Anti-Gay Protesters Pepper Sprayed at Marine's Funeral
The incident took place at around 10 a.m. Saturday in Omaha, Neb., where some 20 followers of the extremist Kansas sect -- who believe the deaths of American soldiers are divine retribution for the country's tolerance of homosexuality -- were staging a demonstration a block away from the funeral of Staff Sgt. Michael Bock. The 26-year-old Marine was killed in combat in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on Aug. 13.
Police told KETV that the group was facing off with counter-protesters when local resident George Vogel drove by in a pickup truck. Officers on duty say they saw the driver extend his arm, and spray what they described as a "large amount" of mace into the air after turning a corner. When they later stopped and searched the truck, they allegedly found an "industrial-sized" pepper spray dispenser.
"Initial indications are he was probably targeting the Westboro Baptist Church [protesters]," police spokesman Michael Pecha told CNN.
However, it appears as though instead of hitting the radicals -- who were waving signs reading "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Your Tears" -- Vogel sprayed a small group of counter-protesters. "You couldn't see, you couldn't breathe," Gina Moulas, who had stretched an American flag in front of the church members so mourners wouldn't see them, told the Omaha World-Herald. "It burns like someone poured gas on you and lit it."
Another anti-Westboro demonstrator Leah Kossakoski, whose husband is in the Air Force, told the paper: "The good guys got hit."
Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro leader pastor Fred Phelps, told CNN that no one in her group was injured, as they had covered their faces with their signs.
Vogel has been charged with 16 counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of felony assault on a police officer for the mace exposure, officer Pecha told CNN. He's also been slapped with one count of child neglect, since his child was in the truck at the time of the incident.
The drive-by spraying happened as Bock's family and friends were inside Omaha's First United Methodist Church. Some 600 members of the Patriot Freedom Riders, who escort the bodies of soldiers and protect their families, had ringed the chapel to shield mourners from the extremists.
Scott Knudsen, the Patriot Guard Riders captain for Nebraska, told CNN that members of his organization only ever attend funerals when they are invited by families, and never engage with church members or counter-protesters. "We don't get close to them," Knudsen said of the Westboro members. "We have our backs to them."
Knudsen added that he was disturbed Vogel's vigilantism. "It's inappropriate," he said. "It's a funeral service."