No sign of protests outside Arkansas soldier's funeral

Wednesday, July 11, 2012 - 1:11pm

Pine Bluff (Pine Bluff Commercial) -- Police, counter-protesters and members of patriotic organizations said picketers from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., didn't materialize Saturday afternoon to disrupt the funeral of Sgt. Michael Joseph Strachota, the 28-year-old Pine Bluff native who died June 24 while serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

More than 150 men and women, many holding American flags, lined West Sixth Avenue in front of St. Joseph Catholic Church and the steps leading to the front doors of the church as soldiers carried Strachota's flag-draped casket up the 16 steps.

A total of nearly 250 motorcycles were parked on Olive Street north of the church and members of the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Service hearse to Clement Cemetery near Grapevine for graveside services with full military honors.

Police presence was high outside the church, with 10 Pine Bluff Police Department patrol cars and motorcycles, three Jefferson County Sheriff's Department deputies and one Arkansas State Police trooper present. Several officers in casual clothing were observed in the assembled crowd.

Doug Odom, state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, said the Strachota family asked the organization to be present at the funeral to counter proposed pickets from Westboro Baptist members and to provide an escort to the cemetery.

Westboro, which has a reputation for extreme ideologies, is known for picketing the funerals of military personnel who died in combat and desecrating the American flag.

Candice Long and her mother-in-law, Cathy Watts, both of Pine Bluff, found shade in front of an office building across Sixth Avenue from St. Joseph and were ready to take on any Westboro pickets more than an hour before the funeral.

The older woman said the fallen soldier had visited her several times while he was in high school.

"I think it was wrong to protest … it's an outrage to protest his sacrifice for his country," Watts said. "His family should have a chance to grieve without a bunch of nuts disrupting the funeral."

Men, women and some teenagers in cars, trucks, vans and SUVs occupied parking spaces on Sixth Avenue and nearby parking lots before the funeral services. Many carried American flags.

Businessman Charles "Cooter" Failla of White Hall handed out 3- by 5-foot American flags to the crowd, with dozens forming a line of flags in front of the church.

Counter-protesters were prepared with signs that proclaimed "Hate is WBC (Westboro)" and urging Westboro members to "go home."

A man and a woman, each accompanied by a large German shepherd on a leash, walked through the crowd. Each dog had a small American flag attached to his collar.

"Thank you for serving," men in military uniforms were told repeatedly.

The crowd in front of the church grew as sirens signaled the approach of the hearse carrying the soldier's body. A church bell tolled.

Men and women wearing jackets and shirts identifying them as members of the Patriot Guard, Purple Heart Riders, Christian Motorcyclists Association, ABATE and Combat Vets Association stood at attention or saluted as the casket was carried up the steps, to be met at the church door by the soldier's widow, Lauren Walden Strachota, who was holding their son, William Michael Strachota.

A number of individuals who stood at the church in the sun for two hours appeared to suffer from heat distress with a heat index of more than 100 degrees, and each was replaced by another volunteer who took over the flags they had been holding.

Members of the motorcycle organization passed out bottles of cold water to the crowd. Odom said the Patriot Guard has learned to come prepared.

While most police officers present said they were not authorized to comment about Westboro Baptist Church and the planned protest, several said the group was expected to set up on Main Street after being told they could not protest within 300 feet of the church. A police department spokesman was not immediately available.

A spokesman for the church did not return a telephone call or answer an email inquiry from The Commercial.

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