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by Judson Brown, staff writer

Tuesday, December 11, 2001 -- Friends in the Pioneer Valley of Robert A. "Woody" Woodward are still in shock at the news that the man they knew as a pacifist, youth counselor and "very caring guy" was shot to death by police in a church in Brattleboro, Vt.

Mary Rives and Keith Carlson of Amherst and Paul Borneo of Shutesbury are calling for an independent investigation of the officers who shot Woodward.

"There must be a fair and unbiased investigation (for) justice to be served," said Rives, a longtime friend of Woodward and director of the Amherst Family Center of the Hampshire Community Action Commission, where Woodward, 37, had been an occasional volunteer for many years.

During the 1990s he also had worked at Almadan Inc. in Amherst, which serves mentally handicapped adults.

At the time of his death, Woodward was living in Bellows Falls, Vt. and working as a counselor to teen-age foster children for one of the dozen mental health programs of the Northeastern Family Institute in Springfield, Vt.

Woodward was shot Dec. 2 during the 10 a.m. worship service at the West Village Meeting House, home to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Brattleboro.

Arrived upset

According to reports in the press and from friends, Woodward, a stranger to the congregation, showed up at the Sunday service distraught, saying he was seeking sanctuary from the CIA, FBI and other authorities who wanted to kill him. He passed out 12 blank personal checks with political messages written on the back. At one point he threatened to take his own life with a 4-inch knife.

Three Brattleboro police officers responded to a 911 call. When Woodward failed to relinquish the knife, two officers, Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker, allegedly opened fire, shooting Woodward seven times.

Some witnesses have been quoted in the media as saying police made little effort to negotiate a resolution. Woodward was taken first to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital at 11 a.m., then airlifted by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Center Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where he died at 2 p.m.

"None of us had ever seen Woody in any kind of state of mind like that, never, ever," said Rives.

"Something must have happened that morning that caused him to be frightened," she said. He was in general very upset about rising violence in the world and the degradation of the environment, she added.

"It is so strange to me. It doesn't sound like Woody at all," said Borneo, a self-employed software engineer, who met Woodward nine years ago at a festival of the Bread & Puppet Theater in Dummerston, Vt. . Woodward had been an occasional visitor and friend of the family ever since.

"He was a peaceful, present, caring person, and level-headed, in possession of himself," said Borneo. "He never came across as a person who would act the way it has been said he acted. It seems like two different people."

Woodward was born in Norwich, Conn., in 1964, attended Norwich Free Academy, and later Southern Connecticut State University, though he didn't graduate from there. His parents, Paul and Joanne Woodward, live in Bozrah, Conn.

He had no police record or record of mental illness, according to Rives and others as well as news reports.

Investigation under way

Vermont state police are investigating the shooting at the request of Windham County state's attorney Dan M. Davis. A report due in several weeks will be reviewed by Davis and the state attorney general.

Davis told the Gazette, "This is the type of case that might lead to the convening of a grand jury" to determine whether police were justified in their use of force. "The varying accounts of those present raise some questions for the community," he said. Eighteen people out of 60 to 75 who were present at the service, witnessed the killing, he said.

Benson Scotch, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has called for a full independent investigation. The Brattleboro Reformer also has called for a full investigation.

Brattleboro's acting police chief, John Martin, declined to comment, referring questions to Davis' office. He confirmed that the two officers who shot Woodward are on indefinite administrative leave.

Published reports give a mixed picture of Woodward's behavior in All Souls Church the morning of Dec. 2, and to what degree the church members felt threatened by him.

In a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, one member of the congregation said Woodward seemed to be having a "paranoid episode," but "he threatened no one but himself."

Church member Rob Peck of Northfield, Mass., head of the pastoral committee and a professional public speaker and consultant, told the Gazette he arrived late to church to find parents of children outside "quite terrified," even though he understood that Woodward's most aggressive act had been to point his knife at his own eye. "I strongly think the police used excessive force," he said.

Rives said she met Woodward 15 years ago when she was a single mother living in Washington, D.C.. The two remained close after her marriage to Carlson, a registered nurse who works at the Community Medical Alliance in Springfield, who also became Woodward's friend.

Woodward was "honorary uncle" to her 18-year-old son, one of many teen-agers whom Woodward befriended and to whom he taught meditation techniques, Rives said.

Helped out families

In Amherst Woodward volunteered with play groups of children whose mothers had been battered and also with a single-parent support group, both affiliated with the family center.

"He always tried to see how he could be of service to families," said Rives, "whether doing nitty-gritty grunt work like stacking wood, or giving feet or shoulder massages, or counseling teens, or mediating conflict, helping people peacefully negotiate this troubled world."

Martin Moore, the director of Almadan Inc., a small human service agency in Amherst that provides care to mentally ill and developmentally disabled adults, said Woodward worked on and off for the agency through the mid-1990s.

"He was a very good employee and a very caring guy," said Moore. "Everybody here is really shocked."

Various efforts are under way to honor Woodward.

All Souls Church is planning to start a fund in his name, possibly earmarked for environmental stewardship.

A memorial service will be held Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Methodist Church in Springfield, Vt.

A concert in Amherst Saturday to benefit the Jamaica Community Education Project, will be dedicated to his memory. Woodward had been assisting Rives and Carlson with the concert. It will be at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Amherst.

And, there will be a community celebration of Woodward's life on Mt. Pollux in Amherst Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.