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Feeding tube case inflames emotions

As the date gets closer for disconnecting Terri Schiavo, testy messages are reaching those associated with the case.

Published September 29, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - A judge named George Greer has ordered the removal of the feeding tube keeping brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive.

A George Greer who isn't the judge wants people to stop calling him to complain.

"The first call I got was about three years ago," said Greer, 79, a St. Petersburg retiree who is listed in the phone book but has no connection to the case. "Now they're sending me hate mail, enough to make me concerned."

Concerned enough, Greer said, to carry a gun.

Emotions are running high among some of the right-to-life advocates who oppose ending Mrs. Schiavo's life by removing her feeding tube, an act some equate to murder. As the Oct. 15 date for the tube's removal approaches, a torrent of letters, e-mails and calls have flooded anyone connected to the case.

Not all those messages are polite. A few have been downright menacing. Lawyers involved in the case disagree about whether anyone needs to be worried about their security.

"We get a fairly steady stream of very unsavory e-mails and letters," said attorney George Felos, who represents Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, and has won court approval to withdraw the feeding tube.

"I feel uncomfortable talking about it," he said. "By putting attention on it, it may encourage people. We do receive this sort of stuff. And we are security conscious."

In a recent court filing, Felos said the inflammatory language used by the lawyer representing Mrs. Schiavo's parents, who oppose ending their daughter's life, "foster(s) a climate of violence."

"Characterizing one side in litigation as the defender of God and the other as anti-God is an attempt to inflame fanatic elements who believe that the ends justify the means when one is doing "God's will,"' Felos wrote.

Attorney Pat Anderson, who represents Mrs. Schiavo's parents, said Felos' worries are a figment of an overactive imagination.

"There has been nothing that I have seen coming across my computer screen that is of a threatening nature," Anderson said. "There's a lot of outrage. But I haven't seen evidence of anyone involved with violent tendencies. If I can believe my e-mails, I know there are thousands of people praying for the judge and Michael Schiavo."

In 2000, a woman called the nursing home where Mrs. Schiavo lived and, according an administrator, said, "I am going to kill the judge and Michael, and if anything happens to Terri, I will kill you."

"That got inflated into becoming a roving band of assassins," said Anderson.

A judge ordered a guard posted outside Mrs. Schiavo's room and assigned one to her husband. Felos refused to say if the guards are still around.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office said it has not investigated nor received any threats against anyone involved in the case since.

Heated e-mails or calls to the courts and other players in the case are common.

Take this e-mail sent to Judge Greer on Sept. 21 by someone named Noelle: "If (Schiavo) dies because of you, I HOPE THAT YOU F------ DIE AND ROT IN HELL. YOU DON'T DESERVE TO LIVE IF YOU KILL HER ... I HOPE TO GOD THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND. YOU BETTER."

Ron Stuart, a spokesman for Pinellas-Pasco courts, said the judge has probably received dozens of e-mails. And Stuart himself has fielded about 40 calls in recent weeks.

Stuart said the courts would not comment on security precautions. Felos and the Pinellas Park hospice where Mrs. Schiavo lives also refused to discuss security. Michael Schiavo will not comment.

Stuart said many of the calls to the courts come from people living out of state associated with the Christian right.

"It's just "God's going to get me' kind of stuff," said Stuart.

Bob Schindler, Mrs. Schiavo's father, said he has received more than 8,200 e-mails in the last several years. In all of that, he said only half a dozen would be characterized as disturbing.

"A lot of this gets blown completely out of proportion," Schindler said, referring to Felos' fears.

The Schiavo case isn't alone in drawing passionate protests and debate.

In Missouri, the case of brain-damaged Nancy Cruzan drew protesters after her parents won a court order to remove her feeding tube in 1990. Cruzan died 12 days later.

A group of religious activists stormed the hospital where Cruzan was located in an effort to force feed her. They reached the second floor before police stopped them.

"That's part of how our society works," said attorney Bill Colby, who represented the parents. "When we're trying to make social policy with people of strong beliefs on all sides, we should never forget that people with regular lives are in the middle of the social debate."

Six years after Mrs. Cruzan's death, her father committed suicide. Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, said he thinks the constant hounding by pro-life critics took a toll.

Picketers protested at the hospital constantly, he said. The father was called a murderer.

"By the time I met him, he was just a shell of a man for having gone through this," said Miles.

Felos, the lawyer representing Michael Schiavo, said he often speaks to groups about right-to-die issues. But he said he recently stopped because of disruptions by Schindler supporters.

At one church event recently, someone put a flier under car windshields that said, "Get your DEATH CONTRACT here! No one spared, guaranteed!"

Felos said the people who show up don't threaten him. "It's certainly an annoyance," he said. "Don't these people have a life?"

Ron Panzer, who heads Hospice Patients Alliance, is a critic of Michael Schiavo who sometimes sends non-threatening e-mails about the case. He said Felos is trying to portray all opponents as kooks.

"I think George Felos is trying to marginalize some very reasonable people," Panzer said.

Anderson said her office has weathered its own problems.

She said a computer hacker keeps crashing her system, especially at times when she faces a deadline to make an important court filing.

"I have Pentagon-level security on my computer now," she said. "It may be an overzealous supporter of Michael Schiavo."

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