Article in U.U. World Magazine Notable for Omissions, Insensitivity
The following article appeared in the March 2002 edition of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine. It misportrays Woody and his reasons for being at the church by carefully omitting any mention of his plea for political asylum, credits Mero with actions actually taken by other parishioners, and omits any mention of the brutality of the killing.
Shooting in Vermont Service
Friends and members of a Vermont UU congregation are struggling to come to terms with the horrific death of a man who was shot by police in front of some of them on Sunday morning, December 2. The man, Robert A Woodman, 37, who had no apparent connection with the congregation, entered the meeting house of All Souls church in West Brattleboro just as the 10 AM service was about to begin. Witnesses said he took the pulpit, saying the CIA and police were after him and would torture him. He appeared to be in a state of panic.
About 60 congregants were present. Charles Butterfield, church board president and a pianist, was preparing to begin the service at the piano when he noticed Woodward at the pulpit, speaking into the microphone. "I realized he wasn't making any sense." said Butterfield. Butterfield gently asked him to sit down or go with him to a different room. When he refused, Butterfield went to the church office and called police while some, including Rev. Deborah Mero, tried to calm Woodward. As he continued to stand in front of the congregation, children were escorted from the building. Many adults also left with them.
When someone suggested that the rest of the congregation leave the room, Woodward became more agitated, pulling out a pocketknife with a four-inch blade and saying that he would kill himself. Witnesses say he did not ever directly threaten members of the congregation. When three police officers arrived about 10:15 Woodward pointed the knife at himself. Witnesses said that two of the offices, after repeatedly asking Woodward to drop the knife, fired seven shots, five of them hitting him as he stood near the pulpit. There were about 15 adults in the room. A doctor in the congregation and a nurse who was visiting that morning immediately attended to Woodward. He was taken to a trauma center where he died about 2 PM.
Several investigations are under way. Woodward Iived in Bellows Falls, 25 miles away. There is no indication why he drove to All Souls. He was employed by a community health center, working with foster children. He was unmarried and had no children. All Souls has had an outpouring of support from the community and UUs across the U.S. and Canada, said Butterfield. "We received plants, flowers, posters, and individual letters," he said. "One congregation sent a whole box of origami (paper) cranes. We made a huge display of all these tributes. It's been very helpful."
Mero, interim minister of the 115-member congregation, said All Souls held gatherings the week after the tragedy to help friends and members with their feelings. Small support groups were also formed. Other Brattleboro clergy are helping Mero counsel members and a state police counselor has been made available. a community group, including some All Souls members, has been formed to promote relations among police, town officials, and the community, and to inquire into police training. The meeting room was rearranged, a damaged rug was replaced, and a rededication service was held the Sunday after the shooting. Some services since then have been in a smaller chapel. After the holidays, the worship committee organized midweek vesper services. Although congregation members have a range of opinions about whether the shooting was justified, they are respectful of each other, said Mero. "Our basic work is to focus on community," she said, "and not to judge one another's stories. Some people expressed they were truly frightened of Mr. Woodward and what he might do and some expressed that they were not." Another challenge has been that friends of Woodward consider him to be gentle and loving, but that is not what church members witnessed. "The man we saw that morning was an extremely frightened man who appeared to be having a psychotic episode," said Mero. "He pulled out a weapon and would not relinquish it." She said church members did what they felt was appropriate. "Someone you don't know walks in and is ranting," Mero said, "and will not let you calm him-do you not call the police? It was a no-win situation. We couldn't have done anything differently. we had people in our congregation, in that room, who were mental health professionals and they were unable to calm him."
the Robert Woodward Memorial Fund was created by All Souls and Woodward's friends and family with donations to the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Contributions, and gestures of support for the congregation, may be sent to the church at P.O. Box 2297, West Brattleboro, Vermont 05303-2297.