(Host) One year ago December 2, a distraught man walked into the sanctuary of a West Brattleboro church and asked for help. Less than half an hour later, he was dying from gunshots fired by local police. The attorney general cleared the police of wrongdoing. A civil suit has been filed, as the pain and questions linger.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) The calm Sunday morning services at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church were disrupted when Robert Woodward burst in. Parishioners didn’t know the 37-year-old man. And they say he appeared to be agitated and frightened. Charles Butterfield, the church president, made this 911 call:
(911 tape) “We have a person in our church, here at All Souls Church in Brattleboro, who has gone berserk. And we need some assistance in getting him out of the building.”
(Dillon) Several minutes later, Butterfield warned that Woodward had a knife and was threatening to kill himself. That information was quickly relayed to the officers racing to the church.
(911 dispatcher) “Subject is threatening to kill himself now and he does have a knife.”
(Dillon) What happened next took less than a minute and occurred in front of 18 witnesses. Officers Marshall Hollbrook, Terrance Parker and William Davies entered the sanctuary. According to the attorney general’s report, Parker told Woodward to drop his knife:
(Polly Wilson) “I only heard one order and that was: drop the knife.”
(Dillon) Polly Wilson of Marlboro was one of the 18 inside the church who reflected on the shooting in the days after the incident.
(Wilson) “I saw he wasn’t dropping the knife. And I willed him to drop that knife. But he didn’t, he didn’t. I was startled when I heard the police fire.”
(Dillon) At the time, Wilson said the police acted too fast and that Woodward was only a threat to himself:
(Wilson) “He wasn’t threatening. I would not have been afraid to be standing where the police was or where anyone was.”
(Dillon) But Attorney General William Sorrell disagreed. The attorney general says the police shooting was legally justified because the officers fired after Woodward rushed forward with his knife. Sorrell released his report on April 2, four months to the day after the shooting. A crowd of Woodward’s friends reacted with outrage:
(Sorrell) “The shooting death of Robert Woodward, although tragic, was legally justified.”
(Shouts from Woodward supporters) “Lies! Murder! You know it’s murder!”
(Dillon) Sorrell concluded his report by saying he hopes the healing process can begin for all those of those touched so deeply by Robert Woodward’s death.
Yet Woodward’s friends still grieve. They’re still very troubled by the circumstances of his death. The friends hold frequent protests in Brattleboro and were to gather again Monday to mark the anniversary of his death.
Paul Borneo is part of the organization Justice for Woody. He combed through the witness statements and did his own investigation. He says Sorrell’s report contradicts what four witnesses reported immediately after the shooting:
(Borneo) “And each one of those four people is very clear when asked that Woodward did not attack the officers. And that the last time they saw Woodward before the shooting, he was holding the knife to himself rather than pointing it toward Parker, which is the police claim.”
(Dillon) Brattleboro Police Chief John Martin says the tragedy touched everyone. He wants Woodward’s friends to know that the incident was investigated more thoroughly than any other police shooting in the state:
(Martin) “I think their opinion and their perspective is certainly shaped by their friendship with Mr. Woodward. There’s nothing I can do that can change that. There’s nothing I can say that can convince them that the action taken last December was necessary.”
(Dillon) Martin says police procedures and training haven’t changed. Mary Rives, Woodward’s close friend, says the police need to learn how to respond to crisis situations in which a person needs help:
(Rives) “I’m just very discouraged and concerned that this incident hasn’t proven a year later to result in positive changes or to be a learning experience. I think it’s been an opportunity missed thus far to look at what went wrong. And how could have this person received the help he was asking, without being fatally shot?”
(Dillon) No one knows why Woodward was so distraught that day. His friends say it was completely out of character for the gentle man they knew. Sorrell’s report speculates that Woodward may have had a reaction to ephedrine, an over the counter medication he took for allergies. High doses of ephedrine can induce psychosis or paranoia.
There will be one more round of investigation. Woodward’s family filed a civil suit against the town and police, and that case is pending in federal court.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.