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 yesterday 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 a Kansas City suburb three hours after the shooting, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said.
Although Stolz refused to release the man's name, a Johnson County sheriff's spokesman 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.
Court records and Internet postings show that someone using the name Scott Roeder has a criminal past and has expressed antiabortion opinions on sympathetic Web sites.
Long a focus of national antiabortion 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."
Stolz said all indications were that the gunman acted alone, although authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to antiabortion 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 yesterday.
Antiabortion groups denounced the shooting and stressed that they support only nonviolent protest.
"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."
But Randall Terry, a veteran antiabortion activist who founded Operation Rescue and whose protests have often targeted Tiller, called the slain doctor "a mass murderer," adding: "He was an evil man - his hands were covered with blood."
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," 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.
President 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.
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. Stolz, however, said police knew of no threats connected to the shooting.
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.
Someone named Scott Roeder, then 38, was charged in Topeka, Kan., in 1996 with criminal use of explosives for having bomb components in his car trunk and sentenced to 24 months of probation. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal the next 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 had identified Roeder as a member of the antigovernment Freemen group, an organization that kept the FBI at bay in Jordan, Mont., for almost three months in 1995-96.