Scott Roeder is now serving a life term for murdering abortion doctor George Tiller. But did he really act alone?
As soon as Scott Roeder was named the sole suspect in the point-blank shooting death of Wichita, Kan., abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the vestibule of the Reformation Lutheran Church Tiller attended, a predictable story began to be told. Following the lead of a recent Department of Homeland Security report characterizing right-wing terrorists as lone wolves, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, ABC, NBC and FOX News all ran stories calling Roeder a “lone wolf” gunman.
It is the oldest, possibly most dangerous abortion story out there.
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August 13, 1994, The Washington Post: “Many anti-abortion leaders have… denounced Paul Hill [who killed abortion provider Dr. John Britton and his security escort James Barrett]…as a lone, sick extremist.”
October 26, 1998, The Independent (London): “A doctor defiant [is] shot dead for his beliefs by a lone abortion terrorist [referring to James Kopp, who killed Amherst, N.Y., abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian].”
But for loners, these guys have a lot of friends. A lot of the same ones, in fact.
Over the past six months, I have interviewed Scott Roeder more than a dozen times, met several times with his supporters at the Sedgwick County Courthouse in Wichita where he was tried and convicted, and permissibly recorded numerous three-way telephone conversations Roeder had me place to his friends. Using information gleaned from these sources, along with public records, it is possible to piece together the close, long-term and ongoing relationship between Roeder and other anti-abortion extremists who advocate murder and violent attacks on abortion providers.
Now, meet Roeder’s anti-abortion associates, beginning with Roeder himself. Scott Roeder, 52, was born in Denver. His family moved to Topeka, Kan., when he was a toddler. He worked for the Kansas City electric company, and at age 28, he married and had a son. For about five years family life was stable, but then in the early 1990s Roeder suddenly could not cope—with anything.
While under financial stress in 1992, Roeder happened upon right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on television. He claims he fell to his knees and became a born-again Christian. According to his own recollections and those of his ex-wife, he immediately fixated on what he considered two earthly evils: taxes and abortion.
In very short order, he affiliated himself with Christian anti-government groups such as the Freemen militia and eventually became involved with antiabortion groups such as Operation Rescue and the Army of God, the latter of which openly sanctions the use of violence to stop abortion.
Roeder told me that his first act as an anti-abortion activist was to protest outside a Kansas City women’s clinic. Among the protestors he came to know were Anthony Leake, a proponent of the “justifiable homicide”of abortion doctors, and Eugene Frye, the owner of a Kansas City construction company who, together with another antiabortion activist, had been arrested in 1990 for attempting to reinsert the feeding tube of a Missouri woman in a persistent vegetative state. Frye had also been arrested for blockading abortion clinics during the 1991 Summer of Mercy in Wichita, which was organized by Operation Rescue.
Through Frye, Roeder says, he soon met Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon. She, like Frye, had attended the Summer of Mercy protests; over the next two years she would commit eight arson or acid attacks on abortion clinics in the Pacific Northwest. Then, most horrifically, on August 19, 1993, she would try to murder Dr. George Tiller, succeeding only in shooting and wounding him in both his arms.
Roeder says Frye took him to visit Shannon where she was incarcerated in Topeka. Roeder was instantly smitten with the intense, unrepentant shooter. Frye had made a match. Roeder began visiting Shannon without Frye: Over the years, while she served her 30-year-long sentence for the clinic attacks and the attemptedmurder, Roeder would see her some 25 times. As his marriage began disintegrating, he even considered asking the raven-haired Shannon about beginning a romance. But, he told me, he did not because of the obvious obstacles involved in dating an incarcerated woman.
Still, Roeder and Shannon stayed close—and he began contemplating killing Dr. Tiller himself. Maybe it would be a car crash; maybe he’d shoot him sniper-style from a rooftop near Tiller’s clinic. Or maybe he would just cut off Dr. Tiller’s hands with a sword. Roeder testified to all of these at his trial.
While protesting at a Kansas City abortion clinic, Roeder also met Regina Dinwiddie, who had been arrested along with Frye during Operation Rescue’s 1991 Summer of Mercy in Wichita. A nurse from Kansas City, she was the first person to face a civil restraining order under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act because, according to the complaint, she would not stop screaming threats at abortion clinic patients and personnel. The clinic director said Dinwiddie once told her, “Patty, you have not seen violence yet until you see what we do to you!” Dinwiddie, an admitted member of the violencepromoting Army of God, was also arrested at Operation Rescue’s 1988 Siege of Atlanta. Authorities housed the anti-abortion activists in a separate unit—which became a terrorist seedbed. Also arrested and incarcerated along with Dinwiddie were Shannon, Jayne Bray and James Kopp. Bray is the wife of Michael Bray, the so-called lifetime chaplain of the Army of God, who was, at that time, incarcerated elsewhere for a series of clinic bomb attacks.
Kopp went on to murder New York abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in a sniper attack in 1998 at Slepian’s home, and is the lead suspect in the shooting and wounding of four abortion providers at their homes in upstate New York and Canada between 1994 and 1997. It is widely believed some of those jailed in Atlanta in 1988 were involved in the creation of “The Army of God Manual,” in which they receive “special thanks” under monikers such as “Shaggy West” (Shelley Shannon), “Atomic Dog” (James Kopp), “Kansas City Big Guys,” the “Mad Gluer” and “Pensacola Cop Hugger,” among others.
The how-to manual for would-be terrorists provides instructions on vandalizing clinics, including arson, super-gluing locks, constructing bombs and “disarming the persons perpetrating the [abortions] by removing their hands.” The manual was discovered buried in Shannon’s backyard during a search by law enforcement following her attempted murder of Dr. Tiller in 1993.
Back in 1994, Dinwiddie had enjoyed special fame in anti-abortion circles because Paul Hill had stayed at her house two weeks before he shot and killed Dr. John Britton and his volunteer escort James Barrett outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla. Shortly after that double murder, Scott Roeder enters our story again: He is invited to Dinwiddie’s along with Frye to meet a special guest, Michael Bray.
Bray is a linchpin among the extremists; his influence over those who commit abortion-related violence is hard to overstate. Author of A Time to Kill—a theological justification for violence—Bray is a convicted clinic bomber (he served from 1985 to 1989 for his crimes). He helped draft and was the first to sign the “Defensive Action” statement endorsing the murder of abortion providers that Hill began circulating in the months before he killed Britton and Barrett. Shannon says she was moved to violence by reading Bray’s writings; according to her diary, when an early arson attempt failed to produce much damage, she wrote to him in despair, and Bray reassured her, “Little strokes fell mighty oaks.” James Kopp first met Bray in 1983 at an extremist religious retreat in Switzerland and, according to law enforcement sources, stopped at Bray’s home in 1998 as he was fleeing the country after murdering Dr. Slepian.
Bray has obviously privately supported violence as a means to stop abortion since the mid-1980s, but by 1991, he and his wife Jayne were open enough to discuss his views with a reporter from The Washington Post.
“Is there a legitimate use of force on behalf of the unborn?” Bray asks rhetorically. “I say yes, it is justified to destroy the [abortion] facilities. And yes, it is justified to… what kind of word should I use here?” “Well, they use ‘terminate a pregnancy,'” Jayne Bray says.
“Yeah, terminate an abortionist,” he says.
When Scott Roeder arrived at Regina Dinwiddie’s house with Eugene Frye in 1994 or 1995 to meet Michael Bray, he was nearly giddy, by his own recollection to me:
Roeder: I think it was right after Paul Hill…I got to meet [Bray] and I heard that he’d been on 60 Minutes. …I just kept asking Mike [Bray] questions because I was so fascinated with him, you know…As a matter of fact, Gene [Frye] had to tell me to quit asking him questions.
Amanda Robb: [But] did you guys discuss justifiable homicide? If it was justifiable to shoot a doctor?
Roeder: Oh yeah, yeah. We definitely discussed that, and like I say, Michael [Bray], he’s been outspoken, and he’s always said, as long as I’ve known him, he’s always said it’s been justified to do that.
Another admitted Army of God member that Roeder has become close to is Jennifer McCoy. In 1996, she was arrested and pled guilty to conspiring to burn down abortion clinics in Norfolk and Newport News, Va. During her two and a half years in prison, she was in contact with Bray, who honored her in absentia at the White Rose Banquet in Washington, D.C.—an annual event organized by Bray to recognize those jailed for their (mostly violent) antiabortion activities, and attended by many in the extremist network (including McCoy in 1996).
After her release, McCoy began protesting regularly with Operation Rescue in Wichita shortly after its president, Troy Newman, moved the headquarters there in 2002 for the sole purpose of tormenting Dr. Tiller into shuttering his clinic.
As Roeder’s conversations with me have indicated, McCoy has been among his most regular visitors since he was arraigned for Dr. Tiller’s murder, although according to Roeder, they did not know each other before May 2009. But McCoy is close to people Roeder is connected to, people Roeder could try to implicate as co-conspirators and/or accessories, such as Bray or Newman, the latter of whom extremely angered Roeder by denying their acquaintance.
Perhaps this is why McCoy has been more than a supporter; she has been a flatterer and even a fabulist. At one point, according to Roeder, McCoy told him that a 17-year-old woman in Wichita was scheduled to have an abortion but after Dr. Tiller’s murder changed her mind and had the baby. Roeder believed that young woman would testify in court on behalf of his defense that the murder was justified to save lives. But there is no evidence that any woman who was planning to abort her pregnancy before Dr. Tiller was killed changed her mind afterwards.
In April 1996, Roeder was pulled over by Shawnee County, Kan., deputies for driving without a valid license plate. Instead, Roeder had a tag on his car that read, “Sovereign private property. Immunity declared by law. Noncommercial American.” The kind of plates frequently used by Freemen. And in his trunk he had gunpowder, ammunition and bomb-making materials. Roeder was sentenced to 24 months probation and ordered to stop his association with violence-advocating anti-government groups. He told his son, then 9 years old, that everyone assumed he was going to bomb a federal building (his arrest occurred near the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.) But really, Roeder said, he had been planning to bomb an abortion clinic.
After his probation ended, Roeder resumed his anti-abortion activities; in 2000 he was caught on surveillance cameras on two occasions super-gluing the locks at the Kansas City clinic where he frequently protested with Frye. The clinic’s manager says he reported the incidents to an FBI agent who said he would question Roeder. After that, Roeder disappeared for a while. He would be caught on camera again gluing the clinic’s locks both the week before and the day before he murdered Dr. Tiller in Wichita.
Roeder first stalked Tiller at his Wichita church, Reformation Lutheran, in 2002, the year Operation Rescue moved there. Operation Rescue had already begun demonstrating at the church, and on the group’s website Newman had announced plans to gather at Tiller’s clinic, church and home.
Also that year, Roeder says he went to lunch with Newman and asked him about using violence to stop abortion.
Robb: What did you say to him?
Roeder: Oh, something like if an abortionist—I don’t even know if it was specifically Tiller…was shot, would it be justified? … And [Newman] said, “If it were, it wouldn’t upset me.”
According to Roeder’s trial testimony, he became an active and regular participant in Operation Rescue events. He told me he has donation receipts, event T-shirts and a signed copy of Newman’s 2001 book, Their Blood Cries Out, to prove it. During an Operation Rescue event at Dr. Tiller’s clinic in 2007, Roeder posted on the Operation Rescue website:
“Bleass [sic] 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 bring as many people as possible to attend Tillers [sic] church (inside not just outside) …”
Moreover, when Roeder was apprehended for Dr. Tiller’s murder, news cameras photographed a piece of paper on the dashboard of Roeder’s car: It contained the phone number of Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue’s senior policy advisor, who served two years in prison for conspiring to bomb abortionclinics in 1988. Roeder also told me that Sullenger was present at the lunch with Newman where they discussed “justifiable” homicide, and that Newman had given Roeder the autographed copy of his book just three months before Roeder killed Tiller when Roeder visited Operation Rescue headquarters. Sullenger was there as well, Roeder said.
Yet Newman has denied any formal link between Roeder and Operation Rescue. He said to me, “I have no recollection of ever meeting Scott Roeder.” Immediately after Roeder killed Dr. Tiller, Newman issued a statement saying, “We deplore the criminal actions with which Mr. Roeder is accused…Operation Rescue has diligently and successfully worked for years through peaceful, legal means [to stop abortion.]” In his writings, though—his book, Their Blood Cries Out, still for sale on the Operation Rescue website—he talks about the bloodguilt of those who condone abortion. The biblical atonement for bloodguilt is death. Scott Roeder, Eugene Frye, Shelley Shannon, Regina Dinwiddie and Michael Bray all know one another.
Jennifer McCoy and Anthony Leake know all of them, too, except perhaps Shelley Shannon.
Troy Newman knows McCoy, Frye and possibly others.
McCoy, Shannon, Dinwiddie and Bray are admitted members of the Army of God.
“We’re like circles that overlap,” McCoy told me in an anteroom in the Sedgwick County Courthouse near where Scott Roeder was being sentenced on April 1, 2010. “We all don’t know each other—we may not agree on a lot of things, like religion, say—but we’re all completely committed to one purpose: stopping abortion.”
“Uh-huh,” Dinwiddie concurred, looking up from the character statement she was getting ready to give on Roeder’s behalf. “That’s right.”
Across from the women was Frye, along with David Leach—who calls himself the secretary general of the Army of God and is another justifiablehomicide advocate. They were working on their statements on behalf of Roeder’s character, too.
They let me sit with them because I said I was Scott’s acquaintance, and also because I’m the niece of Dr. Barnett Slepian, the abortion provider murdered by James Kopp in upstate New York. I was especially close to Bart because he lived with my family for nearly a decade after my own father died when I was 4 years old. During Roeder’s trial, and again at his sentencing, I explained my presence to his supporters the same way I had explained my interest in him when I had first written to him six months earlier: I really need to understand how someone could be moved to murder to stop abortion.
I feel that I now understand.
Circles that overlap.
One circle encompasses the Army of God, including Bray, Shannon, Leach, Dinwiddie, McCoy and Kopp, the man who killed my uncle.
A second circle includes justifiablehomicide advocates Bray, Shannon, Leach, Dinwiddie, Leake and the murderer Paul Hill, who was executed in 2003 by the state of Florida.
And a third circle holds Operation Dinwiddie and Bray have signed “Defensive Action” (justifiable homicide) statements, stating in part, “We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force.” Leake has said publicly he supports the use of deadly force against abortion providers.
Rescue, Troy Newman, McCoy and Cheryl Sullenger.
Scott Roeder overlaps with all of them (see chart on facing page).
Police, prosecutors and the military define a cell as a circle of individuals— usually three to 10 people—who are joined in common unlawful purpose. A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, a U.S. Army training manual, describes a cell as the “foundation” of most terrorist organizations. Most often, and most effectively, these cells are networked, “depend[ing] and even thriving on loose affiliation with groups or individuals from a variety of locations.”
In international terrorism cases, in organized crime cases, even in drugtrafficking cases, conspiracy charges can be filed when two or more people enter into an agreement to commit an unlawful act. In fact, of the 159 people convicted of international terrorism by the U.S. since 9/11, more than 70 percent were sentenced for conspiracy (or for “harboring” terrorists). Once a person becomes a member of the conspiracy, she or he is held legally responsible for the acts of other members done in furtherance of the conspiracy, even if she or he is not present or aware that the acts are being committed.
The government does not have to prove that conspirators have entered into any formal agreement. Because they are trying to hide what they are doing, criminal conspirators rarely do such things as draw up contracts. Nor does the government have to show that the members of the conspiracy state between themselves what their object or purpose or methods are. Because they are clandestine, criminal conspirators rarely discuss their plans in a straightforward way. The government only has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the members of a conspiracy, in some implied way, came to mutually understand they would attempt to accomplish a common and unlawful plan.
Given the broad latitude in proving conspiracy, you’d think the same legal theory could have been used in prosecuting slayings of abortion doctors. Yet to date, only the individual murderers of abortion providers have been charged and prosecuted. No charges have been brought against any individuals for conspiracy to commit those murders.
Shortly after Roeder’s trial—when I met Michael Bray and he told me he had only met Scott Roeder after he killed Dr. Tiller—Scott Roeder stopped communicating with me. But during one of our last phone calls, I was able to ask Roeder a critical question:
Robb: Wait, just tell me how it works…when the use of force comes up in conversation, it has to come up sometimes.
Roeder: I’ve always said [it] over the years, and I would see what level of comfort they were willing to talk about it. …Michael Bray, he would talk about it forever. He went on 60 Minutes for Pete’s sake. Other people, they might say, “Well, you know, I just don’t think it’s right.” Then I’d explain to them why, and if they’re still not comfortable with it, I would drop it. I wouldn’t keep pushing it. Regina [Dinwiddie] obviously agrees with the use of force, and Gene Frye, I believe, does.
Roeder, his associates and “The Army of God Manual” could not be more plain. The manual ends, “‘Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed [Gen: 9-6]… we are forced to take up arms against you.”
Taking up arms. Shedding man’s blood. Bloodguilt.Circles that overlap. In other words, wolves run in packs.
Investigative support and research for this article were provided by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
AMANDA ROBB is a writer based in New York. She has been a contributing writer for O (Oprah) magazine, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, New York, George, Marie Claire, More, Harper’s Bazaar (UK) and other periodicals.
Article reprinted from the Spring 2010 issue of Ms.