Did Tiller's murderer act alone?

Suspect Scott Roeder tells the AP that his actions were only a taste of what's to come

By Judy Berman

Published June 8, 2009 2:09PM (EDT)

More than a week has now passed since the murder of George Tiller. At a funeral in Wichita on Saturday, hundreds of family members, friends and former patients paid tribute to the doctor. His wife, Jeanne Tiller, sang "The Lord's Prayer" in honor of "my best buddy and the love of my life." Tiller's son, Maury, told the crowd that his father "is in a much better place now, a safe place, a place where he is free." Nearby, a small group of antiabortion extremists continued to protest. One sign read, "God Sent the Shooter."

The next day, Scott Roeder, the man to whom the sign apparently referred, placed a call to the Associated Press. From his cell in Sedgwick County jail, Roeder complained about poor living conditions. While he refused to confirm or deny that he had shot Tiller before consulting with his lawyer, what he did say was equal parts unsettling and incriminating: "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal."

This brings us to one of the most important questions surrounding Tiller's death: Did the murderer act alone? Is Scott Roeder a rogue lunatic or a player in a larger conspiracy to terrorize and assassinate abortion providers? Is he drumming up attention, scaremongering and angling for better treatment, or is there something (terrifying) to his claims?

Now, it's clearly possible that Roeder is lying, insane or both. But while even the most extreme antiabortion groups have worked to distance themselves from Roeder, they haven't exactly been enthusiastic in condemning Tiller's murder, either. (As Mike Madden reported last week, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry had this to say: "George Tiller was a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.") Troy Newman, Operation Rescue's current president, disavows any involvement. "This guy is a fruit and a lunatic," he wrote in an e-mail to the AP responding to Tiller's statement.

But it's well-known that Roeder was active on antiabortion message boards and at the fringes of established activist groups. And, as Daily Kos reported, authorities found a particularly suspicious piece of evidence in Roeder's car: Inscribed on a Post-It note on the alleged murderer's dashboard was the phone number of Cheryl Sullenger. Now the senior policy advisor for Operation Rescue, Sullenger served (only) two years in prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic back in 1988. (That's right: Even if Operation Rescue doesn't have anything to do with Roeder's plan, it still employs a convicted antiabortion terrorist.)

It's likely we won't know for sure whether Roeder had accomplices until his trial. But for now, it at least seems fair to question what impact organized antiabortion groups may have had on his (alleged) decision to kill Tiller. I'll leave you with the words of Ellen Goodman, who writes (in an opinion piece that is worth reading in its entirety):

I have covered far too many such murders. As a First Amendment absolutist, I don't believe that words kill. But this week, I can't help wondering whether rhetoric can justify a crime in the mind of a fanatic. Can't words provide the sort of perverse moral platform that jihadists stand on and the alternate universe in which a "lone nut" can find a home?

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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