Getting Inside The Mind Of An Alleged Doctor Killer

Following the murder of late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, his accused attacker, Scott Roeder, proclaimed the murder a righteous act. Reporter Devin Friedman talks about his interviews with Roeder for the magazine GQ.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last May, Dr. George Tiller stood in the sanctuary of his church in Wichita, Kansas, when a man walked up to him with a gun in his hand and shot him through the head. He died immediately. Tiller was nationally known as one of four doctors in the country who would perform late-term abortions. Days later, a man named Scott Roeder publicly confessed. He told reporters he shot Tiller because, quote, preborn children's lives were in imminent danger.

Scott Roeder's trial began this week in Sedgwick County, Kansas. He's charged with first-degree, premeditated murder and two counts of aggravated assault. GQ senior correspondent Devin Friedman crafted an account of the day that Dr. Tiller died, after hours of interviews with the accused and with Dr. Tiller's friends and family.

If you have questions about Scott Roeder or about George Tiller, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, and just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Devin Friedman is a senior correspondent for GQ. His article is titled "Savior vs. Savior." He joins us today from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DEVIN FRIEDMAN (Senior Correspondent, GQ): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And to be clear, your article is not about abortion, but about Dr. Tiller and about Scott Roeder. And you found, I guess, some similarities in the way these men saw themselves.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes and no. I mean, I think that they both were highly motivated in, sort of, their views. But I don't think that they led their lives in - at all - a similar way.

CONAN: No, they're very different people, yeah.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: But nevertheless, Scott Roeder's motivation was that he saw himself as a savior of the unborn. And George Tiller, the doctor, said he was the savior of the women who came to his clinic for help.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I think he never, like, claimed to be a savior. But a lot of the women that he treated, you know, ended up sending him letters and saying, you know, thank you. You saved my life.

CONAN: And he posted them on his wall.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, that was a big, motivating force for all the people that worked for him. I mean, it was really a tough job to have, to work in sort of an enemy territory. It's a very conservative state, socially. And, you know, the people in this community were, you know - a lot of the pro-life movement folks out there went after them. So to counter that, Dr. Tiller was very outward with posting letters and notes from people who are saying thank you. And he also, you know, rewarded people who worked with him for their loyalty.

You know, there's a woman who worked for him for, I think, close to 30 years. And, you know, first, he bought her a gold watch, and eventually he bought her a Pontiac to say thank you for sort of sticking with this for so long.

CONAN: He also provided them with what he called combat pay.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he sort of saw himself - and he always had a sense of humor, from what I can tell, about dealing with what probably seemed like dire circumstances. But, you know, he would label it combat pay. And if, you know, say - you know, at one point folks from Operation Rescue, I believe, which is a organization that actually moved its headquarters to Wichita to shut down Dr. Tiller's clinic in, you know, probably about five or six years ago.

And they sort of followed everyone from the clinic and took pictures of them and posted signs in their neighborhoods, sort of saying, you live near a murderer, or something like that. And in response, Dr. Tiller would hand out $100 bills and say, you know, here's your combat pay for today. Thanks for what you're doing.

CONAN: Not to say that you portray him in any way as a saint. He is a man with flaws. He was vain. He was headstrong. He was willful. He was arrogant at times, and really had a transformation in his life when he stopped drinking.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, he - what I wanted to do - sort of what motivated me as a journalist was to find out who he was as a human being. I mean, it's hard to sift through the rhetoric, because it's so politicized. And I wanted -you know, here's a guy who made some pretty stark decisions in his life and some decisions that most people wouldnt make. And I did find a human being under there, someone who struggled with being headstrong and with anger, and he had a substance abuse problem.

But he really sort of dedicated himself. I talked to another doctor who worked in his clinic. And she said, you know, in the midst - before he was killed, he was on trial for what ended up being some misdemeanors. And it was the latest in a series of sort of legal political assaults on him from different organizations. And the doctor said, you know, aren't you so angry? And he said, anger is not my friend.

And she thought, well, this is a guy who sort of has worked on that. So he definitely had struggles in his life, and that's sort of the transformation, I think, happened.

CONAN: You admit that you're under a disadvantage. Obviously, you could not interview him anymore because he'd been shot to death by Scott Roeder. You did have the opportunity to speak to his alleged murderer in some detail.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I did. I spoke to him probably at least a dozen times. I didn't count. Once I sort of broke through and talked - started talking to him on the phone, he would call a lot, actually.

CONAN: Hmm. And he - interestingly, you describe him as - you say, of course, the Operation Rescue had moved its headquarters to Wichita to be there to oppose George Tiller and that there were other, you know, mounted campaigns by the anti-abortion movement, the pro-life movement, against Dr. Tiller's clinic. You described Scott Roeder, though, as not a movement man.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Whatever Scott did, he was - he did on the fringes. He was - he's not a mainstream guy. He sort of - even religiously sort of moved from a more mainstream religion, a sort of more mainstream Christianity and eventually, he became what's called a Messianic Jew, I think. And then he had trouble with the mainstream of that religion, and so he sort of cobbled together his own theories with a few of his friends that were little bit more fringe. And that's also - I mean, he knew people and kept in touch with people in the pro-life movement in Kansas, which is a pretty small and tight-knit organization, and everyone sort of knew him. But he was not part of it. He would show up at the clinic in Kansas City, where he lived, and would protest. And then you wouldn't see him for years.

You know, he'd been in jail in the past. He was in - he was arrested for, at one point, having bomb-making material in his car in the '90s. And he got pulled over because he had license plates that were of his own design. He didn't...

CONAN: Sovereign license plates...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes.

CONAN: ...didn't recognize the power of the state.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. He did not recognize the power of the state. Anyway, so he, he basically - he was - the fringe always appealed to him.

CONAN: Yeah. One of those people who revere the United States Constitution and detested the government that it created.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. He saw the government stepping on the Constitution and didnt recognize its rules or, you know, for instance, he didnt pay taxes, he didn't believe the IRS. He was very keen on the idea that the - that taxes are a code and not a law, and so you don't have to pay them.

CONAN: And somebody who also, as you said, had trouble in his life, time in prison and his marriage broke up. Obviously, that happens to a lot of people, too. I should point out, though, that you mentioned he was a member of something called Messianic Jewish faith - not something that I have much familiarity with - it. And from your description, not something that's closely related to what we would regard as mainstream Jewry.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: No. I mean, it's basically - it's a Christian sort of basis. It's like, basically, you're a Christian but you believe that you should follow the laws of the Old Testament. And by following those laws, you're considering yourself a Jew who believes in Christ. That's the only way that the savior is going to come back.

CONAN: We're talking with Devin Friedman, GQ's senior correspondent, about his article "Savior vs. Savior."

And let's get some callers on the line: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. John is with us from Muncie, Indiana.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I had a question specifically about Roeder. And I think that you guys have already kind of addressed some of what I was going to ask you, but maybe this is a little bit more specific. I wanted to know exactly how much of an influence Roeder's religious philosophy played in the - how that factored into his actual decision. Like, OK, well, yes, I'm going to follow through - follow through with this. And did that - was that the deciding factor in him actually becoming a murderer?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean, in my opinion and from talking to him, I think that his beliefs informed his religion rather than the other way around. And in a weird way, you expect or I coming to Kansas, I expected this sort of monolithic community where everyone had the same beliefs, you know, religiously, and they were sort of all on the same page and that's where they went from. But really, people were all - were from all over the spectrum religiously. And a lot of the people I met who knew Scott from the - from protesting, vehemently disagreed with his religious views, and basically thought, you know, he was totally wrong.

CONAN: Hmm.

JOHN: Can I ask one more thing then?

CONAN: Quickly, if you would.

JOHN: Yeah. Well, then, in that case, what were - just to clarify for me, then, you're saying that his beliefs kind of just led him to find what he was looking for specifically within his - within that religious context?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, if I had to look for a motivating factor for the -for this murder, he talked a lot about the information that he gathered on the Internet about Dr. Tiller. And a lot of people have, in sort of the wake of this have said, you know, this is Bill O'Reilly's fault. You know, he went on Fox, and he talked about Tiller the baby killer over and over again, and he incited violence.

And Scott actually did listen to Bill O'Reilly on the radio. He's not a guy who had cable. Not a big bill-payer, I don't think. But I think what informed him more were these were Web sites that were dedicated to almost creating a separate narrative of Dr. Tiller's life, and included lots of really sort of grotesque facts that probably were not facts, a lot of them that he had, you know, would torture fetuses and that kind of thing. And that's what he talked about.

CONAN: For fun, basically, yeah. Libels, I think they would be called.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: OK. Let's if we get one more caller in. This is Andrew. Andrew, with us from Wichita.

ANDREW (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW: Thanks for having me on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ANDREW: I have grown up here in Wichita, Kansas. I also did read the article very briefly, local media report, actually, did a story on it. I believe you talked to Abby Barnett of one of the stations here in town. My at the end of the article, you said something along the lines that perhaps Wichita is more Wichita than it ever had been while Dr. Tiller was practicing here. And I agree with that statement, but for a different reason than I think you laid out in the article.

Wichita is not nearly the knee-jerk conservative place that it seems to be assumed that we are. I think Wichita is more Wichita in that we have come together around this idea that this was not the way for this problem to be solved, for this conflict to be solved. I don't necessarily know that it's a problem, but this was not the way for this to be solved, that Scott Roeder didn't do the right thing for the movement or for this town...

CONAN: Hmm.

ANDREW: ...in doing what he did.

CONAN: Interesting. Devin Friedman?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I'm glad you mentioned that, end of that - that's sort of a the end of that story has been controversial for me. My dad actually didn't like it. But what I meant by that was that Dr. Tiller actually conducted a search - and some people that worked for him - for a doctor to replace him when he retired. He didn't want to, you know, work forever. And they were unable to find a doctor in the area suitable that could take over the practice. And it's, you know, I do agree that it's a mistake to think of any place as sort of...

CONAN: Monolithic.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...monolithic, and everyone has the same opinion. And I actually actually, I think that's a really good point, that what Scott Roeder did changed the tenor of that place and really opened people's eyes in a lot of ways. At the same time, a woman named Dr. Sela(ph), who I interviewed, who worked with Dr. Tiller, said to me, you know, I'm surprised that they killed him.I really didn't expect them to kill him, because, to me, I felt that Wichita was killing him...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...but no one was standing up for him, and he was dying a death out of thousand cuts - was her quote.

CONAN: Devin Friedman is a senior correspondent for GQ. He joined us from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to his article, "Savior vs. Savior," at our Web site, at npr.org. Thanks very much.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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