Johnson County deputies. Authorities suspected that the shooter would be traveling on I-35 on his way to his Merriam home in the 5000 block of Knox Street, and deputies waited for him.
Pfannenstiel said deputies pulled the car over and got out with guns drawn. Roeder then got out of his car with his hands up. He had no weapon on him.
Authorities said they expected Roeder will be charged today in Sedgwick County with murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Federal charges also are possible.
Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said at a news conference Sunday that 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 protest by abortion opponents because his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, performed late-term abortions.
"It’s a terrible loss. I’m just really sad about the whole thing," said a former employee of the clinic who asked not to be identified. "He was a great guy. I understand people were against a lot of what he did, but for those who he helped, they’ll never forget the kind of person he was."
Following the shooting, Tiller’s family issued a statement through his 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."
‘Sympathetic’ to cause
In the rear window of the car that Roeder was driving when police stopped him was a red rose -- a symbol that is often used by abortion opponents. On the rear of his car was a Christian fish symbol with the word "Jesus" inside.
Those who know Roeder told The Kansas City Star that he believed killing abortion doctors was an act of justifiable homicide.
"I know that he believed in justifiable homicide," said Regina Dinwiddie, a Kansas City abortion opponent who made headlines in 1995 when a federal judge ordered her to stop using a bullhorn within 500 feet of any abortion clinic. "I know he very strongly believed that abortion was murder and that you ought to defend the little ones, both born and unborn."
Roeder was a subscriber to Prayer and Action News, a magazine that advocated the justifiable homicide position, said publisher Dave Leach, an abortion opponent from Des Moines, Iowa.
"I met him once, and he wrote to me a few times," Leach said of Roeder. "I remember that he was sympathetic to our cause, but I don’t remember any details."
Leach said he met Roeder in Topeka when he went there to visit Shelley Shannon, who was in prison for the 1993 shooting of Tiller.
"He told me about a lot of conspiracy stuff and showed me how to take the magnetic strip out of a five-dollar bill," Leach said. "He said it was to keep the government from tracking your money."
Roeder, who in the 1990s worked as a manufacturing assemblyman, also was involved in the Freemen movement.
"Freemen" was a term adopted by those who claimed sovereignty from government jurisdiction and operated under their own legal system, which they called common-law courts.
In April 1996, Roeder was arrested in Topeka after Shawnee County sheriff’s deputies stopped him for not having a proper license plate. The deputies said they searched the car and found ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a one-pound can of gunpowder and two 9-volt batteries. One of the batteries was connected to a switch that could have been used to trigger a bomb.
Roeder was found guilty and sentenced in June 1996 to 24 months of probation with intensive supervision. He also was ordered to dissociate himself from anti-government groups that advocated violence.
But in December 1997, Roeder’s probation ended six months early when the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. The court ruled that evidence against Roeder was seized by authorities during an illegal search of his car.
Morris Wilson, a commander of the Kansas Unorganized Citizens Militia in the mid-1990s, said he knew Roeder fairly well.
"I’d say he’s a good ol’ boy, except he was just so fanatic about abortion," said Wilson, who now lives in western Nebraska. "He was always talking about how awful abortion was. But there’s a lot of people who think abortion is awful."
In recent years, someone using the name Scott Roeder had posted anti-Tiller comments on various Internet sites. One post, dated Sept. 3, 2007, and placed on a site sponsored by Operation Rescue called ChargeTiller.com, said that Tiller needed to be "stopped."
"It seems as though what is happening in Kansas could be compared to the ‘lawlessness’ which is spoken of in the Bible," the post read. "Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation."
On May 19, 2007, a person using the name Scott Roeder commented on an invitation by Operation Rescue to join an event being held May 17-20 in Wichita, "the ‘Nation’s Abortion Capital,’ to pray for an end to George R. Tiller’s late-term abortion business and for all pre-born babies everywhere to once again come under the protection of law."
The post said: "(Bless) everyone for attending and praying in May to bring justice to Tiller and the closing of his death camp. Sometime soon, would it be feasible to organize as many people as possible to attend Tillers church (inside, not just outside) to have much more of a presence and possibly ask questions of the Pastor, Deacons, Elders and members while there? Doesn’t seem like it would hurt anything but bring more attention to Tiller."
A history of threats
Tiller and his clinic faced continuous threats and lawsuits. A Wichita jury ruled in March that Tiller was not guilty on 19 criminal charges he faced for allegedly violating a state law that required an independent second physician’s concurring opinion before performing later-term abortions.
Immediately following the ruling in the criminal case, the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts made public a similar complaint against Tiller that originally was filed in December 2008.
Thousands of protesters blockaded Tiller’s clinic during Operation Rescue’s "Summer of Mercy" protests in 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 bombing abortion clinics in the Pacific Northwest.
Tiller’s clinic also was bombed in June 1986, but no one was arrested in connection with that blast.
The clinic was severely vandalized early last month. Wires to security cameras and outdoor lights were cut, and vandals cut through the roof and plugged the building’s downspouts. Rain caused thousands of dollars of damage.
Tiller reportedly had asked the FBI to investigate the incident.
On Sunday, numerous anti-abortion groups condemned Tiller’s killing.
"We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down," said a statement issued by Operation Rescue, which is based in Wichita.
"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."
Abortion-rights groups such as the National Organization for Women said that "women across the country have lost a champion today. The cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller ... is a stark reminder that women’s bodies are still a battleground, and health-care professionals are on the front lines."
The Star's Jim Sullinger, Lynn Horsley and Joe Lambe, and the staff of The Wichita Eagle, contributed to this report.