The New Fred

Shirley Phelps-Roper is just like her notorious father — except in one crucial way.

It's been called a compound, implying comparisons with Waco cult leader David Koresh's Branch Davidians. Phelps-Roper bristles at the suggestion that their adjoining backyards constitute a compound. She says the common yard is fenced to decrease the liability of having a swimming pool and to keep the children safe from the outside world.

There's plenty for the children to do back there — the pool, a trampoline and a jungle gym.

The Westboro Baptist Church sits across a grassy lawn. Phelps-Roper can see the church from her home office, which is full of family photos and computers. Across from Phelps-Roper's desk is a massive printer-fax machine for blasting out press releases. The spacious home is immaculate. Nothing appears out of place. Hardwood floors shine in the kitchen, and jugs of vitamins line the shelves above the sink.

Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.
photo: Jay Soldner
Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.


Editor's note: This article appeared originally in The Pitch, our sister paper in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sam lives a couple of doors down. He is now 27 and married with two children of his own. A Washburn grad himself, he works as a software developer.

Phelps-Roper's second child, 23-year-old Josh, is also a Washburn grad and a software developer, but he's no longer a member of the church.

Phelps-Roper says Josh isn't welcome in her home.

Inviting Josh over to talk would be a slap in the face to the rest of her children, she explains.

"Before I could have him come over and sit and chat . . . I would first have to line up these young people who are come to years and are interested in serving God and know the standards set by God and kick 'em, each one, in the shin . . . or maybe punch 'em in the stomach, if I was the punching kind of person."

Josh declined to be interviewed for this story, citing already strained family ties. In an e-mail, Josh wrote that he wasn't surprised that his mother said he wasn't welcome in her home. "Although," he wrote, "if she ever wanted to see her grandson, she would be welcome in mine."

Phelps-Roper's estrangement from Josh repeats a family pattern; at least three of Fred Phelps' children have left the family. Phelps-Roper has no contact with those who have left.

Noah, let's go, babe," Phelps-Roper calls to her 7-year-old son.

Noah is a second-grader at Topeka's Whitson Elementary School. But today, citing religious expression, Phelps-Roper's children will miss morning classes for a crosstown field trip to Sacred Heart Catholic Church for the funeral of Army National Guard Sgt. Bernard Deghand.

They were supposed to be on the road at 9:15, but she has yet to corral everyone into her navy-blue Ford Super Duty van.

Gabriel, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Landon Middle School, stares out the kitchen window. He spots a car pulling up to the house.

"Is that the BBC?" Gabriel asks.

It is. A camera crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation has been shadowing the Phelpses for a documentary.

Isaiah, 17, and Zacharias, 15, both students at Topeka West High School, wait with their cousin Timothy Jr. and their aunt Abigail Phelps. Also lurking is Phelps-Roper's 9-year-old son, Jonah, a fourth-grader at Whitson Elementary.

Sam is missing; so are Grace, 14, an eighth-grader at Landon Middle School, and Luke, 4. Megan is home, but the pretty, raven-haired 20-year-old is staying behind to study for the LSAT — she, too, wants to go to Washburn University's law school.

Looking like a track team in their sweatsuits, the family members pile into the van and roll off to picket.

Rebekah, 19, talks excitedly about appearing on The Tyra Banks Show last month with her mother and her older sister Megan.

Shirley Phelps-Roper defends her decision to protest at funerals.

The Phelpses' appearance on the supermodel's syndicated talk show was surreal — not just because Phelps-Roper took the unusual step of putting on makeup. A former neo-Nazi skinhead lectured Phelps-Roper and her daughters on the evil of their words, and Banks insisted that Phelps-Roper was angry and tried unsuccessfully to calm her. Phelps-Roper told Banks not to mistake her zeal for anger, then told Banks that she was going to hell. Rebekah called Banks a "fag enabler" for creating America's Next Top Model.

The street outside Sacred Heart looks like a cross between the Sturgis bike rally and a Labor Day parade. American flags and motorcycles line the streets.

Phelps-Roper is clearly in charge. Her children ask her where to picket. She negotiates with police to stake out areas in front of the church. The BBC camera crew is always in her face.

Phelps-Roper and Noah claim a corner and proceed to step on the American flag dangling from Phelps-Roper's pants. Noah can't yet understand the significance of what he's doing, but he looks happy because he has his mother's attention.

Occasionally, Phelps-Roper screams, "Scooter sissies!" at the Patriot Guard Riders.

She and her children are gleeful in their taunts.

Her cell phone rings. (The tone is jangly pop by the Goo Goo Dolls.)

"Yeah, we're doing great, hon," Phelps-Roper says to the caller. "We're about to call it good. We got here way early. Huge amount of scooter sissies. We were among 'em for a while, and it was all peaceful because there were cops everywhere. We flanked the two ends because that's where all of the traffic for the funeral is coming. But ain't nobody getting into this funeral without passing us by."

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