Suspect in George Tiller’s slaying reportedly belonged to anti-government militia
The 51-year-old man held on suspicion of killing prominent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller belonged to anti-government militia groups, had been convicted of carrying explosives in his car and was outraged by the doctor’s speedy acquittal on abortion-related charges, authorities and antiabortion activists said Monday.
Scott Roeder had attended a demonstration outside a Kansas City, Kan., abortion clinic two weeks ago and spoke of traveling to Wichita for Tiller’s trial, said longtime antiabortion activist Eugene Frye.
Authorities and friends described Roeder as a soft-spoken but intense man who held low-paying jobs and normally spent his time chatting about the illegality of the federal income tax or esoteric interpretations of the Old Testament.
But Frye said he noticed a difference on May 16.
“He said he’d been down to Wichita for George Tiller’s trial, and he said it was an absolute sham,” Frye said. “He seemed agitated -- but agitation for Scott, for a lot of people would be normal.”
An investigation spurred by former Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a strong abortion foe, led to charges that Tiller failed to consult with an independent physician, as required by state law, before performing late-term abortions in his Wichita clinic. Antiabortion activists recall seeing Roeder in the courtroom. On March 27, the jury took less than an hour to find Tiller not guilty.
One of the last doctors in the country to perform late-term abortions, Tiller, 67, was shot to death in the foyer of his Wichita church Sunday.
Three hours later, authorities stopped a 1993 Ford Taurus matching the description of the shooter’s outside Kansas City and arrested Roeder. According to media reports from the scene, there was a lone rose in the rear window, a marker of the antiabortion movement.
He is being held without bail in Wichita by the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. sent U.S. marshals to protect various abortion providers nationwide from copycat attacks. Federal authorities, echoing police, said they thought Tiller’s killer acted alone.
For nearly 20 years, Tiller had been a lightning-rod in the abortion debates for his insistence on performing abortions into the ninth month of pregnancy. He said he was trying to save mothers’ lives or terminate pregnancies that would have led to the birth of deformed children who never could have survived.
Tiller’s clinic sits along a frontage road of a state highway and is normally the site of daily protests. It was closed Monday, and bouquets of flowers lay against its fence, along with a sign from one of the groups that leads demonstrations there, Kansans For Life: “We prayed for his conversion to the prolife viewpoint, not for his murder.”
Most foes of abortion rights have condemned the slaying, but some were heartened. “If anybody needed killing, George Tiller needed killing,” said Kansas City antiabortion activist Regina Dinwiddie. “The gut reaction from everybody who doesn’t have their thoughts filtered by fear is ‘Yahoo!’ ”
Dinwiddie said she met Roeder at pickets outside a Kansas City clinic in the mid-1990s. Roeder walked inside the clinic and asked for the doctor, who came to the front desk. Roeder looked him over and said, “Good, now I’ve seen you,” and walked out, she said.
“I said, ‘Scott, you can get in a lot of trouble for that, you’d better get out of here,’ ” Dinwiddie recalled.
Roeder remained an occasional participant in the weekly pickets. Frye, who has helped organize antiabortion pickets for 25 years, said Roeder never discussed violence.
Others, however, had long feared Roeder could be dangerous. He was stopped by Kansas authorities in 1996 for driving with an illegal license plate that said “Sovereign private property.” The deputies found he had no driver’s license and was carrying explosives in his car. He was convicted of one count of criminal use of explosives.
He was sentenced to 24 months of intensive probation, requiring him to disassociate himself from violent anti-government groups and visit his probation officer daily.
He went to state prison after violating that probation, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. An appellate court voided his initial conviction, ruling police improperly searched his car.
Suzanne James, who was then the director of victim’s services for the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office and tracked militia groups in Kansas, attended some of Roeder’s court hearings.
“I found him to be very intense,” she said. “Some of these guys had that John Brown look in their eyes. You developed an instinct for the ones who could be dangerous based on that intensity.”
Roeder’s ex-wife, Lindsey Roeder, said her husband became obsessed with anti-government theories and abortion in the early ‘90s and that it poisoned their 10-year marriage. The couple had one son and Lindsey Roeder told reporters Monday she insisted on custody because she feared for the child’s safety.
“The anti-tax stuff came first, and then it grew and grew. He became very antiabortion,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s all he cared about is antiabortion. ‘The church is this. God is this. Yadda yadda.’ ”
Roeder became friendly with Shelley Shannon, who shot Tiller in 1993, wounding him in the arms, and is serving a life sentence in a Kansas prison. Another of Shannon’s visitors at the prison was David Leach, who published Prayer and Action News, which advocated using violence to stop abortion doctors.
While in Kansas in the mid-1990s, Leach dropped in on Roeder, a newsletter subscriber.
Leach recalled that Roeder was living with his father and talked about government intrusion into people’s lives.
A decade later, someone using the name Scott Roeder once posted ominous messages to antiabortion websites, suggesting activists target Tiller’s church and comparing him to notorious Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele.
“It seems as though what is happening in Kansas could be compared to the ‘lawlessness’ which is spoken of in the Bible,” read one 2007 posting on chargetiller.com. “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.”
Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization had kept a file on Roeder since 1996 and found links between him and right-wing hate groups in eastern Kansas as recently as 2006.
“I don’t feel like I have a bead on him or truly understand him,” Pitcavage said. “But some people, and perhaps Roeder was one of them, are like mousetraps in that they can go on for some time at a high level of tension, waiting for that final trigger to come and set them off, and then they can snap with a lot of force.”
Roeder’s brother David on Monday released a statement to the Topeka Capital-Journal on behalf of the family:
“We are shocked, horrified and filled with sadness at the death of Dr. Tiller. We know Scott as a kind and loving son, brother and father who suffered from mental illness at various times in his life. However, none of us ever saw Scott as a person capable of or willing to take another person’s life.”
Abortion protester Robert Schilling, who became close with Roeder after meeting him at Kansas City pickets, said his friend held “fringe” beliefs but was no hard-line lunatic.
After his 1996 arrest, Schilling said, Roeder got a driver’s license. Later, he got a Social Security card so he could secure a job at Taco Bell. Roeder lived a marginal existence, working minimum-wage jobs and rooming with other men who subscribed to an anti-government philosophy, Schilling said. The two debated political and religious issues over the years -- Roeder belongs to an obscure Christian sect that celebrates Jewish rituals.
They also discussed whether homicide was justified to stop abortions. Schilling was against it, he said; Roeder believed murder could be justified. Nonetheless, Schilling was stunned by Roeder’s arrest. “I believe he’s at peace with himself,” Schilling said. “I think he’s weighed it out and accepted the consequences.”
Times staff writers Robin Abcarian and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.