A man suspected of shooting dead a well-known doctor in Kansas who performed late-term abortions was in jail today as investigators investigated his background, including the extent of his connections to anti-abortion groups.
Dr George Tiller, 67, was serving as an usher during morning services in Wichita yesterday when he was shot in the foyer of the Reformation Lutheran Church, police said. The gunman fired one shot at Dr Tiller and threatened two other people who tried to stop him.
The women’s clinic run by Dr Tiller is one of three in the US where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy and has repeatedly been the site of protests for about two decades. A protester shot him in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985.
The suspect, identified by one law enforcement agency as Scott Roeder, was taken into custody some 170 miles away in Kansas City about three hours after the shooting.
Roeder, 51, was returned to Wichita and was being held on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Formal charges were expected to be filed on Monday.
Police said on Sunday that all early indications showed the gunman acted alone. Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue condemned the killing as vigilantism and “a cowardly act”. The president of the group told The New York Times that Roeder was “not a friend, not a contributor, not a volunteer”.
In 1996, a 38-year-old man named Scott Roeder was charged in Topeka, Kansas, with criminal use of explosives for having bomb components in his car trunk and sentenced to 24 months’ probation. His conviction was overturned on appeal the following year after a higher court said evidence against Roeder was seized by law enforcement officers during an illegal search of his car.
At the time, police said the FBI identified Roeder as a member of the anti-government Freemen group, an organisation that kept the FBI at bay in Jordan, Montana, for almost three months in 1995-96. Authorities on Sunday night would not immediately confirm if their suspect was the same man.
In May 2007, someone posting on the website of Operation Rescue used the name “Scott Roeder” in response to a scheduled vigil to “pray for an end to George R Tiller’s late-term abortion business”. and referred to “Tiller and the closing of his death camp”.
The slaying quickly brought condemnation from anti-abortion and pro-choice groups, as well as President Barack Obama.
“However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence,” President Obama said in a statement.
Wichita deputy police chief Tom Stolz said Dr Tiller apparently did not have a bodyguard in church.
Monnat said in early May that Dr Tiller asked federal prosecutors to step up investigations of vandalism and other threats against the clinic out of fear that the incidents were increasing and that his safety was in jeopardy. However, Stolz said authorities knew of no threats connected to the shooting.
Church members said they had grown accustomed to anti-abortion protesters showing up outside the church on Sundays regularly.
The last killing of an abortion doctor was in October 1998 when Dr Barnett Slepian was shot in his home in Buffalo, New York. A militant abortion opponent was convicted of the murder.
Federal marshals protected Dr Tiller during the 1991 Summer of Mercy protests, and he was protected again between 1994 and 1998 after another abortion provider was assassinated and federal authorities reported finding Tiller’s name at the top of an assassination list.