Thursday, December 9, 2010

Disabled vet charged with stalking church that protests soldiers' funerals

From CNN:

A 26-year-old double-amputee war veteran has been charged with stalking members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which holds demonstrations at soldiers' funerals to assert those deaths are God's punishment for America's "sin of homosexuality."

Retired Sgt. Ryan Newell of Marion, Kansas, a turret gunner who lost both legs to an improvised bomb in Afghanistan in 2008, is being held in Sedgwick County, Kansas, in lieu of $500,000 bail, and defense attorney Boyd McPherson was negotiating with prosecutors Monday to reduce the bail, he told CNN in an interview.

Newell, his wife, Carrie, and their four children were the subject of local media attention when the national nonprofit Homes for Our Troops constructed a new house for the family this year.

Since Newell's arrest last week, McPherson's office has been inundated with phone calls and e-mails from supporters of Newell or opponents of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Pastor Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas.

Newell has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and with five misdemeanors: three counts of criminal use of weapons, stalking, and false impersonation of a law officer.

When Sedgwick County, Kansas, sheriff's deputies arrested Newell last Tuesday, they found his car contained an M4 assault rifle, a .45-caliber Glock and a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, said Georgia Cole, spokeswoman for the district attorney's Office in Sedgwick County. Also, 90 rounds of ammunition were found in the car, McPherson said.

Newell was arrested outside Wichita City Hall, where members of the Phelps family and their church were meeting inside with police officials about security issues, McPherson said.

The charges accuse Newell of making Phelps family and church members fear for their safety.

"I usually don't have that high priority of a case," said McPherson, a family law and criminal lawyer in Wichita. "This one is going to push the hot button of military personnel, and it's going to hit the hot button of wounded soldiers. He lost his mother when he was 19 and was in Afghanistan, and he had to come back to bury her. So there's a group of mothers who like him. And there are people who don't like the Phelps group. There are so many different layers of society."

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church pastor's daughter, said a judge has ordered Newell not to go anywhere near members of her family and church.

"Isn't this an amazing turn of events?" Phelps-Roper told CNN. "These young people have gone to war with broken moral compasses and now they think they are in charge and that the mob is ruling the country.

"He comes with his cache of weapons and 90 rounds of ammunition and he's going to kill us because we're simply saying that if you stop sinning, God will stop this pain in Iraq and Afghanistan," Phelps-Roper said.

"He thinks (if he is released on bail), he is going to go back and try it again. He's already had a God-smack and he's going to try to get another one again. This time he's not going to lose his limbs. He's going to lose his life. God is going to kill him. He warned, 'Don't touch my people,'" Phelps-Roper said.

She said she noticed that a stranger's car was following her and other church members after they picketed the high school in Mulvane, Kansas, "where they are teaching rebellion against God," she said.

At the high school, there was a heated face-off with members of the Patriot Guard, which she described as a group of bikers who have opposed Westboro's pickets, she said.

After the high school picket, she and other church members drove to nearby Wichita where they met downtown with a police deputy chief and a captain in a scheduled appointment about safety concerns.

"We wanted to talk about what we should do to try to eliminate some of the danger that they posed -- those bikers, those vets," said Phelps-Roper, who's also an attorney for the church. Police then told the church members that they were arresting someone in the parking lot whose car contained weapons, she said.

While being held in jail, Newell's titanium prosthetic legs have been removed because they could be used as weapons, and he's been placed in a wheelchair, McPherson said.

McPherson said the $500,000 bail doesn't fit Newell's charges.

"As a matter of fact, I was just on the phone with the district attorney's office, and we're getting closer" in reducing the bail amount, McPherson said Monday afternoon. "I've seen people charged in murders and bank robberies, and their bond isn't that high."

McPherson said a soldier at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has raised $3,500 since Thursday for Newell's defense fund, and McPherson is receiving about 100 e-mails a day from supporters, as well as phone calls from Europe and Canada, he said. A local American Legion group in Wichita is also raising money for Newell, the attorney said.

"Our receptionist is constantly on the phone," McPherson said.