Witness Tells of Doctor’s Last Seconds
Pool photograph by Jaime Oppenheimer
Scott Roeder, left, with his attorney Mark Rudy, was charged in the murder of Dr. George R. Tiller.
By MONICA DAVEY
Published: July 28, 2009
WICHITA, Kan. — Dr. George R. Tiller was standing beside a refreshment table inside his church, discussing his fondness for doughnuts, when a man walked up, pressed a gun against the doctor’s head and fired, a fellow church member recalled Tuesday.
An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death (July 26, 2009)
Times Topics: George R. Tiller
Criminal Complaint (Kansas v. Roeder) (findlaw.com)
Wichita's Abortion Divide: A man and a woman on opposite sides look back
“I wasn’t sure if it was a cap gun or what,” Gary Hoepner, the church member, testified in a hearing here that offered the first significant details of what happened the morning Dr. Tiller, one of the nation’s only doctors to perform late-term abortions, was killed.
“And then George fell,” said Mr. Hoepner, who testified he had been standing within touching distance of Dr. Tiller in the church foyer and who, like Dr. Tiller, had been serving as an usher that Sunday, May 31, at Reformation Lutheran. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” added Mr. Hoepner, a member of the church for 52 years.
At the end of the hearing, a judge concluded that there was sufficient evidence to try Scott P. Roeder, an abortion opponent from Kansas City, Mo., for first-degree murder in the death of Dr. Tiller, whose clinic had been firmly at the center of the nation’s battle over abortion for more than three decades.
A lawyer for Mr. Roeder entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. Mr. Roeder made no public comments at the daylong hearing but appeared to listen closely to the testimony against him, at times gazing up at elaborate diagrams of the church foyer and jotting notes. Afterward, Mr. Roeder’s lawyers declined to comment on their defense plans, noting that the hearing had presented only witnesses for the prosecution. The trial has been set for Sept. 21.
Balding and considerably slimmer after nearly two months in jail, Mr. Roeder, 51, wore a jacket and a tie and leg shackles.
In testimony, several church members said that Mr. Roeder had come to the church occasionally in the weeks and months before the shooting. Because of Dr. Tiller’s presence, the church had been the target of occasional outbursts by abortion protesters, the church members recalled, so congregants were sensitive to new faces.
“He didn’t seem in place,” said Keith Martin, a church member of 25 years who said he had repeatedly seen Mr. Roeder, but had not spoken with other church members about him. “I was suspicious of him,” he said, adding that Mr. Roeder had drawn particular notice because of a pungent, overwhelming odor around him, something akin to ammonia.
Mr. Roeder attended the service one week before the shooting, Mr. Hoepner said, and left a written note (with a reference to tax policy) in the collection plate. As it happened, Dr. Tiller had not attended church that Sunday, though he was listed in an insert in the church bulletin, handed out each week to all who come, as an usher for the entire month of May.
Crowds have nearly always materialized in this city for anything to do with Dr. Tiller or his opponents, whether rallies, court cases or simply gatherings outside his clinic, now closed.
But only a small cluster of observers sat in the courtroom on Tuesday, and at least seven were uniformed law enforcement authorities in the tightly screened gallery. Dr. Tiller’s family was not seen there, nor were the best-known leaders of Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups here, which have denounced the killing.
If convicted, Mr. Roeder could face life in prison. Prosecutors have said the case does not meet certain circumstances required for the death penalty under Kansas law, including, for instance, the killing of a law enforcement officer or more than one person.
He is also charged with two counts of aggravated assault, accused of threatening to shoot Mr. Hoepner and Mr. Martin, who was also volunteering as an usher that Sunday.
The shooting occurred just as the service was starting. Dr. Tiller and Mr. Hoepner, as ushers, had lingered in the foyer to hand out bulletins to latecomers. The two stood beside a table of juice and doughnuts, Mr. Hoepner said, exchanging small talk. It was then, he said, that Mr. Roeder emerged from the sanctuary through a door often used for those slipping off to the restroom, stepped into the foyer and shot Dr. Tiller.
Mr. Hoepner said he followed Mr. Roeder outside toward the parking lot, but stopped when the man turned and called out, “I’ve got a gun, and I’ll shoot you.” Mr. Martin ran after Mr. Roeder, too, he testified, and at one point called out to him, “How could you do that?” The man yelled back something, Mr. Martin said, like, “he was a murderer” or “he was a killer.”
When the man reached his car, Mr. Martin was about 10 feet away, blocking the car’s exit. Mr. Roeder yelled “Move!” Mr. Martin recalled, but he stayed put. At that, Mr. Martin said, the man pulled out the gun, pointed it at him, and said, “I’ll shoot you.”
Mr. Martin stepped aside, but flung the cup of coffee he was still carrying — cup and all — through an open window in the man’s car as he drove away. Mr. Roeder, whose license plate had been spotted by another church member, was arrested a few hours later along a Kansas highway about 170 miles away.