Intelligence Report

Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church

Homosexual-hater Fred Phelps uses lawsuits and heavy-handed tactics to harass an entire Kansas city.

TOPEKA, Kan. -- No one says that Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., or his congregation at the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) are any friends of the Topeka police department. For years, police listened as complaints streamed in that WBC'S picketers, with signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Die/God Laughs," went beyond the bounds of free speech.

They took reports from people who were battered, harassed, stalked and spat on by the Westboro congregants. They heard about scores of people like the mainstream preacher who was accused by one of Phelps' followers of "drink[ing] anal blood at the altar of the sphincter."

Still, Fred Phelps and the police found ways to get along — perhaps a little too well. The city's police chief was asked to resign in 1997 after allegedly instructing his officers never to arrest Phelps or his picketing congregants.

The new chief, who had tangled with Phelps earlier, promised to stand up to the man, to end the special treatment. Within months, Phelps and his lawyer-laden church had written up 40 pages of complaints and sued him.

To settle the case, the chief promised to never publicly discuss Phelps or deal personally with his church. Today, it is a brave local indeed who dares to stand up to the man who may be America's most vitriolic fountain of anti-homosexual hate.

"They have used their constitutional rights," Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon says of Phelps and his followers, "to bully this town into submission."

For 10 years, Phelps and his Westboro Baptists — a congregation almost entirely composed of his extended family — have waged a battle against lesbians, gays and a whole host of other perceived enemies.

They have used daily pickets, an array of intimidating tactics, scores of lawsuits and a veritable flood of faxes that are so filled with slurs and sex that they rival the product of the most prolific professional pornographer.

They run America's most infamous anti-homosexual web site, www.godhatesfags.com. In the process, even as they made life miserable for their enemies, Fred Phelps and his followers have created a niche for themselves in Topeka.

And if, as some say, the city and church have grown more tolerant of one another in recent years, credit may be due as much to Phelps' intimidation as to any success by the city or its inhabitants in leashing his mad-dog tactics.

"Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps," a chagrined Mayor Wagnon said in an interview with the Intelligence Report. "If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life."

'A Human Abuse Machine'
The Westboro Baptist Church is most famous — or infamous — for its campaign against homosexuality. Its members have traveled from San Francisco to Canada to New Hampshire preaching "the Bible's hatred," advocating the death penalty for homosexuals and picketing the funerals of gay aids and murder victims, most visibly that of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.

At a recent Westboro sermon attended by the Report, Phelps, who is 71, told his young grandchildren never to "have sex with feces" or "drink semen" like "sodomite fags."

"There's something about anal copulating," Phelps lamented in a rather unusual take on human biology, "that just drains the cells out of the brain."

All concerned agree that the WBC really does hate gays. But at least one church member has said openly that if all homosexuals disappeared, congregants would find some other reason to picket.

And Suzanne James, who recently resigned after eight years in the Shawnee County District Attorney's office as director of victim services, says Phelps's opposition to homosexuality obscures a deeper purpose — promoting himself and hurting others.

"I'm so tired of people calling him an 'anti-gay activist'," James told the Report. "He's not an anti-gay activist. He's a human abuse machine."

The most striking aspect of Westboro Baptist pickets is the relentlessly personal nature of their taunts. Their targets are only sometimes homosexuals; as often as not, they are simply people who somehow crossed the Phelpses, often unintentionally.

WBC members have picketed the funerals of Bill Clinton's mother, Sonny Bono and Frank Sinatra. Even Bob Dole, Jerry Falwell, the Ku Klux Klan, Santa Claus and the 17 sailors killed aboard the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen last October have been attacked as "fags" or "supporters of the fag agenda."

One little girl, going with her parents to see the "Nutcracker" ballet in a Topeka hall, had WBC pickets hiss at her: "Did your Daddy stick in his prick in your ass last night?"

Typically, targets are Topeka locals, whose names are memorialized in lurid WBC picket signs protesting "Fag Meneley" (for former sheriff Dave Meneley), "Bull Dyke James" (Suzanne James), "Jo*ANus Hamilton" (Shawnee County District Attorney Joan Hamilton). Once the signs are made, the WBC congregants go to work.

For 10 Years, '40 Pickets a Week'
They picket people at their offices, at the restaurants they patronize, in the schools their children attend. They picket church services, beauty pageants, basketball games, even "Peace Camps" for young kids. They picket weddings and they picket funerals. In Topeka, they have picketed the courthouses, the city's newspaper, a local university and almost every other church in town.

They have picketed people at their homes, while they prepared for work in the morning or threw parties at night. They hated one Nissan car dealer enough to drive 500 miles and picket the Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn.

In an interview with the Report, Fred Phelps estimated that since 1991, WBC has carried out 40 pickets a week, every week. What's remarkable is that he may not be exaggerating by much.

"There was a woman working at my restaurant who was gay," says Jerry Berger, an attorney and owner of Topeka's Vintage Restaurant. "Phelps told me, 'If you don't fire her, we're going to put you out of business.'" The Westboro Baptists proceeded to picket the Restaurant "literally every day" for about three years. Berger eventually sold the restaurant and the woman quit.

Phelps didn't. He followed the unfortunate woman, picketing at her new job, and "he still pickets the restaurant all the time," Berger said in a recent interview. "And now, he pickets my law offices every Tuesday."

The Cost of Courage
The Phelpses don't just picket, they also fax. And what faxes. Sent out to dozens of government offices, law firms, businesses and homes across Kansas several times a week, the faxes are grotesque, non-stop political commentary lambasting local and national figures.

Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is a "bug-eye faggy baby-killer." Sailors in the U.S. Navy are "blasphemous fag beasts." Jerry Berger, the Vintage owner, is a "[b]loody Jew... merchant of anal copulating."

Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate last fall, is "an anti-Christ Jew" who "has sold his soul to fags." Elizabeth Taylor is "an evil woman" who led a "wicked, Christ-rejecting, Satan-worshipping life." Jesse Jackson is a "fag" and a "black Judas goat leading his people to hell."

Thanksgiving was established as a "pagan feast" so the Massachusetts governor could "lust after the semi-naked bodies of the Indians he invited." Poet Maya Angelou is the "filthy face of fag evil."

Some of these faxes are reproduced on www.godhatesfags.com, the WBC web site.

And then there are the lawsuits. Phelps himself is a disbarred attorney who was long known for massive litigation; at one point, he personally had almost 200 lawsuits pending in federal court. Although his congregation includes only about 22 adults, at least 14 of those have law degrees.

The church has its own law firm, Phelps Chartered, which is staffed by church members and which has repeatedly filed suit against its perceived enemies (see Halting Abusive Lawyers).

In addition to suing the chief of police and various Kansas judges and politicians, it has sued one district attorney three times for "malicious prosecution." Even private citizens who filed criminal complaints against the picketers found themselves embroiled in lawsuits — or, perhaps by coincidence, with roofing nails littering their driveways.

"We should stand up and be counted against this hatred, but I can recognize a moral dilemma to being courageous," concedes Randy Austin, former head of the Concerned Citizens of Topeka, a group established to counter WBC.

I can hold myself up for the picketing, the lawsuits, the harassment, " says Austin, a lawyer who manages a trust that owns shopping centers. "But what if I stand up to them and they put one of my tenants out of business? That's not okay."

Hate as a Family Value
The 50-odd adult and juvenile members of the Westboro Baptist Church are almost exclusively the extended family, by blood or marriage, of Fred Phelps, Sr.

Although four of his 13 children are estranged from Phelps and the church, nine — all attorneys — remain loyal. Most of those live on or near the same city block that holds their church.

Phelps' property and his residence, including a large swimming pool that he describes as a "baptismal font," are tax-exempt. Institutionally, WBC is an independent Baptist church that is not formally affiliated with any other Baptist denomination — although Topeka's mainline Baptist churches are apparently the only churches in Topeka that have failed to condemn WBC'S astounding vitriol.

According to the three Phelps children who are estranged from their father, the church's behavior is part of their father's long history of conflict (see Fred Phelps Timeline). They tell of a family whose profound insularity may explain why the church today does virtually no recruiting.

With a great deal of detail, they allege that their father engaged in physical and emotional abuse of his children, reflecting a need for control that bordered on brainwashing (see On the Inside). All three claim that at home he referred to black people as "dumb niggers."

"He behaves with a viciousness the likes of which I have never seen [elsewhere]," wrote one estranged son, Mark Phelps, who described his father as "a small, pathetic, old man."

"My father is a very unstable person who is determined to hurt people. ... I believe it's a good idea to respond to him with caution much like the caution used when dealing with a rattlesnake or a mad dog."

A Decade of Trouble
"He only started picketing in 1991, but I want people to understand that nothing's changed, he's been like this all along," adds Dortha Bird, a daughter of Phelps who is now a practicing lawyer in Topeka. Bird legally changed her last name when she left her family because, she says, she felt "free as a bird."

For 10 years now, Phelps has treated this city of 150,000 in much the same way as he allegedly treated his own children. It was in 1991 that he started "The Great Gage Park Decency Drive," pickets aimed at ending an alleged epidemic of homosexual sex in a park.

During the course of those and other pickets, Phelps and his followers engaged in activities that resulted in battery, criminal restraint and disorderly conduct convictions.

But convictions have been the exception. Of the hundreds of criminal complaints against WBC picketers lodged with police, at least 109 were forwarded to the district attorney's office, a large proportion of them against Phelps and one son, Jonathan. Only four cases resulted in convictions.

These figures give some idea of the harassment Topekans face at the hands of Phelps and his followers. But there are uncounted ugly incidents which did not involve any alleged criminality. Mayor Wagnon remembers the computer supplier who had to walk past a Phelps picket line on his way into her office.

"He stood there shaking, obviously emotionally devastated, and I asked him what was wrong," Wagnon said. "He said, 'My son committed suicide three weeks ago because he was gay. How can you let them stand there like that?'"

Sex and Politics in Topeka
Very few in Topeka — a highly conservative town in a highly conservative state — admit to being allies of Fred Phelps or the WBC. Yet many are sympathetic to Phelps' anti-homosexual message, even if they find his tactics repulsive.

In 1990, the year before Phelps started his Gage Park picketing, he ran as a Democrat in the Kansas gubernatorial primary and won 6.7% of the vote.

In 1992, after one year of publicly flaunting his hatred of homosexuals, Phelps' popularity had actually shot up dramatically: He polled 31% of the vote in the Kansas Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, taking about 50,000 ballots. Last November, without even running for office, Phelps received write-in votes for several local offices.

But Phelps' influence goes deeper. Fearing WBC harassment, some state legislators refused to vote against Kansas' apparently unconstitutional criminal sodomy statute, says Mayor Wagnon. When the Topeka Human Relations Commission later decided merely to examine issues facing local gays and lesbians, the city council reacted by abolishing the commission.

According to commissioner Richard Alexander, the council feared Phelps' reaction. (After a public outcry, the commission was reestablished, but in a weakened form.) And because of Phelps' diatribes, city officials say, Topeka restricted public comment at city council meetings and declined a public access television channel.

Even more heavy-handed tactics are also common.

According to Jerry Palmer, an attorney involved in various legal conflicts with WBC, the city council passed an ordinance in the early 1990s that would have restricted pickets during church services and funerals. The measure required only the signature of then-Mayor Butch Felker in order to become law.

"Then a fax came out saying something like, 'The mayor has been playing around in the fleshpots of Parks and Recreation. No names yet but stay tuned,'" says Palmer. "We all regarded that as a tacit threat that Phelps would publicly reveal the name of Felker's extramarital girlfriend, who worked at the local zoo."

Felker, who later married the woman, vetoed the proposed law, telling constituents it was unconstitutional.

Spilling Secrets
People who cross the Westboro Baptists have consistently had their unfortunate secrets spread around town. District Attorney Hamilton, who had run on a promise to stand up to the picketers, thought it was bad enough that she was repeatedly sued and that picketers would scream "pricks go up your ass" as she passed by with her elderly parents.

But then she woke up one morning to find that a private E-mail she had written to her husband, discussing both of their adulterous relationships, had been faxed to offices across the city.

City councilwoman Beth Listrom had confidential blood records describing her exposure to hepatitis faxed around on Westboro Baptist letterhead. The fax said Listrom was "tainted with a social disease (in the genre of AIDS or HIV+)."

Both the e-mail and the medical records apparently had been retrieved from the trash.

But even these remarkable tactics haven't turned off all local officials. A number seem to remain on remarkably friendly terms with Pastor Phelps.

Current City Councilman James McClinton, a black man who has been portrayed as a monkey in several faxes of unknown origin, alleges other council members and officials routinely leak sensitive information to Phelps. Within hours of many closed-door executive sessions of the council, he says, Phelps has learned the details and, in some cases, faxed them all over town.

Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline is a declared sympathizer. Describing Phelps as "a great civil rights leader" for lawsuits he won before being disbarred, she denies he has received special treatment from local officials. "If anything," she told the Report, "they've mistreated him."

Cline, who calls homosexuality "sinful" and tolerance of gays "garbage," disavows any special ties to Phelps. But Phelps is not so retiring. "We're the ones," he says, "who convinced her to run."

In any event, Cline is far from seeing Phelps as a blight upon Topeka. "I highly respect the gentleman," she declares. "How could you not?"

The Price of Hate
For years, economic growth in Topeka has been negligible — a dilemma Westboro Baptist has clearly helped to exacerbate. But the Topeka Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CVB), which promotes city tourism and economic development, has declined to investigate the problem.

According to Randy Austin and Betty Simecka, who are both former CVB presidents, that is because of fear of Phelps' harassment. Frustrated, Simecka and another former CVB employee got together privately to document the effect of Phelps and his church on convention business.

They found five instances where lost conventions could be directly attributed to WBC'S activities. In one case, a potential convention client was touring the city with a CVB official when they drove by a Phelps picket. "The lady [client] was hysterical and got down on the floor of the car," the Simecka report said. "They will not ever consider Topeka for a meeting 'as long as the Phelps group has a presence.'"

The estimated loss in these cases alone was $16.5 million.

Other impacts are harder to quantify. Picketers have routinely frightened spectators away from the city's money-losing Performing Arts Center. Poet Maya Angelou — who wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton's inauguration — was so shaken when she spoke at the center that she cancelled her remaining Kansas appearances.

Even hiring city staff has gotten harder. Once, Mayor Wagnon drove by a Phelps picket shortly after giving a job to an openly gay city planner. Turning to the mayor, he told her he could never live in the same city as Phelps.

In the end, it was these kinds of economic costs that led to the creation in 1995 of the Concerned Citizens of Topeka (CCT), a citizens group that has grown into the most effective organization to take on Phelps and his family. Lobbying by CCT'S 800 members helped widen the picket-free zone around church services.

It prompted officials to put the church's pickup truck back on the tax rolls (WBC had argued that the truck, which carried picket signs like "Fag Dole" in reference to Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was used exclusively for "religious" purposes). And CCT helped to spark a revealing 1997 investigation of the police chief of Topeka.

Tolerating Intolerance
In the mid-1990s, Topeka had both a mayor and a police chief who were seen by many as sympathetic to Phelps, men who agreed that homosexuality is a sin.

Chief Gerald Beavers already was facing some public criticism for assigning contingents of police to the Phelps pickets — not to protect passersby, but to guard the picketers. Later, he would be accused of coddling Phelps in other ways.

This reported coddling had its effect. Gene Roles, whose sisters experienced "absolute physical devastation" from a screaming attack by Jonathan Phelps, likened their experience to "verbal rape." Roles says that the biggest hurdle in eventually convicting Jonathan Phelps of disorderly conduct in that incident came from an unexpected quarter — the Topeka Police Department.

"They all said they had been briefed not to issue reports on the Phelpses," Roles told the Intelligence Report. "We talked to 10 officers and got 10 different reasons why. In the end, winning the case came down to simply following through on a police report. The jury was convinced in 15 minutes."

A few years later, officers came forward to essentially corroborate the Roles story, complaining publicly that they'd been instructed by Beavers not to arrest members of the Phelps family.

Beavers denied that charge, although Fred Phelps says today that the two men "understood each other." In any event, then-Mayor Felker says he told Beavers to resign or face firing. Beavers quit.

Speechless in Topeka
Dean Forster, the current chief, came in with what were seen as strong Phelps-fighting credentials. Phelps Chartered had been forced to pay Forster many thousands of dollars in legal fees after a judge ruled that a Phelps civil rights suit against Forster was frivolous.

But Forster was soon sued again by the Phelpses, and as part of a settlement the police department agreed in writing to allow only five Topeka officers — not including Forster — to deal with WBC. Department officials say Forster also verbally agreed not to publicly discuss the church or the Phelpses.

For some, the new administration has changed little.

Bridget Newman was 16 in the summer of 1999, when she says she was "verbally attacked" by Jonathan Phelps on the street. She and her mother contacted the police. "When we told the police officer we wanted to press charges, he smiled and said, 'Oh, you must be from out of town. The Phelpses just do these things and there's nothing we can do about it. It's within their legal rights,'" Bridget recalls.

"I turned away crying and really upset. They had all the rights and I had none."

The Newmans ultimately did file a report. But Bridget says a Topeka detective called her mother a short time later. "He advised us not to press charges and said they could make our lives hell, that we didn't know what they could do."

A hearing in the case has been postponed indefinitely.

Police official Ed Klumpp — one of the five officers allowed to publicly discuss WBC — says officials can do little other than police the pickets for violence or other lawbreaking. In fact, Klumpp says he often recommends that communities facing Phelps pickets concentrate on preventing potential violence from counter-demonstrators.

But retired detective Doug Mauck disagrees, saying officials could do things like separate picketers from their targets. "If we had been alert in 1991 and known where it was going," he laments today, "we could have stopped in then and there. Law enforcement could have been a big help."

Fighting Back
In some ways, the raw vitriol peddled by the Westboro Baptist Church has had some positive effects. There have been years of counterpickets, meetings, street fairs, fundraisers, rallies and invited speakers. Many targeted churches have joined together to proclaim that "God's Love Speaks Loudest."

And last spring, the city council unanimously passed a resolution condemning hate — although even that mild document prompted as yet unfulfilled threats of retaliatory lawsuits.

Even some local homosexuals say Phelps has managed to unite the city in unexpected ways. "Phelps has actually been good for Topeka and for the gay community," says J.L. Cleland. "Topekans would rather sweep problems of race and sexual orientation under the carpet. Now, they can't do that."

State laws passed in the early 1990s — mainly as a response to Phelps — regulate funeral picketing, stalking and fax machine harassment. City ordinances now limit the picketing of private residences and church services.

Today, in the wake of the handful of criminal convictions of picketers, some say there have been noticeable, if mild, changes in WBC'S behavior. In Topeka, members don't scream as much at passersby — although they still do in other states. Complaints to police and Phelps lawsuits have slowed as WBC'S efforts have shifted to the national scene.

One local lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, came up with a novel way to battle the Phelpses. When Phelps Chartered, alleging "emotional damage," sued someone who had filed a criminal complaint against a WBC member, Irigonegaray's team requested court approval to have a psychiatrist evaluate Phelps family members to determine the alleged damage. The Phelps firm settled without delay.

For his part, Fred Phelps, holding one of his church's 800 picket signs, says he's gone "way past 'hate' to 'detest,' 'abhor.'" He pauses, searching for the right words for his enemies. "All they think about day and night is fornicating."

Well, maybe. Many people have speculated about Phelps' desperate hatred of homosexuals, wondering if he has something to hide.

"There's only one person in this town who thinks about homosexual fornication day and night," says Richard Alexander, the former human relations commissioner who is also a member of Topeka's Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "And he's not in our task force."

In the end, the city of Topeka may yet get the better of Phelps, a man who many in this Kansas city think of as the demented uncle best left locked away in an upstairs bedroom.

"If there's one thing we've learned through all of this," Suzanne James concludes, "it's that you can only beat a bully by standing up to him."