Authors: Stephen Singular
Tags: #Historical, #Nonfiction, #Retail, #True Crime
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To Lindsey Roeder
After waiting forty minutes in the lobby of the Sedgwick County Detention Facility in Wichita to meet the accused killer Scott Roeder, I thought he’d changed his mind and was stiffing me. This did not make me happy. Six weeks earlier, I’d written him asking to be put on his visiting list, which is under the complete control of those who are locked up. If they don’t want to talk with you, you don’t get into the jail. Roeder quickly mailed back a letter saying that he’d go through the process of adding me to his list. To be safe, I made a series of calls to the facility to find out if I was, in fact, an approved visitor. Jail personnel said they couldn’t give out that information unless I came there in person and showed them a photo ID. I was five hundred miles away in Denver and didn’t want to drive to south central Kansas unless I was absolutely sure I could see the prisoner.
“We can’t help you with that,” the man at the jail had said. “It violates procedures.”
I asked to speak with his superior and then asked
to give me a break.
When he waffled slightly, I knew I was making headway. He peeked at the list and my name was on it. If I showed up at the jail on Tuesday at nine a.m., I’d be able to spend as much as an hour with the man charged with entering Wichita’s Reformation Lutheran Church seven Sunday mornings ago and placing a gun barrel directly against the forehead of Dr. George Tiller, America’s most controversial abortion provider. The local district attorney’s office contended that Roeder had killed the physician with one shot and then committed aggravated assault against two church ushers who’d tried to stop him from fleeing the crime scene.
In a sense Dr. Tiller’s death had ended thirty-five years of bitter history over abortion in Wichita, but in another sense his death had only deepened the bitterness around the issue that had divided the country for more than three decades. Abortion was just one front in the new civil war the United States had been fighting throughout those decades—a battle that by spring 2009 seemed to be growing every day. Following the inauguration of President Barack Obama several months ago, protests against the new leader and racial violence had been spreading; this would only intensify as the weather grew hotter. Since Obama had taken office, threats against him were up 400 percent and ten political murders had erupted around the nation. I’d driven across two states to meet with one of the foot soldiers in this conflict, because he was eager to speak with me, or at least that’s what his letter had said.
I was now in Wichita on a July day that would reach 104 degrees. As the clock on the wall behind the guard’s desk approached 9:45, I was getting edgier by the second and more annoyed that Roeder wasn’t responding.
Every Tuesday, he got one hour to speak to outsiders. Two of his strongest anti-abortion supporters from the Kansas City area, Anthony Leake and Eugene Frye, had been advising him and he’d probably decided to see them today instead of me. For years Leake, according to
The Kansas City Star
, had “vocally supported the killing of abortion doctors” and both men had been counseling Roeder about finding him a lawyer sympathetic to their cause. They hoped to hire an attorney who’d use the “necessity defense”—the legal argument that killing an abortion doctor was a lesser offense than abortion itself.
As I fidgeted and glanced at the clock, a stream of youngish women checked in at the front desk with the female officer on duty. Several were dressed provocatively and had on more than enough perfume, something I’d observed in every jail I’d been in from Long Island to San Diego. The women wanted the men inside to see and smell what they were missing. After a few minutes, all the women’s names had been called and they were led through a side door into the room holding their husbands or boyfriends (none of these inmates was being held in maximum security, as Roeder was). Twice, I’d left my seat and walked to the front desk to ask about my situation. Twice, the officer in charge had told me to sit down and be patient. What had I expected driving out here? Why did I think that the alleged gunman would keep this appointment? He had nothing to gain from speaking with me, and it was going to be a very long ride home.
As I stood for the third time, the phone rang on the guard’s desk and she picked it up.
“Who’s here to see Roeder?” she asked.
I charged toward her.
“Get onto that elevator”—she pointed toward a far wall—“and go to the second floor. They’ll take care of you up there.”
The only thing on my person other than my clothes, I told her, was my car key because I didn’t want to set off any metal detectors.
“Should I leave the key with you?” I said.
She smiled the smile of all people who are bored with their jobs, have a little authority, and are looking for amusement.
“That isn’t necessary,” she replied. “But try not to shoot or stab anyone with it.”
When I got off the elevator and stepped into the second-floor lobby, it was empty and dark. I stood there for a few moments, confused. Had I followed her directions correctly? Was this would-be comedian playing a trick on me?
An armed guard arrived with a magnetic wand and told me to take off my shoes, which I did. I handed him the key. He scanned me and the detector went off three times in a row—loudly—which baffled both of us. I must have been edgier than I realized, giving off a very heavy vibe.
“You got any metal inside of you from surgery?” he said.
I shook my head.
“Any screws in there holding stuff together?”
“That’s really weird.”
He shrugged and scanned me again. This time it was silent.
He escorted me into a tiny room divided in half by a smudged, thick glass wall; on either side of the glass were a chair, a small counter, and a beaten-up telephone. After leaving me alone and closing the door, the guard stood directly behind me and stared in through a small opening, hovering about four feet over my shoulder. With a nightstick, a flashlight, or some other hard object, he banged on the door every few seconds just to let me know he was still there—an unnerving sound.
The door on the other side of the glass burst open and Roeder rushed in, wearing a bright red jumpsuit. With a huge grin enlivening his face, he bounded over to me and reached for his phone, while I picked up mine. We stared at each other, about eighteen inches apart. Like all prisoners, he was quite pale, and much larger than I’d anticipated, with a balding, dome-shaped head.
“Hiya, Steve!” he boomed. “How are ya!”
Fine, I said, as his exuberance reached me through the glass. Was he in one of those manic phases his ex-wife, Lindsey, had warned me about? Or was this how he greeted everyone? Without a wall between us, I’m sure he’d have given me a two-fisted handshake or clapped me on the back. However much we try to imagine what other people are like from reading about them or seeing their image on television, we’re always wrong. Nothing matches coming face-to-face with a jailed stranger.
“You drove all the way from Denver?”
“I was born in Denver, but we moved to Kansas when I was very young. Why did you come here? What are you interested in? What do you want to talk to me about?”
I always preferred to be the one asking the questions, but in this game there are no rules.
Twenty-five years ago, I explained, a liberal Jewish Denver radio personality named Alan Berg had been assassinated by a small band of neo-Nazis from the Northwest, called the Order, who’d committed nearly 250 other crimes. Ever since then, I’d been writing about people who embraced very strong (I avoided the word “fanatical”) political or religious beliefs and acted them out in criminal behavior. I was aware that Roeder, like the men in the Order, believed that he was one of God’s “Chosen People.” They all thought of themselves as the “real” Jews of biblical history, while every other group making this claim was an impostor.
“I heard about that case,” he said, shooting me another grin.
Of course he’d heard of it. Everybody in the circles he’d traveled in had heard about it and some of them had been celebrating Berg’s murder for the past quarter century.
“I’m glad you came to see me.”
The guard banged the door again, sounding like gunfire, causing both of us to flinch and glance around. Roeder leaned in closer and said he was certain that prison employees in another part of the jail were listening in on our phones. But one day we’d be able to talk without this piece of glass between us and then he’d open up and tell me what he really knew about underground plans for more violence against the government or other targets.
He launched into a list of the problems caused by his arrest following Tiller’s death last May 31. Roeder badly needed a high-fiber diet, but they served only low-fiber food at the jail, and that was messing up his digestive tract and bathroom habits. He had to eat at least 2,000 calories a day to keep his large body going, but they were giving him a meager 1,200. It was too cold in his cell to sleep through the night, even though he had on long underwear beneath his jumpsuit, and he needed his sleep apnea machine. The other inmates weren’t as friendly as he’d expected, but at least he was off suicide watch and out of solitary confinement, able to mingle with the general prison population. He’d met one man who shared his religious convictions and they were studying the Bible together.
“Jail is hard, man,” he said. “Too hard. I don’t mind prison so much, but I can’t stand being in jail. I’m gonna go on trial in about a month and then they’ll send me to prison and that will be much better. The only thing worse than jail is a mental hospital. I was in there once and I’m never going back.”
As a teenager, he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on mood-altering drugs, which he’d hated and vowed not to take again. He’d kept that vow. When I brought this up, he insisted that he’d never been mentally ill and had stopped taking recreational drugs decades ago, in his twenties.
“When something like this happens,” he said, “people always go back and bring up things from your past. They like to talk with your ex-wife and get all her opinions. You can imagine what she’d tell the media about me. I’m not schizophrenic.”
As he talked, he never stopped moving, bobbing and weaving in front of me, hunching his shoulders and laughing, exuding energy and friendliness. He reminded me of some of the Kansas farm kids I’d grown up with—big-boned, lumbering good ol’ boys who were a little more calculating than they appeared.
The longer he complained about conditions at the jail, the more I was struck by his demeanor. Despite all the grumbling about the food and the temperature, he seemed happy behind bars. Most people serving time deny doing the crime they’ve been charged with, offer excuses for their actions, or try to fool you about their motives. They’re depressed or angry. The fifty-one-year-old Roeder made no attempt to hide that he’d been locked up for shooting Dr. George Tiller a month and a half earlier, nor did he try to deny that he was about to be convicted of the first-degree murder and sent to prison, possibly for the rest of his life. He didn’t just look at peace; he looked proud of himself.
When I asked him about Tiller’s death, he said, “My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner.”
Right after the killing, Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston had announced that this would not be a death penalty case because it didn’t meet several criteria including murdering a minor or killing for money, and it wasn’t a homicide involving sex or multiple victims.
Did Roeder realize that back in the 1990s Kansas had reinstated capital punishment and if convicted he could have faced lethal injection?
“That never crossed my mind,” he said. “What Tiller was doing was wrong, even though it wasn’t illegal. When something is morally wrong, even if it’s legal, it violates God’s law. God’s law is always more important than man’s law.”
He paused, made eye contact with me through the glass, and forcefully stated, “I stopped abortion in Wichita.”
It took a few moments for the full weight of those five words to sink in, given the history of the city’s involvement with the issue since the mid-1970s.
“I’ve heard,” he went on, “that since this happened three women have changed their minds and decided not to get an abortion, because Tiller isn’t around anymore.”
He smiled and said, “Wichita is no longer the abortion capital of the world.”
He conveyed no emotion at all about Dr. Tiller’s death—a void where one might have expected rage or anxiety or fear about his legal fate. Nothing was there, and that was the most unsettling thing about him. He seemed to have released his own personal stress over the abortion issue, and could at last relax.
I asked if this was true.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m more relaxed now and so is Wichita.”
The guard banged the door, making us cringe.
We stared at each other and he repeated how glad he was that I’d driven out to see him. He hoped we could meet again.
In twenty-five years of writing about domestic terrorism, I’d never been this close to a terrorist before—or to the civil war unfolding in my own backyard. When I’d begun tracking this war back in 1984, it had existed only at the fringes of America: nine white men out in the Idaho woods, filled with hatred and committed to murdering a talk show host. Now it permeated our entire society, in our media, politics, culture, and religion. The mind-set of “us against them” had become not just normalized, but the pathway to great acclaim and success. The mainstreaming of hate and the glorification of this divisive mentality was perhaps the biggest—and most deadly—change in the United States in my lifetime.
The first American Civil War lasted about four years before the North won its victory in 1865 and began the path toward ending slavery. This second one has gone on for about forty years now, with no end in sight. The new millennium, which many had felt would usher in a time of healing and unity, has seen this war spread and intensify; some called it a fight for the soul of the nation. Ever since Alan Berg was gunned down in his driveway, I’d been traveling around the Midwest and West bumping into this same story over and over again, and every time I found it, it was bigger and more disturbing.