WICHITA, Kan. — A man with ties to anti-government groups was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in the shooting death of abortion provider George Tiller at a church.
Scott Roeder (ROH'-dur), 51, made a two-minute court appearance via a video link from the Sedgwick County Jail. Roeder, wearing a red jail jumpsuit and fiddling with the charging documents on a podium in front of him, said, "OK" three times as Judge Ben Burgess read him the charges and explained the court process.
Roeder is accused of shooting Tiller to death Sunday as the doctor served as an usher at his Lutheran church in Wichita. Roeder also is charged with aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two people at the church who tried to stop him.
Burgess ordered Roeder held without bond and said he was not allowed to communicate with Tiller's family or the two witnesses he allegedly assaulted. The judge told Roeder he would be assigned a public defender.
"And I'll obviously be hearing from one of those lawyers between now — or do you know how long it will be before I hear from one of those lawyers?" Roeder said.
The judge told Roeder he could expect to hear from an attorney within two days. A preliminary hearing is set for June 16 at 9 a.m.
If convicted on the murder charge, Roeder would face a mandatory life sentence and would not be eligible for parole for at least 25 years.
Attorney Mark Orr with the Sedgwick County public defender's office said it had just been the assigned the case and had not had a chance to talk to Roeder yet.
Police have said it appears the gunman acted alone.
Roeder was arrested about three hours after the shooting near Gardner, about 170 miles northeast of Wichita. His last known address is in Kansas City, Mo.
In March, Roeder attended at least one day of Tiller's trial on misdemeanor counts in Sedgwick County District Court, Operation Rescue president Troy Newman said Tuesday. Tiller was acquitted on 19 counts of failing to obtain a second, independent opinion before performing late-term abortions.
Roeder arrived at court wearing an anti-abortion T-shirt, which a court officer had him cover up before entering the courtroom.
"He was some guy on the fringe," Newman said. "Nobody knew him all that well other than his name."
Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston would not release any details of the Tiller killing at a news conference after Tuesday's hearing but said evidence against Roeder ruled out the death penalty.
Foulston said the case does not meet the special circumstances required for the death penalty in Kansas. Such circumstances include the killing of a law enforcement or jail official, more than one person, someone kidnapped for ransom and a slaying during a rape.
As one of a few doctors across the nation to perform third-trimester abortions, Tiller had survived an earlier shooting, his clinic was bombed, his home picketed. He hired a Brink's armored truck to take him to work for several weeks, and he frequently had the protection of federal marshals. He built a new surgical center without windows and was known to wear a bulletproof vest, sometimes even to church.
Scott Roeder's former wife, Lindsey Roeder, has said her ex-husband's life began unraveling more than a decade ago when he got involved with anti-government groups, and then became "very religious in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way."
"The anti-tax stuff came first, and then it grew and grew. He became very anti-abortion," said Lindsey Roeder, who was married to Scott Roeder for 10 years but "strongly disagrees with his beliefs." He moved out in 1994, and the couple divorced in 1996. They have one son, now 22.
Roeder's brother, David, also said he suffered from mental illness at various times in his life.
Roeder was arrested in 1996 in Topeka after being stopped by sheriff's deputies because his car lacked a valid license plate. Instead, it bore a tag declaring him a "sovereign" and immune from state law. In the trunk, deputies found materials that could be assembled into a bomb.
He was convicted and sentenced to two years on probation and ordered to stop associating with violent anti-government groups. But the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 1997, ruling that authorities seized evidence against Roeder during an illegal search of his car.
Tiller's death has focused attention on the availability of third-trimester abortions, as the few remaining providers age with little interest from new doctors to offer such services. However, abortion opponents were swift to condemn Tiller's slaying, with Operation Rescue referring to the killing as vigilantism and "a cowardly act."
Tiller's family announced earlier Tuesday that there were no plans yet to reopen his Wichita clinic, despite earlier comments from Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of four physicians who worked at the clinic.
Carhart, 67, of Bellevue, Neb., had said Monday that the clinic would reopen next week. On Tuesday, he said he apparently misunderstood Tiller's wife, Jeanne Tiller, when she talked to the staff about the clinic's future on Monday.
"I hope we can work this out with the Tiller family," Carhart said in a telephone interview from his Nebraska clinic.
Dr. Warren Hern, 70, whose Boulder, Colo., clinic is one of a few that performs abortions after a fetus is considered viable, said the situation was worse than people realized.
"This is not one nut case that goes out and bumps off an abortion doctor," he said. "This is a political assassination. It has been going on for decades."
Funeral services for Tiller are planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at College Hill United Methodist Church.