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War vet charged with stalking church group is released, put under care

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Vet accused of stalking infamous church
  • Retired Sgt. Ryan Newell is released but he must stay in the care of the VA
  • A church leader says "God is going to kill him" if he tries to stalk the church group again
  • Newell, 26, of Kansas lost both legs to an improvised bomb in Afghanistan
  • Church leaders say U.S. military deaths are God's punishment for homosexuality

(CNN) -- A 26-year-old double-amputee war veteran charged with the armed stalking of a controversial Kansas-based church group was released on his own recognizance Tuesday, but he must remain under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs, his attorney said.

Retired Sgt. Ryan Newell of Marion, Kansas, has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery against leaders and members of Westboro Baptist Church, led by Pastor Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. Phelps' family members and church members were in Wichita, Kansas, when Newell allegedly stalked them, with weapons in his vehicle.

The Phelps family and their church have drawn controversy for their picketing at soldiers' funerals and asserting that the soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for America's "sin of homosexuality."

Newell's attorney, Boyd McPherson of Wichita, declined to disclose the treatment that Newell must receive as a condition of his release from jail. Newell was a turret gunner who lost both legs to an improvised bomb in Afghanistan in 2008.

"There's not much I can say about treatment at this point," said McPherson, who added that the district attorney's office agreed with Newell's release to the Veterans Affairs department. "Being out of custody has made Ryan -- it put a smile on his face that I haven't seen in a week. That's probably the most important part of my day."

Newell, his wife Carrie and their four children were the subject of media attention earlier this year when the national nonprofit Homes for Our Troops constructed a new house for the family. Local businesses donated construction materials.

Newell had been held for eight days in a Sedgwick County, Kansas, jail in lieu of $500,000 bail, which was dropped Tuesday, said McPherson.

Newell has also been charged with five misdemeanors: three counts of criminal use of weapons, stalking and false impersonation of a law officer.

Since Newell's arrest November 30, McPherson's office has been inundated with phone calls and emails from supporters of Newell or opponents of the Westboro Baptist Church.

When authorities arrested Newell last week, they found his car contained an M4 assault rifle, a .45-caliber Glock and a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, said Georgia Cole, spokeswoman for the district attorney's Office in Sedgwick County. Also, 90 rounds of ammunition were found in the car, McPherson said.

Newell was arrested outside Wichita City Hall, where members of the Phelps family and their church were meeting inside with police officials about security issues, McPherson said.

The charges accuse Newell of making Phelps family and church members fear for their safety.

"I usually don't have that high priority of a case," said McPherson, a family law and criminal lawyer in Wichita, earlier this week. "This one is going to push the hot button of military personnel, and it's going to hit the hot button of wounded soldiers. He lost his mother when he was 19 and was in Afghanistan, and he had to come back to bury her. So there's a group of mothers who like him. And there are people who don't like the Phelps group. There are so many different layers of society."

On Monday, Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church pastor's daughter, said a judge has ordered Newell not to go anywhere near members of her family and church.

"Isn't this an amazing turn of events?" Phelps-Roper said. "These young people have gone to war with broken moral compasses and now they think they are in charge and that the mob is ruling the country.

"He comes with his cache of weapons and 90 rounds of ammunition, and he's going to kill us because we're simply saying that if you stop sinning, God will stop this pain in Iraq and Afghanistan," Phelps-Roper said.

"He thinks (if he is released on bail), he is going to go back and try it again. He's already had a God-smack, and he's going to try to get another one again. This time he's not going to lose his limbs. He's going to lose his life. God is going to kill him. He warned, 'Don't touch my people,'" Phelps-Roper said.

She said she noticed that a stranger's car was following her and other church members after they picketed the high school in Mulvane, Kansas, "where they are teaching rebellion against God," she said. Phelps-Roper said she later learned that Newell was the driver of that car.

At the high school, there was a heated face-off with members of the Patriot Guard, which she described as a group of bikers who have opposed Westboro's pickets, she said.

After the high school picket, she and other church members drove to nearby Wichita where they met downtown with a police deputy chief and a captain in a scheduled appointment about safety concerns.

"We wanted to talk about what we should do to try to eliminate some of the danger that they posed -- those bikers, those vets," said Phelps-Roper, who's also an attorney for the church. Police then told the church members that they were arresting someone in the parking lot whose car contained weapons, she said.

McPherson said a soldier at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has raised $3,500 since Thursday for Newell's defense fund, and McPherson is receiving about 100 e-mails a day from supporters, as well as phone calls from Europe and Canada, he said. A local American Legion group in Wichita is also raising money for Newell, the attorney said.