Featured in Region
A Gentle Soul's Violent Death Still Mystifies
By Karen Florin
Published on 12/16/2001
Brattleboro, Vt. — He would soon be referred to as a “knife-wielding man” and an “unwanted subject,” but in the last days of November, Robert A. Woodward — “Woody” to his friends — did the things he always did.
He took three kids to see the Harry Potter film. He visited his grandmother at a nursing home. On Saturday, Dec. 1, he went to a friend's 44th birthday party and stopped for a late-night visit with another buddy on the way home to his apartment in Bellows Falls.
Woodward, who liked to meditate, spoke of attending a retreat in Northampton, Mass., as his friend, Gregg Hoffman, walked him to his car under a nearly full moon at 1:30 a.m.
Over the next few hours, as darkness gave way to morning on Sunday, Dec. 2, Woodward, the gentle soul everyone knew and loved, transformed into a paranoid stranger. Shortly after 10 a.m., Woodward was shot and killed by Brattleboro Police when he refused to leave a church where he had gone to beg for political sanctuary.
Two weeks later, Woodward's family in Bozrah and his friends throughout New England still are confounded by the seemingly inexplicable turn of events.
* * *
Seventy people turned out for the 10 a.m. service that Sunday at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Brattleboro. They were just getting settled when a 6-foot, 150-pound man with fair hair rushed into the chalet-style meetinghouse. They had never seen him there before.
He walked to the lectern, weeping and pleading for help. He held a folding knife, its blade about four or five inches long, to his right eye and spoke of political assassination and global warming.
Woodward, a 37-year-old graduate of Norwich Free Academy who had no history of mental illness or drug use, claimed the CIA and the FBI were after him. He handed out blank checks that he had torn in half and marked with messages about his persecution. He threatened to kill himself.
Parents rushed children out of the room and many adults started to leave, too, though Woodward begged them to stay and listen.
“He was saying he was afraid if police caught him, they would kill him,” remembered 85-year-old Norman Hunt, who was sitting in the second row with his wife, Mary.
A few minutes later, to church members' astonishment, Woodward's prediction came true. Though he threatened to harm only himself, people were frightened. Somebody called police on a cell phone, and three officers arrived seven minutes later anticipating an encounter with an “unwanted subject.”
Standing about 10 feet away, the officers pointed their .40-caliber Heckler & Koch pistols at Woodward and demanded several times, in the loud, authoritative manner in which police are trained to speak to armed suspects, that he drop the knife.
When Woodward did not comply, Officers Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker shot him. They aimed for Woodward's midsection, or “center mass,” as police are trained to do. A third officer, William Davies, did not fire.
The church's cathedral ceiling acted as an echo chamber as seven shots — first one, then six more in rapid succession — sounded. Woodward fell to the floor. A church member who is an anesthesiologist at the local hospital tried to help him before a rescue crew arrived. Woodward died four hours later of a gunshot wound to the abdomen while undergoing surgery at the Dartmouth Medical Center.
The gunshots continue to reverberate as Woodward's family and friends confront the strangeness and sadness of his death. Hundreds of people attended memorial services for Woodward in Norwich and in Springfield, Vt., and more services are being planned.
The incident is front-page news here almost daily, and it seems everyone has an opinion about the fatal shooting. At a Mobil gas station around the corner from the church, the consensus one morning last week was, “He should be alive.” Rabbi Noah Kitty, whose temple shares space with All Souls, said the incident was tragic but that the cops did their jobs. If the police tell you to do something, you do it, she said.
“Every single person is truly sorry that this is how it ended,” she said. “Nobody wanted this to happen. This is not a town that shoots to kill. Honest.”
State police, the state's attorney and attorney general are investigating the shooting and there is talk of convening a grand jury. Preliminary autopsy results are complete, but toxicology tests that will determine whether Woodward was on drugs still are pending. Nobody has produced any information indicating Woodward was under investigation by government officials. It's unclear whether he experienced a sudden breakdown of some kind or an episode of severe mental illness.
* * *
Windham County State's Attorney Dan Davis drove to Bozrah last week to meet with Woodward's parents, Joanne and Paul Woodward. The parents are satisfied with the probe, for the moment.
“I feel they are doing a very thorough investigation,” Mrs. Woodward said. “They're going to do the best they can.”
Parts of the incident were recorded on a telephone answering machine at the Amherst, Mass., home of Woodward's friends, Keith Carlson and Mary Rives. A church member trying to calm Woodward placed the call for him on a cell phone before police arrived. Carlson and Rives returned home from a trip two days after the shooting and discovered the message. Not knowing what had happened, they didn't recognize that it was Woodward who was pleading, “Help, Help. I love you guys. Help!”
“We thought it was a son whose friend is mentally ill,” Rives said.
The couple saved the message, and a state trooper went to their house last week to obtain a copy. Rives had some angry words for the trooper, since, she said, “He represented the system that killed Woody.” The trooper expressed condolences.
Woodward's friends and some members of the public don't trust law enforcement agencies' probe of the shooting. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for an independent investigation. Some witnesses, including the Hunts, retired educators from Westport, Conn., think the officers overreacted.
“It was horrible to watch them kill him,” Mrs. Hunt said. “The thing that bothered us most was that he didn't threaten anyone. That I would stake my life on. He never said one single thing.”
Though Woodward had no connection with the Unitarian church — he took what he needed from various religions, including Buddhism and his parents' Methodist faith, his mother said — he was among kindred souls on the last morning of his life. The church is known for its pacifism and its relaxed approach to Christianity.
“We've been told over and over again that he was into the same kinds of things we were interested in all our lives,” Mrs. Hunt said. “Non-violence, peace, concern for the environment.”
People are asking questions that are typical following police shootings of civilians. Couldn't the officers have used pepper spray to subdue him? Couldn't they have jumped him? Why didn't they aim for an arm, or a leg?
Many wonder whether the events of Sept. 11 had anything to do with what happened that Sunday. They question whether the terrorist attacks caused Woodward to have a psychological breakdown. They wonder whether church members would have called police, and if the officers would have reacted the way they did, had the country not been in a state of high alert.
“Fear killed Woody,” said his friend, Jenny Wright of Unity, N.Y., at a service Thursday in Springfield. “The societal fear myth that there are good guys and bad guys ...”
* * *
Woodward, who graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1982 and studied at Southern Connecticut State University, was unusual, but not crazy, according to his family and friends.
He was a vegetarian who did not use drugs and only occasionally drank a beer. He liked to draw, read and write. He cared deeply about the environment and preferred walking or bicycling to driving. He didn't collect material possessions — he felt calmer without them, he told others — and was likely to buy his clothes from the Salvation Army.
He reluctantly acquired his first car, a Volkswagen Rabbit handed down from his grandparents, in the early 1990s, his mother said. He didn't own a television until just a few weeks ago, when his grandparents gave him their remoteless castoff. He took that only so that kids who visited him at his apartment could watch videos.
That Woodward had an apartment was remarkable to people who knew him. Until this spring, he had been living in a one-room cabin on Lake Warren in Alstead, N.H., just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. The quaint, tiny shack, called the Wee House, is on a dirt road off Route 123, surrounded by pine and birch trees and close to a dam and waterfall. The Wee House is part of a larger property that serves as a retreat for a circle of friends. The cabin has electricity and gas heat, but no running water. A window in the nearby outhouse provides the best view of the lake.
Woodward walked up to the main house to shower and share an occasional meal with whoever was renting the property at the moment. Most recently, it was a couple named Robert and Diana DeMayo and their daughters, Tavish and Saydrin. On weekends, other people sometimes stayed in another outbuilding, a corncrib.
Woodward was forced to leave the cabin last spring for the three-room apartment he occupied on an upper floor of a three-story building in Bellows Falls.
“He got into a car accident on one of the snowy mornings on his way to work, so he had to move closer to town,” said Diana DeMayo.
Woodward worked at various jobs throughout the years, most of them involving young people. He tutored and served as a hall monitor at a local high school. At the time of his death, he worked with retarded and mentally ill people at the Northeast Family Institute, a nonprofit organization in Springfield. Woodward didn't really need a steady job, his friends said, because he didn't need a lot of “stuff.” His sister, Jill DeBrady of Norwich, thinks Woodward's lifestyle was right for him.
“While it was sometimes frustrating to me and my husband that Robert didn't seem to be settling down like a normal person, now in his death I realize he lived his life the way he wanted,” DeBrady said.
Woodward was in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. He lived in Taiwan, where he tutored children in English. He went to Mexico to learn how to climb glaciers and drove, or hitchhiked his way, across the United States.
One of his best friends from college, Steve M. Tomczak of Wallingford, said he admired Woodward for putting his beliefs about world peace, the environment and disadvantaged people into practice.
“This is a man who lived his values,” Tomczak said. “But he was not dogmatic. He would not preach to people in a heavy-handed manner at all. He would gently try to persuade and discuss.”
Woodward's friends, hoping to demonstrate that he was not unstable or dangerous, recounted dozens of his acts of kindness, from dancing with his best friend's elderly grandmother at a wedding to encouraging a 15-year-old to overcome his fear and climb a water tower. Woodward had several circles of friends, and seemed to find time for all of them.
“Like a sprite, an elf, a wood nymph, Woody would sprint in and out of my life,” said Carlson, the friend from Amherst.
Woodward would stop by now and then, and if he sensed his friends were stressed, he would “walk the dogs, shoot hoops with the kids, rub Mary's shoulders and massage my feet, then wash the dishes and dance in the kitchen,” Carlson said.
* * *
The two police officers who shot Woodward, Terrance Parker, a 21-year police veteran, and Marshall Holbrook, who has 11 years' experience, returned to work Wednesday after being debriefed and counseled. M. “Pete” Peterson, another Brattleboro officer, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper asking townspeople to support the officers who have helped so many people during their careers.
“They went to school with you, church with you, they married your child,” Peterson wrote. “ You see them in the grocery store, the doctor's office, and picking up their kids from school. They are people, too.”
Brattleboro Police had never been involved in a fatal shooting before Dec. 2, according to Acting Chief John Martin. The last shooting incident occurred in the early 1980s, when an officer shot at a man holding a shotgun and missed. Another non-fatal shooting took place in the 1950s.
“It's been a very serious time,” said Martin. The department is supporting its officers and plans to continue its community policing efforts, he said.
More than 165 people, including some who never met Woodward, gathered Thursday afternoon for a service at the United Methodist Church in Springfield. The church where Paul and Joanne Woodward were married is a stone fortress on a hilly street in a factory town. With its stained-glass windows and recently renovated organ pipes, it stands in sharp contrast to the simple, out-of-the-way chalet in Brattleboro where Woodward died.
Those gathered alternately sobbed and smiled as Woodward's friends spoke of his kindness and his quirks, including a complete lack of cooking skills. His parents asked the congregation to celebrate their son's life, to let his light shine on. Joanne Woodward recalled seeing a glorious sunset over Northampton, Mass., as she returned to Connecticut the week after her son's death.
“I spoke of it to my sister, who said, 'It didn't take Robert long to start painting again,'” she said.