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By ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press Writer Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press Writer   – 54 mins ago

WICHITA, Kan. – Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation’s few providers of late-term abortions despite decades of protests and attacks, was shot and killed Sunday in a church where he was serving as an usher.

The gunman fled, but a 51-year-old suspect was detained some 170 miles away in suburban Kansas City three hours after the shooting, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said.

Although Stolz refused to release the man’s name, Johnson County sheriff’s spokesman Tom Erickson identified the detained man as Scott Roeder. He has not been charged in the slaying and was expected to be taken to Wichita for questioning.

Police did not release a motive for the shooting. But the doctor’s violent death was the latest in a string of shootings and bombings over two decades directed against abortion clinics, doctors and staff.

Long a focus of national anti-abortion groups, including a summer-long protest in 1991, Tiller was shot in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church. Tiller’s attorney, Dan Monnat, said Tiller’s wife, Jeanne, was in the choir at the time.

The slaying of the 67-year-old doctor is “an unspeakable tragedy,” his widow, four children and 10 grandchildren said in statement. “This is particularly heart-wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace.”

The family said its loss “is also a loss for the city of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence.”

Stolz said all indications were that the gunman acted alone, although authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.

Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services clinic is one of just three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy. The clinic was heavily fortified and Tiller often traveled with a bodyguard, but Stolz said there was no indication of security at the church Sunday.

Anti-abortion groups denounced the shooting and stressed that they support only nonviolent protest. The movement’s leaders fear the killing could create a backlash just as they are scrutinizing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose views on abortion rights are not publicly known.

“We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down,” Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, said in a statement. “Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning.”

President Barack Obama said he was “shocked and outraged” by the murder. “However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence,” he said.

At Tiller’s church, Adam Watkins, 20, said he was sitting in the middle of the congregation when he heard a small pop at the start of the service.

“We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped,” Watkins said.

Another usher came in and told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Tiller’s wife out. “When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened,” Watkins said.

He said the service continued even after an associate pastor announced that Tiller had been injured. “We were just really shocked,” he said. “We were kind of dumbfounded. We couldn’t really believe it had happened.”

Tiller had in the past endured threats and violence. A protester shot Tiller in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985. More recently, Monnat said Tiller had 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 Tiller’s safety was in jeopardy. Stolz, however, said police knew of no threats connected to the shooting.

In early May, Tiller had asked the FBI to investigate vandalism at his clinic, including cut wires to surveillance cameras and damage to the roof that sent rainwater pouring into the building.

In 1991, the Summer of Mercy protests organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion activists to this city for demonstrations marked by civil disobedience and mass arrests.

Tiller began providing abortion services in 1973. He acknowledged abortion was as socially divisive as slavery or prohibition but said the issue was about giving women a choice when dealing with technology that can diagnose severe fetal abnormalities before a baby is born.

Nancy Keenan, president of abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, issued a statement praising Tiller’s commitment.

“Dr. Tiller’s murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centers that serve women across this country. We want them to know that they have our support as they move forward in providing these essential services in the aftermath of the shocking news from Wichita,” Keenan said.

The last killing of an abortion doctor was in October 1998 when Dr. Barnett Slepian was fatally shot in his home in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. A militant abortion opponent was convicted of the murder.

Tiller’s clinic is fortified with bulletproof glass, and Tiller hired a private security team to protect the facility. Once outside the clinic, Tiller was routinely accompanied by a bodyguard.

At a recent trial, he told jurors that he and his family have suffered years of harassment and threats and that he knew he was a target of anti-abortion protesters.

Federal marshals protected 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 on an assassination list.

Tiller remained prominent in the news, in part because of an investigation begun by former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, an abortion opponent.

Prosecutors had alleged that Tiller had gotten second opinions from a doctor who was essentially an employee of his, not independent as state law requires. A jury in March acquitted Tiller of all 19 misdemeanor counts.

“I am stunned by this lawless and violent act, which must be condemned and should be met with the full force of law,” Kline said in a statement. “We join in lifting prayer that God’s grace and presence rest with Dr. Tiller’s family and friends.”


Member Comments

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Vikki Hall wrote May 31, 2009
    • In the news....ohhhh

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Lazylola wrote May 31, 2009
    • I lived in Wichita near the area that was the site of all the protests, I also went to a health clinic with a friend who was looking to get free birth control pills and condoms, the clinic also performed abortions, we were accosted as soon as we pulled up into the parking lot. The protesters thought one of us was there for an abortion and were very agressive with their offers of “help“. I also remember the other incidents and many more that were not reported nationally. My thoughts are with the families.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Lmederos wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • I am a Kansas resident and am apalled at this type of behavior.   This isn’t an issue regarding our stance on abortion,  It’s an act of murder.    How sad for the family,   others in the medical profession,  and all of us in general.  Anger, hatred,  and single mindedness are all such sad and destructive things!

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mztracy wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • Wow!!
      My thoughts and blessing with his family!

      As for the murderer... he can have his life... in prison!

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Angelcart wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • I saw this on the news this morning.  I think it’s really sad on both sides.  Sad for the Dr. and extremely sad for late-term abortions.  I’ve seen documentaries on late-term abortions and they are horrific.  I wished I’d never watched it!  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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    • +1 votes vote up vote up

      Vikki Hall wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • I’m with you Lmederos!

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Stephanie Lawrence wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • That is outrageous. My thoughts and prayers are with his family

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Termite wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • I don’t agree with abortion, but...this is horrible! My thoughts are with the family. Two wrongs don’t make a right!

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mztracy wrote Jun 1, 2009
    • As for late abortions, I do not agree with those, but many of those are due to health risks for the mom.

      I had a friend have to make this decision once due to her health. Technically she would have ended up being put into a coma for the pg to make it to term. But, was told she may never come out of it.  

      It was the hardest thing for her to do, but they did it.  

      People need to think before the murder these doctors and get the true facts of late abortions. There are many and most( look it up) that are only done for extreme cases.

      Either way the baby would not have lived if she had delivered then. So, sorry she did what she had to do for herself, her hubz, and her child the already had.

      This is just outrageous! Murder, premeditated, pure and simple!

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Vikki Hall wrote Jun 2, 2009
    • I am so sad that in the process of declaring our beliefs that we have to go to such extremes. I can take a stand on my beliefs but in no way shape or form will it ever come to murdering someone for that belief.
      Do you think this happening helped or hurt?

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