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Shooting shocks a Vt. church

 

By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 12/9/2001

BRATTLEBORO - 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 act.

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 killing.

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 simple lifestyle.

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 explain.

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 suicide.

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.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.