The Shooting of Robert Woodward


by keith harmon snow


On December 2, 2001, thirty-seven year-old Robert A. Woodward entered the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Brattleboro, VT. Parishioners of this peace-loving church waiting for the 10 a.m. service to begin instead heard from the weeping stranger, standing at the altar podium, who spoke about the environment and civil rights and his fears of being hunted down, tortured and killed by the FBI.


“If the police are called,” eyewitnesses recount Woodward saying, “I will be killed.”


Children were immediately taken outside and at 10:04 a.m. church President Charles Butterfield placed a 911 call from his office. According to Butterfield he requested plainclothes officers be dispatched, he related that Woody was “deathly afraid” of authorities, that he had a knife and was threatening to take his own life.


Using very specific language, the tearful Woodward begged the church for protection. A political activist awake to the FBI and CIA’s histories of human rights atrocities and clandestine political repression, Woodward made a rational choice – in coming to this specific church -- based on the history of the Unitarian church in providing sanctuary for asylum seekers. (The Unitarian church is widely noted for its efforts to aid refugees from Guatemala and Nicaragua).


Woodward begged for “sanctuary” from the authorities. Eyewitnesses in later testimony conferred that Woodward claimed to have been threatened at his home the previous evening by CIA or FBI agents. A downstairs neighbor at Woodward’s apartment in Bellows Falls, VT, claims to have seen and heard two men questioning Woodward on the evening of December 1.




At about 10:10 a.m. three veteran Brattleboro police officers with bulletproof vests and automatic weapons entered the church. What they found was a group of people seated beside the altar consoling Woodward. The situation had been de-escalated, and police reportedly asked someone present at the back of the church “which one is it?”


Woodward had become distressed as parishioners initially left the church. Some of the eighteen people who stayed had convinced Woodward to put away the four-inch knife he had drawn and pointed at his eye to gain the attention of those leaving – parishioners incapable of taking Woodward’s pleas for sanctuary seriously – and with a cell phone they were making calls to Woodward’s friends in an effort to confirm his story. Told that his behavior had frightened people, Woodward said, “I’m sorry.”


Spotting the police, one eyewitness told them to “get back.” Police officers from the back of the church shouted at Woodward. With no attempt to negotiate or disable Woodward with pepper spray, and perhaps less than a minute later, at about 10:13 a.m., two veteran Brattleboro police officers -- trained in hostage negotiation and the use of less-than-lethal force -- pumped seven .40 caliber bullets into Robert Woodward.


The police and witness’ accounts differ starkly, but evidence suggests that Woodward was shot four or five times after he was down. In a re-enactment of the shooting, witness Thomas Thompson was adamant that Woodward was shot from above as he lay curled in the fetal position on the floor. Vermont State's Attorney Dan Davis reported to the Woodward family on Dec. 7, 2001, that the preliminary official autopsy results showed that one bullet entered Woodward's back.


His elbow shattered, wounded in both arms, shot at least once in the gut and once in the back, police handcuffed Woodward stomach down. Prior to the arrival of EMT’s, and for some time thereafter, eyewitness and professional nurse Phyllis Woodring plead with police to be allowed to treat Woodward and stop the bleeding. Police refused.


According to officials’ statements, “medical treatment was rendered immediately.”


Eyewitness chronologies – supported by scant official details made public to date – suggest that EMT’s responded slowly and were prevented for some “medically significant period of time” from attending to the cuffed and wounded man: when EMT’s requested the handcuffs be removed they were refused because Woodward – totally incapacitated by gunshot wounds -- had not been searched.


The official record has the ambulance drivers reporting that they were on route to the hospital at 10:37 a.m. It took some 23 minutes to get Woodward off the church floor. Equally curious, it took 22 minutes more for the ambulance to drive the three miles to the Brattleboro hospital – normally a six-minute drive, at posted speed limits, with one stoplight.


Moaning about “political assassination” and “global warming” and crying “I love you,” Woodward remained conscious. Woodward died at about 2 p.m.


Police Investigate Themselves


Robert Woodward was a peaceful man whose life, according to hundreds of friends, acquaintances and professional colleagues, revolved around kindness, compassion and public service, especially active with children and the elderly.


Woodward lived his philosophy, shunning materialism, eating no animal products, working to educate people about global climatic mayhem, peace and justice. After the horrors of September 11, 2001, Woodward grew increasingly alarmed about the abrogation of civil liberties in the United States and the unaccountable sweeping and secretive powers of the Office of Homeland Security. 


Newspapers have misrepresented both circumstances and character of Robert Woodward – in keeping with the official description of an unstable loner, paranoid and psychotic, armed and dangerous. Accepting official accounts bent on exonerating officers of all possible wrongs even before any formal investigation began, newspapers remain silent on the gross irregularities of the case.


Witnesses filled out police reports the same day, December 2. According to Woodward’s supporters, the three police officers -- sequestered in a private room on Monday, December 3, unsupervised – compared and corroborated written statements.


In a gross procedural irregularity and violation of fundamental human rights, Woodward’s body was not released to the family, but was quickly cremated – destroying the forensic and medical evidence – prior to any independent autopsy or familial observation. Autopsy and forensic evidence has been withheld, and evidence at the church – the scene of a crime no matter which side you attribute with criminality – was destroyed and tampered with.


Analysis of the investigation by Vermont State Attorney General William Sorrel reveals major discrepancies in witness and police versions. The report is rife with Orwellian manipulations designed to downplay irregularities, discredit or suppress key eyewitness testimony, and exaggerate the scant evidence that serves to buttress official positions.


Woodward family attorney Thomas Costello said Vermont State Police had “prejudged” their investigation in a Dec. 3 press release. The family has filed a civil suit against the State of Vermont.


The details of the fateful minutes at the All Souls Church, the subsequent police actions and rescue delays in administering help, and the irregularities, illegalities and conflicts of interest of the police investigation -- reluctantly instituted after widespread public protest -- are the subjects of a September 24th press conference organized by friends and supporters of Robert “Woody” Woodward (


“To me it is clear,” says Jim Hoffman, one of the long-time friends spearheading the Justice For Woody press conference in Brattleboro, “there was a cover-up from the very beginning. Here you have three officers, all carrying pepper spray, all had body armor with big American flags on their chests -- every one of them over 200 pounds – and then there’s this scrawny 140 pound guy, in a t-shirt, holding a knife to his own eye, terrified of being hunted and disappeared. And all of the 18 eyewitnesses present have said that they never felt threatened by Woody.”


Exactly what happened in the hours and minutes before Woodward was shot? What was he running from? Were his fears justified? Is this what standard police operating procedure looks like in America? Is this a case of excessive force? A dark political assassination and cover-up? Or is it merely a horrible – though lethal -- mistake made by otherwise caring police officers afraid for their safety and the safety of some people in a church?