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Man with knife in church fatally shot by police

By David Gram, Associated Press, 12/3/2001 23:20

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP) He went before the congregation just as the service was to begin. Weeping, he asked for help, for ''political sanctuary,'' one witness said.

But All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, welcoming to the downtrodden, the marginalized, even 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. Police later said he made threatening moves. They shot him seven times. He died less than four hours later.

The shooting in a church known for its activism for peace, left the congregation in shock, members said.

Rev. Deborah Mero was too busy counseling members of her flock to be interviewed, her husband said.

It remained a mystery why a 37-year-old man would drive from his home in Bellows Falls 25 miles south to seek help in a church hidden from the road on a pine topped knoll a church where he was a complete stranger.

Investigators said it was clear he wanted to be heard. The chief source of the agitation that led to Woodward's fatal shooting appeared to be members of the congregation getting up to leave.

At a news conference Monday afternoon Windham County State's Attorney Dan Davis offered scant detail on what led Officers Terrance Parker and Marshall Holbrook to fire their service pistols on the alter of the church. A third officer who responded, William Davies, didn't fire.

''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.

Davis said during his initial remarks Woodward handed out blank checks with statements written on the back of them. Davis would not reveal their contents.

As Woodward grew more agitated, the 15 children among the roughly 70 members of the congregation were escorted out. A member of the church used a cellular phone to call police.

A church member began speaking 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.

After the officers arrived at about 10:15 a.m. and shot Woodward he was taken first to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and then to the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where he died during surgery shortly before 2 p.m., Davis said.

Davis said he asked Vermont State Police to investigate the shooting. Staff from the state police crime lab and officers were at the church throughout the day Monday, and Woodward's body was undergoing an autopsy.

The three officers involved in the shooting were all off on Monday, though Detective Sgt. Eugene Wrinn, who represented the town police at Monday's news conference, was unclear whether they were on regular days off or administrative leave. Davis and other investigators said they did not know whether Woodward, who had moved recently to Bellows falls from nearby Alstead, N.H. had a history of mental illness. They said it appeared he did not have a criminal record.