In a Wichita case that has captured national attention, a double-amputee war veteran already accused of misdemeanors against a controversial Topeka church now faces a felony charge.
The latest charge — conspiracy to commit aggravated battery — was filed by Sedgwick County prosecutors Friday afternoon. The charge accuses Army veteran Ryan Newell of engaging in a conspiracy in which firearms were obtained and put in his vehicle and taken to a place where church members were located.
Mid-morning Tuesday, detectives arrested Newell. He was backed into a parking spot outside Wichita City Hall with guns and ammunition in his SUV while five Westboro church members met inside with Wichita police officials to discuss protest-safety concerns, sources have said.
The felony charge alleges that there was a conspiracy in which Newell entered into an agreement with another person.
Newell’s bond remains at $500,000. His next court appearance is set for Dec. 16.
Judge Ben Burgess said at a hearing Friday that if Newell were to post the bond, there would be a hearing to consider additional conditions for his release. One condition already set is that he have no contact with Westboro members.
The Eagle on Friday received calls from New Hampshire to Nevada from people wanting to give money to Newell’s legal defense or bond.
Kim Parker, the chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County, noted that the case has received wide attention and “that the public’s sympathies may weigh heavy.”
Still, Parker said, “We decide cases based on the facts and the law. We don’t decide cases based on whether we like or dislike the victim or the suspect.”
Meanwhile, two people — the lawyer for Newell and a spokeswoman for Westboro — say Newell is the subject of other investigations.
Newell, 26, of Marion, has remained in the Sedgwick County Jail since Tuesday evening.
“It’s obvious that Mr. Newell has a great outpouring of support, some of whom share our client’s view of supporting our country,” said lawyer Boyd McPherson, who along with fellow Wichita lawyer Steve Joseph is representing Newell.
“He’s not interested in publicity,” McPherson said of Newell. “He appreciates all the support that’s being offered.”
Westboro and its members have been widely condemned for protesting at soldiers’ funerals nationwide. Westboro contends that soldiers are dying because God is punishing the nation for immorality.
Margie Phelps is one of the five Westboro members who protested Tuesday outside Mulvane High School and then rode in a van to Wichita City Hall, where detectives arrested Newell.
Westboro members have picketed at almost 600 soldiers’ funerals in the last 5 1/2 years, Phelps said. The protests generally have taken place a half-mile to a mile from funeral locations, she said. The protesters from Westboro leave when the funerals start, she said.
At nearly all of the protests, veterans on motorcycles and their supporters have been present, she said. “They track us down and try to shut us up and do harm to us,” said Phelps, 54.
“Those guys aren’t going to shut us up,” she said. “That can be written in stone.”
On Thursday, prosecutors charged Newell with stalking, three counts of criminal use of weapons and one count of false impersonation of a law enforcement officer.
The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro members and putting them in fear for their safety. Sedgwick County sheriff’s detectives arrested Newell after a sheriff’s detective saw him following a Westboro van to City Hall, officials said.
The weapons charges accuse Newell of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with “intent to use” an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun. Besides the weapons, Newell also had more than 90 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle, sources said.
An M4 rifle is a high-powered weapon used in combat; there are variations of the rifle, according to websites.
Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said earlier Friday: “Here is what I expect to happen: This guy is going to be called a hero, he may get a parade.”
People “will line up to sing his praises, to pay his legal fees and to get him a lawyer,” she said. “Then he will be permitted to plead to some nothing charges.”
Phelps-Roper also said, “We’ve had communication about a federal investigation” involving Newell. “And I don’t think I ought to say any more about that.”
FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said she could neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The Eagle has previously reported that agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went to Newell’s home and obtained items including firearms.
McPherson, Newell’s lawyer, said, “I’m hearing that there are other investigations that are pending.” He declined to elaborate.
McPherson said he is working to make sure that Newell’s medical needs are met while he is in jail. McPherson said he thinks Newell has been placed in the jail clinic because of medications associated with his war injuries.
Newell lost his legs in 2008 when an improvised bomb exploded in Afghanistan. Some of his fellow soldiers died in the explosion.
BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle