06.01.09

A Murder in Wichita

When abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in church on Sunday, it was a murder 10 years in the making.

Stunned Wichita residents filled a downtown square with candlelight Sunday night after a doctor who specialized in late-term abortions was gunned down at his church. Dr. George Tiller, 67, was shot and killed in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church as its Sunday morning service was getting under way. Scott Roeder, a 51-year-old resident of the Kansas City area, was arrested three hours later based on descriptions of the shooter and his car given to police.

Tiller's slaying quickly inflamed the national debate over abortion. But in Wichita, the killing also forced residents to consider whether their tolerance of decades of strident opposition to Tiller somehow contributed to his death.

“This has been building for years,” said a local resident, pointing out that the doctor’s nickname was ‘Tiller the Killer.’

"No one should be surprised," said Vicki Stangl, a part-time college instructor and abortion-rights supporter. "This has been building for years." The doctor’s nickname, she pointed out, was ‘Tiller the Killer,’ and said, "For so long in this community, from city leaders to church leaders to pro-life groups, they have just demonized him."

Kris Wilshusen, a former chairwoman of Planned Parenthood in Kansas, said the city has "black and white" views on abortion that discourage healthy debate. "There's a different culture in Wichita that doesn't exist in other cities, and it's not good," Wilshusen said.

But other abortion-rights supporters said any blame beyond the assailant's rests with radical elements of antiabortion forces, not with this south-central Kansas city. "I don't think it's indicative of the city," said Marla Patrick, the state coordinator for Kansas NOW, who lives in nearby Lindsborg. "It's more the attitude that was fostered by some of the antiabortion movement, things that really dehumanized" Tiller.

Several antiabortion groups issued statements condemning Tiller's slaying. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer led off the news conference about Roeder’s arrest was announced by saying he and fellow city council members had Dr. Tiller and his family in their prayers.

"The incident does not reflect the values of this caring and compassionate community," Brewer said. He did not take questions.

Tiller, whose clinic is one of three in the United States that performs abortions in the last trimester, had been the target of sometimes-violent protests for decades. In 1986, someone exploded a bomb on the roof of his clinic, a crime that was never solved. In 1991, some 2,000 abortion protesters were arrested outside his clinic during the so-called Summer of Mercy. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms outside his clinic. The assailant in that case received an 11-year prison sentence.

In March of this year, a jury here took just 45 minutes to acquit Tiller of charges that he performed 19 illegal abortions. Tiller's attorney said the charges against his client were politically motivated. In May, Tiller's clinic was vandalized. No one has been charged in the case.

Tiller lived in a gated community on Wichita’s affluent East Side, where he was active in his church and one of its key financial supporters. He was in the foyer serving as an usher when he was shot, while his wife, a member of the choir, was inside the sanctuary. Two men who tried to apprehend the shooter were threatened by the gun as well. Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz released the information that Tiller died of a single gunshot wound, but he did not say where Tiller was shot. He was widely known to wear a bulletproof vest under his clothing.

Within minutes of the shooting, police distributed a photograph of the suspect to law-enforcement officers without explaining how they obtained the photo; the church did not have a surveillance camera.  Stolz said that police believe the suspect acted alone but they will be investigating "any affiliation this gentleman had."

About 500 people packed the square for Tiller's vigil, listening to speakers, holding hands, singing and lighting candles as darkness fell. Friends and supporters said they had feared for his safety for years. But Tiller would often bring coffee and donuts to volunteers who escorted patients past protesters or staged counterdemonstrations of their own. "His family paid the price," said Willow Eby, one of those volunteers. "But they supported him."

A dozen counterprotesters set up across the street, shouting that Tiller deserved to die. "He was not afraid," Eby said of Tiller. "We will not be afraid."

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Max Blumenthal interviews Operation Rescue's Randall Terry.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg: Is Tiller's Murder the Start of Right-Wing Revenge?

Joe Stumpe has worked for newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas for the past 26 years. He lives in Wichita.