WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A lawsuit against a Kansas woman who publicly proclaimed her admiration for the man who gunned down one of the country's few late-term abortion providers is revealing the unwavering support a small group of radical anti-abortion activists has for the imprisoned killer despite an ongoing federal investigation into the 2009 slaying.
Though no federal indictments have been handed down by a grand jury investigating whether Dr. George Tiller's death was connected to a broader case involving extreme anti-abortion activists, the lawsuit against Angel Dillard is one indication the Justice Department is taking a more heavy handed approach to perceived threats to abortion providers. In addition to alleging Dillard, of Valley Center, sent a threatening letter in 2011 to another Wichita doctor who was training to offer abortions, the lawsuit also highlights Dillard's relationship with Scott Roeder, the man convicted of fatally shooting Tiller at the physician's church.
When Roeder opened fire on Tiller, he propelled himself to icon status among abortion opponent extremists — a status that hasn't wavered since he was sentenced to life in prison. A leader in the Army of God, which supports violence against abortion doctors, notes Roeder gets more correspondence than other imprisoned anti-abortion activists.
Hailed by militant anti-abortion forces as a "prisoner of Christ," Roeder has been spreading his radical views from a Kansas prison. Other extremists have gravitated to Roeder, visiting him in prison, sending him money and offering legal advice, court documents show.
Abortion rights supporters fear a disturbing pattern whereby imprisoned abortion opponents inspire others to commit further acts of violence against abortion providers and clinics. But radical anti-abortion activists contend the government is trying to suppress "serious opposition" to abortion by targeting Dillard.
"We are always concerned when extremists are getting together and spreading hate and encouraging others to engage in criminal activity," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association representing abortion providers.
A federal grand jury began investigating in 2010 whether Tiller's murder was connected to a larger case involving radical anti-abortion activists. Though no public charges have been filed, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Dena Iverson, said the investigation is still open.
The lawsuit against Dillard was filed in April 2011 under a federal law aimed at protecting access to reproductive services. It seeks a court order keeping her from coming within 250 feet of the doctor, along with damages of $5,000 and a civil penalty of $15,000. The case is scheduled for trial in October.
Dillard had been under government scrutiny even before she mailed the letter to the Wichita doctor, and the FBI had interviewed her several times after she first wrote Roeder in prison.
"I think they just wanted to check us out and make sure that we weren't nuts who were planning to pick up where they think Roeder left off," Dillard told The Associated Press in 2009, adding that she and her husband had no plans to "do anything of violence to anyone" and wanted to minister to Roeder. Dillard also said she admired Roeder and developed a friendship with him.
Dillard is now claiming "ministerial privilege" in refusing to answer the government's questions about that relationship. Her attorney, Donald McKinney, argued his client's religious ministry is protected by the First Amendment. But defense filings in her case made public jail records detailing more than a dozen visits and deposits totaling $373 she made to Roeder's inmate fund between April 2010 and March 2012. Those documents showed contributions from others.
The ongoing support for Roeder also is apparent in the appeal of his murder conviction. Seven abortion opponents who asked in 2010 and 2011 to file friend-of-the-court briefs were spurned without comment by the Kansas Supreme Court. Other activists are now writing legal briefs for Roeder to file himself, arguing Tiller's death was necessary to defend the unborn. No oral arguments are scheduled in his appeal.
The Rev. Don Spitz of Virginia, who runs the Army of God website, which supports violence against abortion providers and clinics, is helping Roeder with correspondence.
Roeder likes to "debate" with people who write and often asks Spitz to mail them a militant anti-abortion book written by Paul Hill, a Florida man who was executed for murdering an abortion provider in 1994, Spitz said. Roeder also asks him to send them the book written by the Rev. Michael Bray, an Ohio activist and author of "A Time to Kill," which defends using lethal force to protect the unborn.
Saporta said those offering Roeder legal help doesn't concern her, "in that I don't think any appeal is going to be successful, but nothing good happens when these people get together and reminisce and figure out how to target other providers," noting Roeder had visited a woman who shot and wounded Tiller in 1993 and was later convicted in a series of abortion clinic arsons and bombings.
Roeder's appeals attorney did not return a message for comment. Roeder declined comment from prison after the AP refused to guarantee everything he said would be printed verbatim.
Bray — who has spent four years in prison in connection with the destruction of abortion clinics in the Washington, D.C., area — attended Roeder's trial. He still writes and visits Roeder in prison. One day last year, Bray and Dillard visited Roeder on the same day. Bray and another person were already ministering to Roeder when Dillard arrived, McKinney said, adding his client has not had any other contact with Bray other than meeting him at Roeder's trial.
"Those who resisted seriously with force are shunned," Bray said in a phone interview. "They are immediately dragged into jail or fined very weightily — fewer and fewer people are willing to stand in support because of the great oppression of those who do."