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December 9, 2001
A full inquiry
December 9, 2001
(from the Editorials section)
As more information emerges about the death of Robert Woodward, the need for
an independent and thorough investigation of the incident becomes all the
Woodward died after he was shot seven times by two Brattleboro police
officers who were responding to a call from the West Village Meeting House,
where a church service was under way last Sunday morning.
Woodward came into the West Brattleboro church, saying the CIA and the FBI
were after him. Witnesses said he was agitated and erratic. At one point he
pulled out a knife, and he warned people not to come close to him.
By the time the police arrived, there were still 15 to 20 people in the
meeting house, which means authorities have numerous witnesses to the
shooting. And from those witnesses, a disturbing picture is emerging about
It is far from clear that Woodward represented a threat to anyone except
himself at the time of the shooting. Witnesses have said police officers
warned Woodward to drop the knife, but nothing except Woodwardıs refusal to
drop the knife has emerged as a reason that he was shot. And that is not
sufficient grounds for shooting to kill.
It is important to remember that investigators are still trying to piece
together from many sources a definitive account of what happened at the
meeting house. At the initial stages, however, it is clear that many
witnesses are dismayed at police actions, and no one has stepped forward to
offer an account saying the police did what was necessary.
These public concerns require a thorough look into events at West
Brattleboro. The attorney generalıs office has begun an investigation, which
is customary in cases of police shootings. Often such investigations confirm
that officers in situations of great danger were forced by circumstance to
shoot. New facts may emerge in the Woodward case to provide a valid
explanation for the death of Robert Woodward. We have not heard those facts
Windham County Stateıs Attorney Dan Davis may convene a grand jury to look
into the incident, but the attorney generalıs investigation will be
particularly important because the attorney general is further removed from
Windham County. In addition to looking at the facts of the shooting, both
Davis and the attorney generalıs office need to determine whether Woodward
was allowed to receive the proper medical care after he was shot.
The uneasy atmosphere that has gripped the nation in the past three months
has, more than likely, put many law enforcement officers on edge. In a
period when everyone is supposed to be on high alert at all times, the
police must be ready for threats of all kinds. It cannot be easy to live
every day with an expectation of terrorism or other new and dangerous forms
But a state of high alert requires a state of extreme caution. Police must
deal with distraught and disturbed people all the time; preventing harm to
the disturbed person is part of the policeıs job.
The police know this. The officers involved in the Woodward case whatever
happened are probably experiencing an agony of regret. But the public must
be assured that the police recognize the need for restraint in dangerous
situations. A thorough search for the facts in the Woodward case will help
provide that assurance.
Boston Sunday Globe
Shooting shocks a Vt. church
By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 12/9/2001
RATTLEBORO - The bell calling members to the 10 a.m. service had just
sounded at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday. As
sometimes happens in the spirit of Unitarian individualism, two members were
debating who should make the morning announcements when Robert A. Woodward
made an agitated entrance at the back of the meeting room.
Nobody knew him. Was this an opening skit, many of the 70 people present
wondered? But as Woodward, 37, started pleading for sanctuary, saying the
police, the CIA, and the FBI wanted to kill him, they realized this was no
When he pulled out a knife and threatened suicide, someone called the
police. Ultimately, two Brattleboro officers put seven bullets in the
desperate man standing next to the church Christmas tree.
This morning, congregants will return to All Souls Church to try to process
their anger and guilt that their church space had become the scene of a
The officers involved have been placed on administrative leave while State
Police determine whether the threat justified the officers' actions.
''It was more than a violation of sanctuary. It was a violation of common
sense,'' said J.B.C. ''Tom'' Thomas, former president of the 130-member
church. ''I don't fault the officers; I fault the system that trained them
to shoot so quickly.''
If the intensity of the police response is a puzzle, what drove Woodward to
the church that day is a mystery, according to his friends and relatives.
They say Woodward, who was single, had no history of mental illness or
violence, had never used drugs, and earned enough money to support his
Woodward, who was born and raised in Norwich, Conn., was probably always a
bit lonely, friends said. He lived by himself in an apartment in Bellows
Falls, 20 miles north of Brattleboro. Nevertheless he had enough friends to
enjoy an occasional social outing. The night before the shooting he had been
his ''even-keeled'' self at Barbara Davis's birthday party.
''He was just plain ol' Woody Saturday night. Nothing out of the ordinary,''
Davis said. But then something happened that his friends and kin can't
He was not a member of All Souls Church; he did not even know where the
church was located, and had to ask for directions.
When he barged into the service, he announced that police were trying to
torture and kill him, and that he ''wouldn't say anything against Bush.''
When parishioners started to leave, he unfolded a knife that had been in his
pocket. He threatened to stab himself if the crowd continued to thin.
Someone called the police; others were able to persuade him to put the knife
away. Woodward asked a parishioner to call a friend in Amherst, Mass. The
friend was not home, but the next three minutes - the limit on the answering
machine - were recorded. ''Political assassination, political assassination,
political assassination ... global warming,'' he says on the message.
Then the police arrived. Woodward pulled out his knife again and threatened
He did not obey orders to drop the weapon, and police shot him seven times,
a few of the bullets apparently hitting him after he had fallen forward,
according to one witness. Woodward was then handcuffed face down.
''I love you, I love you all,'' paramedics said Woodward kept repeating all
the way to the hospital.
This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 12/9/2001.
Hartford Courant, The (CT)
December 7, 2001
Edition: 7 SPORTS FINAL
CHURCH KILLING PUZZLES FRIEND
GARY LIBOW; Courant Staff Writer
The death of a former Bozrah man shot by police last weekend in a Vermont
church has left a close friend baffled and angry.
Robert Woodward, 37, was gunned down Sunday at the altar of All Souls
Unitarian Universalist Church in Brattleboro after making threatening moves
with a knife toward authorities, according to police.
Woodward grew up in Bozrah, and attended Norwich Free Academy and Southern
Connecticut State University.
Stephen Monroe Tomczak of Wallingford said his friend, known as ``Woody,''
was a gentle man who did not deserve to die violently at the hands of
Tomczak, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, joined a growing
group of people who are calling for an independent investigation into
Woodward, who was in Tomczak's wedding party in August, had never exhibited
any signs of mental illness or distress, and was not known to drink or take
illegal or prescribed drugs that might have affected his behavior, Tomczak
Woodward had traveled to a church known to open its arms to the downtrodden
and mentally ill on Sunday.
Weeping before a congregation gathered for a service, Woodward asked for
``political sanctuary.'' He was asked to take a seat or leave, and
reportedly pulled the knife.
Tomczak has trouble believing those accounts, which he calls completely
``out of character'' for a man he has known since 1983, when they met at
Southern Connecticut. The two friends last saw one another Nov. 23.
``Woody was his regular, stable, normal self,'' Tomczak said. ``Woody was an
extremely peaceful, kind and gentle human being.''
At a Thursday press conference in Brattleboro, State's Attorney Dan Davis
reported that Woodward was struck by seven shots fired by police and died of
a wound to his abdomen.
Vermont's attorney general is investigating the shooting, and a grand jury
could be convened to determine whether the shooting was justified.
Tomczak said Woodward moved to Vermont in the past year, after living for
years in New Hampshire. His mother still lives in Bozrah.
Woodward, a Bellows Falls resident who was single and had no children, was
dedicated to children and worked in social services for years, Tomczak said.
Wednesday December 5 2:09 PM ET
Fatal Police Shooting Shocks Church
By DAVID GRAM, Associated Press Writer
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP) - He went before the congregation just as the service
was to begin. Weeping, he asked for help, for ``political sanctuary.''
But All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church - which has long welcomed the
downtrodden and the mentally ill - couldn't offer sanctuary to Robert A.
Woodward on Sunday.
Gently asked to take a seat or leave, Woodward pulled a knife. Police were
called. After making what authorities called threatening moves with the
blade, he was gunned down at the altar and died at a hospital.
The police shooting in a church known for its peace activism left the
congregation in shock. And it left many of the roughly 10,000 residents of a
community known for its left-leaning politics, where a faded ``Question
Authority'' bumper sticker is not an uncommon sight, doing just that.
People wanted to know why the officers fired seven shots with their
semiautomatic pistols rather than just one, or why they didn't subdue
Woodward with the pepper spray they carry, or just tackle him.
``It appears as though there will have to be a high burden on those who
pulled the trigger to show that there were no other means to deal with this
situation,'' said Benson D. Scotch, director of the Vermont office of the
American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites).
State authorities are investigating the shooting to determine whether it was
It remained a mystery why the 37-year-old man would drive 25 miles from his
apartment in Bellows Falls to seek help in a church hidden from the road on
a pine-topped knoll - a church where he was a complete stranger.
Woodward's mother, Joanne Woodward of Bozrah, Conn., told the Brattleboro
Reformer that her son had no history of mental problems. And investigators
said it appeared he did not have a criminal record.
Woodward, who was single and had no children, worked most recently with
foster children at a community mental health organization in Vermont, his
``I would just like to stress for you that he was a very peaceful person,''
she said. ``He never would have injured anyone else. He was a loving, caring
person and very gentle.''
The West Village Meeting House, a 1970s chalet-style building with
brown-stained shingles, is home to both the Unitarian Universalist church
and to a Jewish congregation.
Investigators said it was clear when Woodward went into the church that he
wanted to be heard. The chief source of the agitation that led to Woodward's
shooting appeared to be that members of the congregation were getting up to
Woodward handed out blank checks with statements written on the backs of
them, State's Attorney Dan Davis said. Davis would not reveal their
As Woodward grew more agitated, someone announced it was time for Sunday
school, and the 15 children among the roughly 70 people in the church were
escorted out to the parking lot. A congregation member used a cell phone to
A church member began talking with Woodward and placed some cellular phone
calls for him. Woodward put his knife away. But when someone suggested that
the 15 or 20 members of the congregation who remained leave, Woodward grew
angry and pulled out his knife again. Davis said it was a folding knife,
with a blade 4 to 5 inches long.
``There was a movement with the knife itself and movements made by Mr.
Woodward that the officers perceived as a threat to themselves and-or the
congregation,'' Davis said on Monday.
Two officers opened fire; a third officer did not shoot.
Norman Hunt, an 85-year-old member of the congregation, said that Woodward
did not verbally threaten anyone other than himself.
``He did tell us he was afraid of the police and afraid if they caught him
they'd kill him,'' Hunt said. ``He held a small pocketknife and held it
against his right eye and said that rather than being captured he'd kill
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