Guest writer Carolyn Marie Fugit is a native Kansan involved in social justice for over a decade. In addition to volunteering for ProKanDo, she has worked extensively in LGBT rights advocacy. Since Dr. Tiller’s assassination, there has been renewed interest in Kansas for pro-choice advocacy, and she is working to organize that energy to defend women’s rights. She regularly blogs for The MAD Voter.
Scott Roeder may not have been acting as a dues-paying member of any incorporated anti-abortion organization, but he was not acting as a “lone wolf” when he put a gun against George Tiller’s head and pulled the trigger.
On July 28th, I attended the preliminary hearing for Roeder, accused of assassinating Dr. George R. Tiller. I was joined not by Dr. Tiller’s family (they had told the media they had “confidence in the courts”), not by his friends or co-workers, and not by leaders of the local anti-abortion organizations. Instead, I sat with six others, some from Wichita, all familiar with the big names. They casually talked about Troy and Mark, how they had read Paul’s book, and how long they had known Scott. And while one of them recognized me as having laid a flower at Women’s Health Care Services the day of Dr. Tiller’s funeral and another knew I wrote for a progressive blog, they still spoke right by me about justifiable homicide.
They read the New York Times’ article “An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death,” passing it back and forth during the hearing. One read a Bible at times. Another read an anti-abortion book, stopping at one point to ask me the definition of “utilitarian.” She asked me if I had any “little ones,” as she was expecting her tenth. I told her that I did not, but was looking forward to fostering. She did that, too, but unofficially. The day of Dr. Tiller’s funeral, she had a sign at his clinic that said, among other things, “Murderer not Martyr” and “60,000 babies dead.” “I’m nice to everyone!” she told me.
As the hearing commenced, I hardly recognized Roeder. He was clean cut, his hair trimmed and combed. He was growing a moustache. He wore a grey suit and red tie, hands unbound with shackles around his ankles, clacking lightly as he walked. He usually sat straight up in his chair, a wooden chair typical of Perry Mason, different than the executive maroon chairs his attorneys reclined in. Two public defenders were assigned to him, both men. The other side of the courtroom sat three women, District Attorney Nola Folston and Assistant DA’s Kim Parker and Ann Swegle.
I sat directly behind Roeder, as a matter of chance. I was assigned public badge 6, a yellow laminated card with “State of Kansas vs. Scott P. Roeder” at the top. The first half of the day, Roeder sat straight up, fidgeting slightly, shaking his head at times during the testimony. He would make notes and talk to his attorneys. The last half of the day, he seemed more relaxed, leaning in his chair and even crossing his legs, making his shackles visible to me. At one point, while the prosecution discussed the witness, they seemed to joke a bit.
In the morning, Gary Hoepner testified he and George were talking about donuts. He saw a door open from the church sanctuary and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Roeder. He turned to see Roeder pull the trigger and George fall to the ground. Roeder ran and he chased after. Roeder shouted at him, threatening him, as they ran across some grass and through the parking lot. Gary got his phone out of his truck and called 911. He saw the other usher throw a coffee cup at Roeder’s car. He shouted for the license plate number and got a reply. Gary had seen Roeder in church before, including the week before. He was carrying a Bible, head down, and seemed to be heading to the bathroom. Gary seemed to have a difficult time hearing Parker. When he described the shooting, the moment he saw Dr. Tiller die, he choked up and began crying. Their kids had been friends. They had ushered together for a while. He had just been talking to George. And then Gary saw George get killed.
Thornton Anderson had been late to church on May 31st. He liked to park on the south side of the church, but on that morning, that lot was full. He parked his truck nearby, and just after he got out of his truck, a light blue car came rushing by, going as fast as it could to get around the corner. From behind him, someone shouted for the plate number. Thornton saw it, committed it to memory. Nearly two months later, he could ramble it off easily. “Two two five B. A. B.” The defense asked how he could remember it so clearly and what his license plate is. “TLargo” he said. “Guess that didn’t work.” Yes, he had seen pictures of the plate since then, but 225 BAB was the number he saw that day. Thornton moved slowly through the courtroom, nearly forgetting his bag as he left. His conversation was always spirited, clear. He remembered Roeder from before. They had sat in the same pew, and Thornton thought it strange that no one had sat between them, Roeder at the end of the pew, Thornton in the middle. He thought Roeder dressed differently. His clothes didn’t match, his pants seemed too short. High waters, Thornton called them. That Sunday, after Roeder sped away from the church, Thornton gave Gary the plate number and asked what had happened.
Over the lunch break, I twittered on my phone, waiting for court to resume. Cell phones were not allowed in the courtroom so I had not been keeping everyone abreast of happenings. Several young adults were now in the hall. They were interns interested in becoming lawyers. They were there to see the proceedings. A freelance journalist from Colorado sat next to me. In the courtroom, he sat three people down from me. I told him I wrote for a progressive blog. He got up and began talking another man sitting in the public benches. They began discussing how they knew Scott and for how long. They talked about Paul’s book. One of them mentions it is a “no brainer” that this was justifiable. The other says he had traveled around with Scott, that he was always upbeat. They dissected the assault charges, disagreeing with them. They discussed rumors, heard from Troy, that Folston had adopted a baby from Dr. Tiller. That would mean she has a conflict of interest in trying this case. They hadn’t found the papers yet, but they knew they existed.
After lunch, Keith Martin talks about Dr. Tiller. Keith is a Sunday school teacher. He looked outside windows, into the parking lot, drinking his coffee when he heard what sounded like a firecracker. He turned around to see George fall to the ground. He doesn’t know what he was thinking, he was just doing. He ran through part of the building to head off Roeder. When he got outside, he shouted “How could you?!” Roeder shouts back “He’s a murderer!” or “He’s a killer!” Keith can’t remember which. As Roeder got into his car, he told Keith to move. Keith refused. Roeder pointed the gun at him, repeated his demand, and Keith moved. He knew Roeder would do it. As Roeder drove off, Keith threw his coffee cup at the open window. He doesn’t know why; he just did. He walked back inside to find people attending to George and a teenage girl trying to talk to 911. She was having a difficult time so he took over, telling dispatch about the murder and the assassin.
As Keith talks, I see one of the public attendees reading from Ephesians. The woman next to me reads a book. I cannot tell the title, but it is about abortion. While Keith tells of chasing after Roeder, she leans to me and asks, “Why did no one help him? I would help you.” She asked this more than once. I eventually said, “Everyone reacts differently,” though in my mind, I knew if no one chased after him, Roeder might not have been caught.
Roeder’s second attorney asks about church security. Over the years, the church had been targeted because of Dr. Tiller, correct? Because Dr. Tiller was a “late-term abortion doctor.” Keith, unusually verbose in his reply, said he believed they hated all abortions. The attorney wanted Keith to say the demonstrators, who sometimes came by the truckloads or sometimes just as individuals to disrupt service, hated Dr. Tiller specifically because he was one of three providers who performed third trimester abortions. Keith maintained they just hate abortion. The attorney called Dr. Tiller an “abortionist.” He wanted to know if there was an uptick in disruptions when abortion foes were otherwise targeting Dr. Tiller, such as during his trial earlier this year. Keith doesn’t pay attention to such things. But he does believe the two truckloads of people disrupted church during the Summer of Mercy. Keith’s answers were shorter, answering exactly what was asked as best he could. Apparently younger than both Gary and Thornton, he testified the longest. He didn’t spend much time outside of church with George. Back in 93, his son had asked George where he had been shot. George took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and showed him. Keith had noticed Roeder before. He noticed a smell, not like a gym smell, more of ammonia, cat pee. Keith said no one brought Bibles to church; the verses were in the weekly bulletin. The woman next to me still wanted to know why he didn’t help Dr. Tiller because, really, even she would have. I wondered if she held the same beliefs as those she spent the breaks with, those who know Scott and read Paul’s book, who found this a “no brainer.” I can appreciate that they would try to comfort Dr. Tiller when he was down, even though they would have killed him.
The last two to testify were professionals. The forensic pathologist testified Dr. Tiller was shot with a small caliber weapon; the bullet went in on the right side of his forehead and did not exit. She found the casing during the autopsy. Based on soot found at the entrance wound, she could tell the gun was up against his head when he was shot.
The head of homicide arrived at the church 45 minutes after Dr. Tiller was shot. Dr. Tiller was pronounced dead at 10:13 am. They had put out a bulletin with the tag number. They got a picture of Roeder from his driver’s license, traced from the tag number. Gary identified him as the shooter. Johnson County police pulled Roeder over on the highway. He made no fuss. Detectives questioned him. He was brought back to Wichita. The detective confirmed all the photographs used during the hearing were pictures of the church. The state rests.
Roeder’s attorneys have no witnesses. The judge says there is enough evidence for a trial. Roeder pleads not guilty. As the courtroom empties, the man next to me shouts out “Scott!” a couple of times until Roeder turns around, smiles slightly, and waves.
Some people seem surprised Roeder would plead not guilty. He cannot use the courtroom as a bully pulpit if he admits to it, takes whatever punishment. He will use his trial to put Dr. George Tiller on trial, to call him a murderer, to defend himself not from killing Dr. Tiller but from being a murderer because he saved lives. He will try to convince a jury that abortion is wrong, that abortion is a holocaust, and that George R. Tiller deserved to die. He wants a jury to believe he, Scott P. Roeder, saved thousands of babies from Tiller the Baby Killer. He wants to show people he is legitimate; while Operation Rescue denies he was ever a contributor, Roeder insists he has given thousands of dollars to them. He’s not fringe, he will say. He’s a hero.
For myself, I don’t recall having ever met Dr. Tiller. I had never sought his services, but I knew they would be there should I need them. I volunteered for his pro-woman, pro-choice political action committee, ProKanDo. I attended fundraisers where I saw him. I knew which politicians received money from ProKanDo, and, for the most part, I supported them. I worked a bit to help keep him in business. I knew the rhetoric. I knew the anti-choice groups around here. I knew what legislation they tried to pass. I knew they regularly stalked Dr. Tiller, his employees, the people who worked on his PAC. I knew they bragged about it in Rolling Stone. I knew to watch my back when I went to the ProKanDo offices. His clinic was a mile north of me. I knew this day would come – we all did – but none of us were prepared when it did.
I attended the hearing and plan on attending the trial because this man put his life on the line for me, believing I was intelligent enough to make a decision. And if I couldn’t afford it, he would help me. Dr. Tiller died for me, and I will continue to support him. Even while I must sit among those who wished for his death, for the death of his colleagues, and support Roeder.
Scott Roeder is not alone, not lone. It’s time everyone paid attention to this.