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Brattleboro shooting detailed

December 4, 2001

By SUSAN SMALLHEER And KEVIN O’CONNOR Herald Staff

BRATTLEBORO — Two Brattleboro police officers fired a total of seven shots during a church service Sunday, mortally wounding Robert A. Woodward of Bellows Falls after he pulled out a knife while pleading for help from a confused, scared congregation.

Windham County State’s Attorney Dan M. Davis tried Mon-day to explain the deadly sequence of events the day before at Brattle-boro’s West Village Meeting House, where the 100-member All Souls Un-itarian Uni-versalist Church usually prays for peace and social justice.

Davis didn’t shed any light on the reasons behind Woodward’s apparently bizarre behavior or what caused two veteran police officers to respond with fatal fire against a man holding a 4½-inch to 5-inch-long folding knife.

The officers “discharged their service pistols when they believed their safety and members of the congregation’s safety was threatened,” Davis said.

Woodward, a 37-year-old Connecticut native who moved to Vermont 10 years ago, died four hours later in an operating room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

Officers Terrance Parker and Marshall Holbrook, both veterans of the Brattleboro force, shot Woodward. One officer fired four shots and the other fired three, Davis said. He did not elaborate.

A third officer, William Davies, didn’t fire his semi-automatic pistol, the prosecutor said. All officers carried a .40-caliber semi-automatic weapon loaded with a clip of ammunition. They also had pepper spray, but didn’t use it at the church.

Woodward suffered wounds in his arm and chest areas. Davis said he was waiting for a preliminary report from the chief medical examiner’s office, which was conducting an autopsy during the afternoon.

“He may have as many as seven wounds, I don’t know at this time,” Davis said.

Police wouldn’t say how close Woodward or church members were to the officers when they fired. Davis said witnesses had given a “number of different versions of what people overheard” Woodward saying. He declined to repeat any of the recollections pending completion of interviews.

Charles Butterfield, president of the church’s board of trustees, attended the service Sunday but wouldn’t describe what happened.

“The board of trustees met and decided we didn’t want to try to say what went on because everybody saw something different,” Butterfield said. “Anything I would say would be just my observation. Only the police interviewed everybody, so we will let the police talk about the details.”

But other churchgoers in an audience of about 70 people would talk about what they saw and heard as they waited for the routine announcements that start the 10 a.m. service.

“All of a sudden there appeared this young man out of nowhere,” one church member said. “He was clean shaven, had a haircut, looked very normal, but he was hyperventilating and highly agitated. He was talking loudly. He said, ‘Don’t come near me, I want to say what I want to say.’ He said the CIA and FBI was after him. He had some little pieces of paper he started to distribute. I don’t know what they said.”

Another witness said Woodward was weeping as he asked for “political sanctuary,” according to the Associated Press.

Davis and police detectives confirmed Woodward approached the altar, spoke to the congregation and passed out blank checks, some of which had written statements on the back.

While Woodward passed out the checks, a church member announced that Sunday school was beginning and herded about 15 children outside to safety, Davis said.

Another church member, meanwhile, called police on a cell phone to report an “unwanted subject.” When others began to leave, Woodward became upset, pulled out a knife and held it to his eye, Davis said.

Police received that information as they responded to the church, the prosecutor said.

Woodward then requested a cell phone. A church member started talking to him and placed several calls for him. Woodward put the knife away but became upset again when a church member asked those remaining to leave, Davis said.

Police arrived at about 10:15 a.m., and with 15 to 20 members of the church still in the sanctuary, Holbrook and Parker shot Woodward.

Davis said Woodward didn’t have a known criminal record or history of mental illness. When asked specifically whether Woodward told the congregation he was wanted by the FBI and CIA, the prosecutor refused to confirm or deny the statement.

Butterfield, as church president, would say “no one in the congregation knew this person or had ever seen him before — he was not associated with our church.”

The meeting house is a half-hour from Woodward’s residence, far from the center of Brattleboro and hidden from the main road by a hill of pine trees. Some members at first wondered if Woodward was playing a joke, but knew that wasn’t the case as children and then adults were asked to leave.

“We felt more comfortable leaving,” one member said. “In this day and age, everything is scary and you don’t know what is going to go on.”

Most but not all of the members were leaving when police arrived.

“We were outside and we heard shots,” the member said. “Nobody knew who made them, whether the man had or the police.”

Members never resumed the service, but stayed throughout the afternoon to answer questions from the police. The church will hold its next service as usual on Sunday.

“The church extends its deepest sympathies to the family of the man who was killed,” Butterfield said. “The minister is available to talk to people who were affected by what they saw.”

The Rev. Deborah Mero, the church’s interim minister for the past year and a half, confirmed Butterfield’s statements but declined further comment.

Woodward was born and raised in Norwich, Conn., where he attended Norwich Free Academy and later went to Southern Connecticut State University. He had lived alone in a second-floor apartment at 3 Oak St. in Bellows Falls since spring.

Although none of his neighbors said they knew him well, they all characterized Woodward as a quiet man.

“Everyone is just really shocked by this,” said his landlord, Gail Stewart. “He was a genuinely nice guy, a gentle soul. This is just incomprehensible.”

Woodward’s maternal grandmother, Violet Edson, and paternal grandparents, Paul and Rachel Woodward, live in Springfield.

Family members declined comment Monday.

Woodward was a social service worker for a number of years throughout New England, most recently for the nonprofit Northeastern Family Institute in Springfield. Executive Director Charles Myers said it was the institute’s policy not to discuss its employees.

A childhood friend, who asked not to be named, said Woodward was “a sweetheart” who came to Vermont to escape suburban life in Connecticut. The friend described Woodward as “crunchy granola type who came to Vermont to grow a beard and raise animals.”

Vermont State Police are investigating the shooting. They drove their mobile forensic laboratory to the church Monday afternoon, and began to gather and load evidence. Police also confiscated Woodward’s car, a small, four-door foreign sedan, Detective Sgt. Kevin Anderson said.

The Brattleboro officers who shot Woodward are now off duty, some on scheduled time off and some on unscheduled leave, Brattleboro Police Detective Eugene Wrinn said. He declined to elaborate.

Parker has been with the Brattleboro Police Department since 1988 and Holbrook since 1993. Davies has been with the department for a year, but had experience elsewhere, Wrinn said.

Davis said police weren’t releasing any more details about the events inside the church since detectives still were interviewing church members who witnessed the shooting.

Correspondent Robert Smith and reporter Matt Smithwick contributed to this report.

Contact Susan Smallheer at susan.smallheer@rutlandherald.com and Kevin O’Connor at kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com.