Skip to comments.One Man's God Squad: Troy Newman's plan to stop abortions in Wichita, Kansas
Posted on 08/01/2004 6:18:44 AM PDT by Knock3Times
Article about ORW in Rolling Stone Magazine July 29, 2004
This week a feature article has been published in the extremely liberal Rolling Stone Magazine about our work to stop abortion in Wichita, Kansas. Although the article has flaws, it is without a doubt, the best treatment of a pro-life ministry ever published by this magazine.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The article, titled "One Man's God Squad," appearing in such a widely read publication is bound to elicit responses from both sides of the abortion issue. We pray that it will encourage and inspire all those who labor to save innocent lives from abortion and serve to put those on notice who participate in child- killing: "Your sins will find you out."
One Man's God Squad
Troy Newman's plan to stop abortions in Wichita, Kansas
By KIMBERLEY SEVCIK
The letter arrived on a Tuesday in march. "Dear Sara," it read. "It is our information that you are currently an employee of Women's Health Care Services, a facility that provides abortions." It went on to suggest that Sara Phares, an administrative assistant at the clinic in Wichita, Kansas, quit her job and repent her sins. "Please know that we are praying for you," the letter concluded. It was signed "Troy Newman, President, Operation Rescue West." A week later, hundreds of Phares' neighbors received an anonymous postcard of a mangled fetus. This is abortion! read the big block letters. "Your neighbor Sara Phares participates in killing babies like these." The postcard implored them to call Phares, whose phone number and address were provided, and voice their opposition to her work at the clinic. Another card soon followed. It referred to Phares as "Miss I Help to Kill Little Babies" and suggested, in an erratic typeface that recalled a kidnapper's ransom note, that neighbors "beg her to quit, pretty please." The third postcard dispensed entirely with pleasantries: "Sara Phares is not to be trusted! Tell her to get a life!" One Wichita resident, apparently inspired by the postcards, sent Phares letters beseeching her to quit her job at the clinic. Another neighbor, a federal agent, called her at work to express his concern. "Just be careful, ma'am," he said. "You never know what kind of nuts these things will draw."
Before long, protesters from Operation Rescue showed up at her house. They parked a tractor-trailer across the street, plastered with twenty-foot-long images of dismembered fetuses. From its speakers came the kind of sweet, tinkling music that lures children from their back yards in pursuit of Dreamsicles. One protester, a somber man in a tan windbreaker with a three-foot crucifix thrust before him, performed an exorcism on Phares' front lawn, sprinkling holy water on the grass to cast demons from the property. Phares, a small-boned woman with an irreverent sense of humor, joked about the exorcism. "Wish he'd held off on that holy water till after we'd put the fertilizer down," she said. But her husband wasn't amused. Since 1994, there have been five assassination attempts on abortion providers at their homes. A few days after the protest, Phares' husband got out his revolver, loaded it and taught Sara how to use it.
Operation Rescue's smear campaign against Phares is part of a new strategy to shut down abortion clinics by systematically harassing their employees into quitting. Banned by law from blockading clinics as it did in its early days, Operation Rescue has taken its offensive to the front lawns and mailboxes of clinic workers. In Wichita, members of the group rummage through employees' garbage in search of incriminating information. They tail them around town as they run errands. They picket clinic staffers at restaurants while they're inside having dinner and castigate them while they're standing in line at Starbucks. Operation Rescue is also visiting companies that do business with the clinic and threatening them with a boycott if they don't sever their ties with the facility. This is America's new abortion war, and the objective, in military terms, is to cut off the supply lines to abortion clinics and demoralize their troops.
Troy Newman, the head of Operation Rescue, calls it the Year of Rebuke -- and if it works in Wichita, he plans to unleash the campaign of intimidation on abortion clinics all across the country. "I want these employees to realize that their lives have changed," he says. "As long as they're embedded in the abortion industry receiving blood money, they can't live a normal life. They just can't."
Newman seems more like a breezy Southern California surfer than one of the nation's most prominent anti-abortion activists. The day I meet him, he's dressed in jeans, a bomber jacket and a pair of python-skin boots. He's a youthful thirty-eight, with a gray-flecked goatee and a quick, disarming smile that could sell you something you didn't think you needed. He tries to be a good guy -- he feeds the homeless and opens doors for women. He buys boots made of farm-raised python, to ensure that no one raped the jungle to boost his fashion cred. He's not a loose cannon like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry: You won't catch him ranting about how hatred and intolerance are good. Newman knows that kind of rhetoric cost the pro-life movement a lot of allies in the 1990s. He'd rather not be called a conservative -- he hates labels. Never mind the autographed photo of Charlton Heston in his office, or the fact that he home-schools his four kids to protect them from sex-ed and evolutionism. He's rethinking his support for the war in Iraq. He loves his gay brother. If he weren't pro-life, he might even be a Democrat. Or a libertarian.
Even Newman's opponents find him tough to resist. When a group of pro-choice provocateurs who call themselves the Maggot Punks showed up at the Wichita clinic to give Operation Rescue protesters a hard time, Newman bought them ice cream, invited them to his church and took one of them out to lunch. "There've been a couple of times where Troy has been talking to me and I've thought, 'Could this guy maybe have a point?' " says a Maggot Punk named Steven Pottorff. "He's that convincing."
Since 1999, when he became the head of Operation Rescue, Newman has been determined to come up with a novel strategy to prove himself. So two years ago, he moved his family to Wichita with a single, shining goal: to shut down Women's Health Care Services. The clinic is run by a doctor named George Tiller, a lightning-rod figure in the abortion wars. Tiller's reputation for performing late-term abortions draws women from all over the world to his clinic -- women whose unborn children have been diagnosed with genetic deformities or whose health makes childbearing dangerous. It also makes Tiller's clinic the perfect target for Newman's campaign of intimidation. "Wichita isn't big enough for George Tiller and me," Newman declared in a full-page ad he took out in a Catholic paper called The Wanderer.
There's only one problem: Tiller is a hard man to find, let alone intimidate. After more than a decade as one of the anti-abortion movement's favorite targets, he keeps a low profile, drives an armored car and lives in a gated community in a house with a state-of-the-art security system. More pointedly, he has made it clear that he's not susceptible to scare tactics. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion protester. He returned to work the next day.
Newman is well aware of Tiller's resilience. That's why Operation Rescue is going after clinic workers like Sara Phares. The employees have no guards posted at their homes, no cameras monitoring their yards. If Newman can provoke enough of them to quit, his job will be done. He'll effectively shut Tiller down. Operation Rescue is headquartered in a converted trailer home separated from the railroad tracks by a chain-link fence. On the same lot is a Christian radio station; just across the tracks, there's a used-truck dealership and a seedy motel. The group's meeting space is a throwback to a Sixties rec room, complete with Barcaloungers and shag carpeting. On one wall hang Anne Geddes photos of babies frolicking among drifts of peonies. On another is a poster that reads, closed! san diego abortion mills, with a checkerboard of photos depicting eighteen facilities that Operation Rescue worked to shut down. Square sixteen reads, tiller's clinic here.
When I arrive, Newman and his small staff of zealous pro-lifers are buzzing with the news that the clinic's office manager has quit -- a result, they believe, of their name-and-shame campaign. The manager had been accosted by a neighbor in a grocery store who recognized her from an Operation Rescue flier that featured her photo. "You're that baby killer!" the neighbor screamed at her. Then Newman, through investigative methods he'd rather not reveal, discovered where the woman's husband works. "We think that's what clinched it," he says. "He probably realized we were going to picket his workplace. I imagine he's the major breadwinner in the family, and he didn't want to risk his job."
Newman shows me a fax from the National Abortion Federation advertising a job opening for an office manager at Women's Health Care Services. The fax was intercepted by a mole from Operation Rescue. Newman says he has them everywhere -- including inside the clinic. "They're very, very quiet," he says. "Some of them even interface with clinic personnel on a daily basis." Most of Newman's informants approach him with unsolicited tips; one, for example, is a disgruntled former employee at the clinic. But Newman also casts around for them. He pulls out an ad from a Christian paper, the Wichita Chronicle. The ad reads, "Reward! for information leading to the arrest and conviction of abortionist George Tiller. Do you know of: Insurance fraud? Botched abortion? Tax evasion? Sexual harassment or rape? Substance abuse?" Informants, Newman says, are paid "upward of $100."
Newman and his staff have spent months compiling a list of more than 200 "abortion collaborators" -- companies that do business with Women's Health Care Services and its employees. They plan to approach every firm on the list -- from the guy who mows the clinic's lawn to the cafe that sells Tiller his morning latte -- and lobby them to stop doing business with the facility. At the top of the collaborator list is Wesley Medical Center. Wesley is vital to Tiller's clinic: It's where his patients are taken if there is a medical emergency. Newman has written to Wesley's board of physicians to request that they retract hospital privileges for Tiller's patients. If they refuse, Newman plans to expose them as Tiller's accomplices: "We're thinking of taking out an ad in the local newspaper, naming Wesley's physicians and accusing them of supporting a baby killer."
The collaborator list is constantly growing. Just a few days earlier, Newman added a place called Elite Cleaners after his aide-de-camp, Cheryl Sullenger -- who spent two and a half years in federal prison for conspiracy to firebomb a clinic -- spotted Tiller's wife, Jeanne, turning into a strip mall near her house. Sullenger drove in behind her. As Jeanne got out of her SUV in front of Elite, Sullenger snapped a couple of photographs of her.
I join Newman and Sullenger on a trip to the cleaners one afternoon. They're hoping to persuade the owner to refuse to do business with the Tillers. Behind the counter, a redheaded woman in a rhinestone-studded T-shirt is folding clothes. Newman introduces himself and explains who Tiller is. Then he extracts a photo of Jeanne Tiller from a manila folder and lays it on the counter. "We happen to know that Tiller's wife does business with Elite," he says, "and we're here to ask you to stop."
The girl furrows her brow. "We just clean the guy's clothes."
"Babies have to die when you accept his money," Sullenger says.
The woman suggests they talk to the owner, who is gone for the day. Newman and Sullenger return the next morning, but the owner cuts them off with a curt "Bye" as soon as they identify themselves. When Newman persists, the owner makes it plainer: "Get the hell out of here."
Newman seems unperturbed by the brushoff at Elite Cleaners. When challenged, he likes to cite a poll he commissioned that shows that seventy percent of all Wichita residents oppose abortion. To Newman, that means that seven of every ten customers at Elite will take their laundry elsewhere once they find out that the place washes Tiller's shirts. He seems incapable of appreciating the obvious: That even in a resoundingly pro-life city like Wichita, located in a resoundingly Red State, Americans don't like to be told what to do. The citizens of Wichita might not believe in abortion, but that doesn't mean they want to be told how to run their businesses or to have Operation Rescue drive through their neighborhood in a "Truth Truck" plastered with gruesome images of aborted fetuses.
Maybe Newman knows how to talk to sinners because he was once a sinner, too -- a longhaired guy with a pierced ear who raced motorcycles and went to Motley Crue concerts. At seventeen, he was roped into attending a Bible study, where one of the leaders prayed for him. It must have hit a tender spot -- the part of him that was struggling with his parents' divorce, his mother's five marriages, the rootlessness of being an adopted kid -- because he went home, threw out his Black Sabbath records and started attending church. Before long, he was enrolled in Bible college and handing out religious tracts on the beach in San Diego, introducing surfers to Jesus Christ. In 1991, when Newman was twenty-four, a friend brought him to a "rescue" at an abortion clinic. He soon quit his job as an engineer for the Defense Department to devote himself full-time to fighting abortion.
At the time, Operation Rescue was in its heyday, blockading clinics and making headlines across the country. But the group soon found itself in trouble, its resources drained by million-dollar lawsuits and its leaders wrung out by jail time. As Newman sees it, his ascendancy to the head of Operation Rescue was simply a matter of endurance. "I was the last man standing," he says. "Sometimes that's all it takes."
Newman is determined to be the last man standing in Wichita as well. As a kid, he watched a lot of westerns, and they still inform his worldview. He frames the battle in Wichita as a showdown between him and Tiller. "One of us has to go," Newman says in a fund-raising ad that implores potential donors to help him ride Tiller out of town on a rail. "And it isn't going to be me."
Newman was encouraged recently when Operation Rescue persuaded a local cab company to stop shuttling patients to Tiller's clinic. For a few days, clinic employees had to use a van to transport patients themselves. Then someone from Operation Rescue spotted taxis from Best Cabs pulling into the clinic's lot. Newman went on a Christian radio station and exhorted listeners to call Best Cabs and urge them to stop doing business with baby killers. One afternoon, he and Sullenger decide to pay a visit to Best Cabs to put some face-to-face pressure on the company.
The manager, a stocky guy named Tim, walks into the dimly lit reception area. He has already explained to Sullenger on the phone that he'd be breaking the law if he denied service to Tiller's patients: A city ordinance prohibits cab companies from refusing service to anyone unless they are drunk and disorderly. But Newman launches into an explanation of the concept of blood guilt. It's not just George Tiller who is guilty of murder, he says. By not doing anything to stop him, the entire community is accountable for the crime. Tim listens with his arms crossed, clearly unmoved.
"Everybody has the right to do what they want to do as long as it's not against the law," he says. "That's why we're here in America. If you don't like the laws of the land, leave the land."
"Good point," Newman concedes. Then he tells Tim that seventy percent of Wichitans believe abortion is murder. "Once people understand that Best Cabs is participating in the abortion industry, seventy percent of this city isn't going to want to do business with you."
"We aren't participating in abortion," Tim says.
"You make money from it."
"Come on, man, I'm pro-life. I have five kids at home to prove it. But I have to take care of my family, I have to put food on my table. I'm not going to jeopardize my job by breaking the law."
"I'm not asking you to break the law."
"Yeah, you are. You're asking me not to haul these people."
"We're asking you not to do business with this person," says Sullenger.
"That . . . is . . . breaking . . . the law," Tim says. He's pissed now, his face reddening. The dispatchers glance up from behind the foggy plastic partition that separates them from the reception area.
"Tim," Newman says. His voice is calm, as if he's soothing a rabid dog. "Other cab companies are making this sort of moral decision. I'm asking you, man to man -- "
"I'm not going to lose my job, I'm not going to lose my house, I'm not going to have my kids starving! I'm sorry. You're not worth it."
"What about the little babies?" Sullenger says.
"The babies are not worth it, either."
Sullenger asks Tim if she can take a photo of the office. "Don't worry," she says. "I'll leave you out of it." Newman then tells him, in the most courteous tone imaginable, that he might see a few people outside the company holding signs. Just to let everybody know what he's participating in. "It's not personal," Newman says gently.
But in the end, Operation Rescue doesn't picket Best Cabs. On the way out, Newman pauses in the parking lot and decides to give Tim some time to think about what he said. "I kind of felt sorry for him," Newman says. "I guess I do have a heart."
One evening, just after sunset, Newman cruises by the stately brick colonial home of Joan, another clinic employee. She's the next person on the docket for a name-and-shame campaign. He slows down to examine her license plate, to make sure it matches the number he's copied from her car in the clinic parking lot. It does. He glances at the curb in front of her house, to see if she's put out her garbage yet, but there's nothing there.
Dumpster diving, Newman tells me, is a great way to gather intelligence. Once he determines a neighborhood's trash night, he drives by in a pickup truck designated specifically for this task, grabs a couple of trash bags and brings them to a garage in "an undisclosed location." Among the eggshells and pizza boxes, he often finds useful information: cell-phone bills, the name of a clinic employee's husband and his workplace or, if he's really lucky, records from the clinic. "I look for incriminating info -- maybe the abortionist isn't reporting all the abortions he performs, maybe he's keeping the cash and dumping the receipts. Then I report him to the Board of Medical Quality and I get him in a bunch of hot water." Recently, someone gave him $500 in liquor receipts that they found in Tiller's trash. "I can't prove that he drank it all himself, though," Newman says.
Clinic workers have responded by putting their trash out at the last possible minute. Sara Phares destroys all her paperwork -- business letters, church mailings, debit-card receipts, the works. "I shred everything, because you never know what they'll use," she says. "I even shred the menus from the pizza place I order from."
When the smear campaign against her first started, Phares refused to succumb to fear. Lately, though, it's begun to unsettle her. One day, as she pulled out of the clinic parking lot, she saw Newman smiling at her from his Jeep. He followed her for a few blocks -- reminding Phares, once again, that Operation Rescue is watching her.
Phares says such tactics only strengthen her commitment. "I see up close what would happen to my patients if they didn't have the option of abortion," she says. "I've talked to women who were on the verge of taking out a coat hanger or killing themselves. I'm touching people's lives with my work. If that puts me in a vulnerable position, OK -- make me a martyr. It's not my goal. I'd rather be a grandma. But I won't be emotionally blackmailed into quitting my job."
Newman is confident that Phares will cave in, given time. "You can't just do what we call flash-in-the-pan activism, where you picket someone once, then they never hear from you again," he says. "You've got to be relentless." That's why Operation Rescue decides to picket Phares in her neighborhood again. They plan to arrive at rush hour, when there will be plenty of traffic.
At 4 p.m., thirteen members of Operation Rescue gather at headquarters to pray. Most are from out of town. There's Cheryl Sullenger and her two daughters, who moved to Wichita from San Diego. There's Ken Reed, a big lumberjack of a man with ten children, who migrated from Sacramento, California. Michelle and Jeff Herzog came from Tennessee with their four kids, who they've been bringing to protests since they were in baby slings. Representing Wichita are Karen Myers, a farm-fresh twenty-two-year-old with braids in her hair, and Joyce Blanchard, a cheerful, gray-haired woman dressed in red, white and blue.
After a brief prayer asking that Phares hear their message of "gentle rebuke," everyone caravans over to her neighborhood, five cars plastered with bumper stickers condemning abortion and extolling the Ten Commandments. Bringing up the rear is the Truth Truck. For maximum exposure, they stop on a busy street that funnels traffic toward the cul-de-sac where Phares lives. It's a treeless neighborhood, its fresh brick apartment complexes christened with optimistic names such as Cedar Lakes. The protesters display their signs for passing cars. "Phares' Choice," one proclaims, over a picture of tiny, bloody body parts. Another reads, "Sarah Phares, Abortion Profiteer," misspelling her name and giving her address. The image on Jeff Herzog's sign is particularly disturbing: a fetus being grabbed by forceps, its mouth open in a Munchian scream. Within five minutes, a passing car rear-ends another right in front of Herzog. Minutes later, it happens again.
Standing beside the demonstrators, clutching a dirt bike, a black boy about ten watches them intently. "Hi there, honey," Michelle Herzog says. "How are you?
The boy toes the dirt. "Can I get by?"
"You sure can," she says. She's speaking in that honeyed voice that adults use with toddlers. "Do you know why we're here?"
The boy shakes his head.
"We're here because there's a woman in your neighborhood who's killing babies. And we're fighting so those babies can live. You know, there was a time that people of your color didn't have the right to be born, either. And lots of good people fought hard to help them gain rights. Isn't that a good thing?"
The boy nods, his eyes downcast.
"If you know this lady, you can help us by telling her that we want to help her find a new job. Can you tell her that for me?"
The boy nods again, then slinks past and takes off on his bike.
A few people honk and give the protesters the thumbs up. But considering Newman's poll showing that Wichita is overwhelmingly pro-life, the picket draws a surprising amount of criticism. A woman in a nurse's uniform en route to pick up her two-year-old daughter pulls over to yell, "I'm pro-life, but you guys are sick!" A Catholic high school girl stops and tells Newman that she thinks the picket is too harsh. "You're not loving her," she says. Newman replies, "I'm not hurting her." The owner of the apartment building that they're standing in front of asks if they can stand somewhere else, maybe across the street.
"We're not leaving," says Sullenger. "This is the most effective place for us to get out our message."
"You're making me uncomfortable," the woman says, fingering the brooch on her polyester pantsuit.
"You don't have the right to be comfortable," Sullenger says.
"Couldn't you go to the abortion doctor's house?" the woman suggests. "I haven't done anything, have I?"
"You could do something to stop him," says Sullenger. The woman goes back into her apartment.
After forty minutes, a white Hyundai slows, signals to turn left on to the road where Phares lives, then reroutes and continues down the main road. "There goes Sara," Newman says, grinning. "I guess she changed her mind about going home." A few minutes later, the cops pull up. At first, their charge is technical: something about how the protesters have to stand on the sidewalk rather than the grass. Newman insists -- ever polite -- that this particular grass is public property. He's vigilant about knowing the law to the letter, and he's not afraid to argue his rights.Then another officer, carrying a notepad and a camera, tells Newman he's under investigation. Newman doesn't like this. His demeanor darkens.
"Under investigation for what?"
"Someone has accused you of committing a crime."
"I can't tell you that, sir," the cop says. He's shorter than Newman, with close-cropped hair and a pink face.
The cop asks for his driver's license; Newman refuses. He asks for his name and his birth date, and Newman gives them reluctantly, like a defiant kid busted for speeding. "Home address," the cop says. "I'm not going to give that to you," Newman says.
Phares, meanwhile, has taken a back route to avoid the protesters. As luck has it, she spots a beat cop on her detour and stops him to file a report. Phares doesn't expect much will come of it, but it's her only defense. "I don't have any power to stop this," she says. "Documenting their activities makes me feel like I have some control."
Back at the picket line, the protesters from Operation Rescue stand in a circle as the sunlight thins. Ken Reed leads them in a prayer, asking God to watch over the drivers who were rear-ended and to encourage Phares to renounce her wicked ways. But when they start to head toward their cars, Newman stops them and asks them to wait a while. "I have a standard principle when the cops show up," he says, his voice low and measured. "I don't leave until they do. You can't let people intimidate you."
So they stay. They idle by the side of the road, musing about their detractors and discussing their plans for the next day. They don't leave until the cops drive off and the gawkers head home and Troy Newman is sure -- for the moment, at least -- that he's the last man standing.
(Posted Jul 28, 2004)
And then people can pray, pray, pray outside the clinics. It works!