Veteran Accused Of Stalking Westboro Church

In Wichita, Kan., 26-year-old Ryan Newell — a veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan — has been charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and other crimes against Westboro Baptist Church. Church members have been staging protests at soldiers' funerals, saying that the death of soldiers is God's way of punishing the country for homosexuality. For more, NPR's Guy Raz talks to Tim Potter of the Wichita Eagle.

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GUY RAZ, host:

In Wichita, an Afghan war veteran, Ryan Newell, has been charged with, among other things, conspiracy to commit aggravated battery against members of Westboro Baptist Church. That's the church run by Fred Phelps, whose members picket military funerals to protest homosexuality. Now, Newell, who is a 26-year-old, lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan. And veterans across the country are offering to pay for his defense.

Joining me now with more on this story is Tim Potter. He's covering it for the Wichita Eagle newspaper. And, Tim, exactly what did Ryan Newell do to get arrested?

Mr. TIM POTTER (Reporter, Wichita Eagle): Well, he was arrested outside Wichita City Hall and a sheriff's detective had seen him appear to be following closely behind a Westboro van that was its way to Wichita City Hall. According to authorities, he had weapons and ammunition in his car.

RAZ: So, of course, the implication is that he was planning to commit some type of violent attack against members of the group. What do we know about Ryan Newell?

Mr. POTTER: Ryan is from this area and my understanding is that he had tours of duty in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and it's in 2008 in Afghanistan where he lost both his legs when an improvised bomb exploded.

RAZ: I understand, Tim, that Ryan Newell has been getting a lot of support from veterans and others who are coming to his defense.

Mr. POTTER: Yes. We've been receiving calls and emails from people from New Hampshire to Nevada, people who are sympathetic to him because he is a, you know, veteran who suffered traumatic wounds in war. And our news website is Kansas.com and we've been receiving a number of comments to our stories and coverage that's posted there.

RAZ: And presumably a lot of distaste with what this church does. I mean, I guess we should explain. They go to military funerals all over the country, funerals for young men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They protest what they regard as a kind of a free-wheeling attitude towards homosexuality in America.

Mr. POTTER: Yes. And their message is - condensed down - is the soldiers' deaths are God's way of punishing this nation for what they see as immorality in this nation.

RAZ: Tim, based on your reporting, is - have you been able to get any sense of whether Ryan Newell suffers from PTSD or any other kind of trauma related to his deployments?

Mr. POTTER: I don't have any reliable information about whether he suffers from PTSD or any other mental conditions. There seems to be an assumption, though, by readers and by the public that anybody who suffered that serious an injury -and keep in mind, too, that some of his comrades were killed in that same bombing that caused him to lose his legs. So there's an assumption that he had to have suffered some kind of psychological trauma from that incident. And that based on the allegations against him in this case, that what he needs is counseling and some kind of psychological help.

RAZ: Tim Potter, thank you.

Mr. POTTER: Thank you.

RAZ: That's Tim Potter. He's a reporter with the Wichita Eagle newspaper.

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