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Shooting leaves friends, family searching for answers

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Two days after the fatal shooting by police of Robert Woodward at a West Brattleboro church, relatives and friends struggled to make sense of what they described as a gentle life cut short.

"I would just like to stress for you that he was a very peaceful person," said his mother, Joanne Woodward of Bozrah, Conn. "He never would have injured anyone else. He was a loving, caring person and very gentle."

Woodward, 37, died Sunday afternoon, following a morning standoff before parishioners at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church that ended when two Brattleboro police officers fired seven shots, striking him in the chest and arms.

Witnesses said Woodward appeared to be highly agitated, asked for protection from the government, and threatened to kill himself with a knife.

State's Attorney Dan Davis said Monday that Brattleboro Police Officers Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker discharged their service pistols only "when they believed their safety and members of the congregation's safety was threatened." Officer William Davies did not fire, officials said.

Former neighbor Elliot Burch said he couldn't imagine Robert Woodward -- or Woody, as his friends knew him -- acting violently.

"He was the most gentle, fun-loving guy," he said. "He used to come over a couple of times a week and play chess with my son.

"I just can't imagine why he would ever have needed to run into a church for protection," he added.

Burch described Woodward as a person who dispensed with formalities during their year in 2000 as neighbors in Alstead, N.H., sauntering into the house without knocking and eager to be accepted as a member of the family.

"He would definitely get jazzed up in a discussion about politics or nuclear power," he added, speculating that Woodward might have found the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and war in Afghanistan troubling. "He obviously had to deal with stuff by talking about it."

Woodward had worked at Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon, N.H., and Keene (N.H.) High School last year as a hall monitor, where he would try to bond with students who were having difficulties, Burch said. "I think he had a good heart -- he was trying to help out."

Joanne Woodward said her son had been drawn to work with handicapped adults and teenagers, and would take time off for travel and hiking when he needed a break, once going to Taiwan to work as a disc jockey. Most recently he had worked with foster children at Northeastern Family Institute in Springfield.

"So, certainly there was stress related to the job," she said. Her son had no history of mental health problems, and had appeared normal as recently as Thanksgiving.

"There was no sign of disturbance," she said, adding that he tended to keep problems to himself.

"It's just so hard to grasp," she said, describing a man who cared passionately about the environment and society, even avoiding leather shoes out of concern for animals. "He really didn't care for material things; he cared for people."

A casual acquaintance said that Woodward had behaved normally as recently as last Saturday, when they met at a party in Acworth, N.H.

"He seemed very similar to all the other times I'd seen him," said the friend. "He seemed fine to me."

But witnesses on Sunday painted a starkly different portrait of Woodward, who entered the sanctuary at the West Village Meeting House speaking loudly about the FBI and CIA, passing personal checks covered with handwritten notes.

"He yelled at people to memorize them. 'Memorize these!'" said one witness who asked not to be identified. "This guy was not peaceful. He was traumatizing us."

She added that while some people in the congregation tried to calm Woodward, others tried to clear the room. That agitated the man even more, at which point he pulled out a knife and said he would kill himself.

"People were afraid to leave, because they were afraid of what he might do," she said, adding that the police had repeatedly told Woodward to drop his knife before they shot. "They were doing their job, that's all I know. They were protecting us."

Witness Heida Bredfelt of Brattleboro, a trained mental health worker, said Woodward appeared to be clearly mentally ill.

"This man was totally out of control," she said. "He was beside himself."

Results of an autopsy, which might shed light on Woodward's apparent transformation, will not be released until Thursday or Friday at the earliest, said Davis.

Dr. Paul Morrow, the state medical examiner, would say only that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the abdomen, and that it had been ruled a homicide.

In the meantime, state police investigators will continue interviewing witnesses, trying to determine whether the shootings constituted justifiable homicide for self-defense, Davis said. "I would say that this is the type of case that a prosecutor would consider a grand jury in."

He added that Brattleboro Police Department policies and procedures were beyond the present scope of the investigation.

Town Manager Jerry Remillard said those policies are currently being reviewed by Town Attorney Robert Fisher. The three officers are on "days off," he said, adding that their status would be reviewed by acting Police Chief John Martin upon his return.

Martin, who was present at the scene of the shooting on Sunday, will return late Wednesday from a pre-planned vacation, Remillard said.