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Woodward service aims for peace
Reformer Staff

thursday, december 20, 2001

BRATTLEBORO -- Organizers of a memorial service for Robert Woodward struck a tone of reconciliation Wednesday, offering an olive branch in memory of their friend.

"I really appreciate everyone's courage to come together in this space and start the healing, so this tragedy doesn't happen again," Thom Namaya told a packed house of more than 200 at St. Michael's Episcopal Church. "I think that's what we all want.

"I reach out to everyone in the town -- town officials and police especially," he added.

Woodward, 37, died on Dec. 2 of gunshot wounds, less than four hours after having been shot seven times by Brattleboro Police officers in front of worshipers at the All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in West Brattleboro. He had entered that church distraught, asked for sanctuary from the government, and threatened himself with a folding knife.

Members of the Brattleboro Board of Selectmen, Town Manager Jerry Remillard, and Acting Chief of Police John Martin were among those in attendance at the quiet, reflective memorial.

"While many of us collect material things, Woody collected friends," said longtime friend Stephen Tomczak. "In terms of friends, Woody was the wealthiest man I knew. This senseless event has created a void in my life and my heart that will never be filled."

None could make sense of Woodward's death or the circumstances which led him to the church, and a few hinted at the forces of government or authority that Woodward said he had been fleeing in his final hours.

"Whenever you get threatened, go public with it," said one man.

State's Attorney Dan Davis has said he could find no evidence Woodward was in fact being pursued by the FBI or CIA, but neither he nor the Vermont Attorney General's office have provided details on their investigations since Dec. 6.

But most comments at the ceremony were in a peaceful vein, with songs and "friendship bracelets" for those in attendance and a candle-lit vigil stretching down Main Street to the Common Ground Restaurant afterwards.

"Let's try to be more like Woody," said Jenny Wright. "Check in with people. Don't assume they're the same as always.

"Don't assume the worst," she added, describing the fears which she said police officers might have felt as they entered the church to confront an armed man. "Fear killed Woody."

Several friends mentioned the national fears surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which one neighbor said had affected Woodward deeply and frightened him. "I think it played a role in this somehow," she said.

But others who never met Woodward also spoke of the shock of his killing.

Jack Rieley of Brattleboro thanked those who had traveled long distances to attend the service.

"I think it took a long time for this to happen," he said. "We're as troubled as you are, we feel the tragedy as you do. We're so grateful that you're all here."

Pausing with a candle-bearing group to sing in front of the Municipal Center, Namaya said the event had gone just as he'd hoped.

"We really want people to come together on this," regardless of their political persuasion or views, he said. "I want to say how proud I am of the town officials for coming out."

He gave particular praise to Selectman Sarah Edwards' Tuesday comments, in which she expressed interest in the possibility of a citizens review board or other mechanism to bridge the gap between citizens and their police force.

"How do we create a dialogue between the police and the community to keep this from happening again?" he asked.