WICHITA, KS—A controversial late-term abortion doctor was shot and killed Sunday inside his church.
Dr. George Tiller was gunned down just as services were starting. He died three hours later from the gunman's single shot.
"We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped," said Adam Watkins, a 20-year-old Wichita resident who had shaken hands with the doctor and his wife about 10 minutes before.
Tiller was an usher for the church Sunday morning. Another usher came in and told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Tiller's wife out. "When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened," Watkins said.
Tiller, 67, had been the target of violence before: A protester had shot him in both arms as he left his clinic in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985. But, in the end, the place where Tiller faced the biggest threat turned out to be where he prayed.
"This is particularly heart-wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace," said a statement released on behalf of Tiller's wife, four children and 10 grandchildren.
The gunman fled, but a 51-year-old suspect was detained some 170 miles away in suburban Kansas City three hours after the shooting, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said.
Although Stolz refused to release the man's name, Johnson County sheriff's spokesman Tom Erickson identified the detained man as Scott Roeder. He has not been charged in the slaying and was expected to be taken to Wichita for questioning.
Court records and Internet postings show that someone using the name Scott Roeder has a criminal past and has expressed anti-abortion opinions on sympathetic Web sites.
Stolz said all indications were that the gunman acted alone, although authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.
Tiller's Women's Health Care Services clinic is one of just three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy. The clinic was heavily fortified and Tiller often traveled with a bodyguard, but Stolz said there was no indication of security at the church Sunday.
The Tiller family said its loss "is also a loss for the city of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence."
Anti-abortion groups denounced the shooting and stressed that they support only nonviolent protest. The movement's leaders fear the killing could create a backlash just as they are scrutinizing
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose views on abortion rights are not publicly known.
"We are shocked at this morning's disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down," Troy Newman, Operation Rescue's president, said in a statement. "Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning."
But Randall Terry, a veteran anti-abortion activist who founded Operation Rescue and whose protests have often targeted Tiller, called the slain doctor "a mass murderer," adding: "He was an evil man - his hands were covered with blood."
Reformation Lutheran Church held a special memorial service Sunday evening. Dr. Michael Bates, who has known Tiller for more than 25 years, described it as a simple service featuring Bible readings. Reporters were kept out.
At a vigil in downtown Wichita that attracted a few hundred people, about 10 protesters from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church held signs emblazoned with such messages as "Abortion is bloody murder" and "Baby killer in hell." The church is known for picketing military funerals.
The protesters and about 20 Tiller supporters shouted at each other. A large number of police officers stood by to make sure the scene stayed under control.