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Churchgoers meet, reflect on shooting

December 10, 2001

By LISA RATHKE The Associated Press

BRATTLEBORO — One week after their sanctuary was shattered by seven shots that killed a man with a knife, members of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist church gathered Sunday to talk about the stranger they will never forget and their own changed lives.

Some said they have felt worse as the week wore on. They said they were sad, afraid. Others have been distracted and confused by what happened. Some said they felt vulnerable. Others angry.

“My only message to people is please do not judge,” said minister Deborah Mero. “Try not to judge anybody who was there, including the police. It was a horrible situation under any circumstance and we need to treat it with compassion and love and find ways to heal.”

On Sunday the minister had planned to rededicate the space where the shooting occurred and have her congregation meet with a grief counselor, but put it off because of a snowfall. Instead about a dozen churchgoers and a few outsiders met in a room across the hall. They sat in chairs in a circle. They lighted four candles on a stand in the middle of the room for the congregation and for the life of Robert A. Woodward.

And they wrestled with why.

Why Woodward, 37, a man they didn’t know, came to their church in such an agitated state. Why police shot him seven times when some say he had only threatened to harm himself. And, in the back of their minds, they wondered what this tragedy will do to the All Souls church.

“I’m concerned about the congregation,” said Nancy Butterfield, who had missed last week’s service but turned out Sunday to show her support. “I’m concerned for the mentally ill and hopeful that we can all learn better how to help them.”

Witnesses say Woodward went before the congregation of roughly 70 people just as the service was about to begin. In a deranged manner, he wept and asked for “political sanctuary,” one witness said. He handed out blank checks with messages on the back of them. When he was asked to sit or leave, he refused.

He became more agitated as people started to leave the church and he pulled out a knife. Police were called and three officers arrived.

Polly Wilson sat in the third row with her husband, Dr. Adelbert Ames. She watched as Woodward waved the knife in front of his face, she said Sunday. She said she and her husband never were afraid.

“He did not threaten anyone in the congregation at any point,” Wilson said. “My impression was that he waved a knife in front of his own face and threatened to do himself harm. ... I was very afraid for him.”

Others said they were scared by his behavior and feared it could escalate. Mero said some people in the church may have been traumatized and may realize later how scared they actually were.

A psychologist in the church negotiated with Woodward and got him to sit down, Wilson said. But when the three police officers arrived, Woodward became more agitated.

Wilson said she heard Woodward ordered to drop the knife. “I saw he wasn’t dropping the knife and I willed him to drop that knife, but he didn’t, he didn’t,” she said. “I was startled when I heard police fire.”

She said she heard one shot and then a pause and then more fire.

“It never occurred to me that they were going to fire a gun,” Ames said.

The state attorney general’s office said it would investigate the shooting, while the Windham County’s chief prosecutor has hinted he would convene a grand jury.

Some witnesses who have given testimony to police have declined to comment. The church held a gathering Tuesday, in which the media was not invited, so church members could talk privately about how they feel.

“There are members of our congregation who feel that we need to keep our feelings secret, and I can’t do that because this man asked us to bear witness,” Wilson said.