Chain saw attack fans fears of plans for Springfield homeless shelter

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- The weekend chain saw attack at a central Missouri homeless shelter has fueled opposition by parents of a similar facility being proposed by the shelter's founder near a Springfield high school.

Matthew Watkins, 28, has been charged with four counts of first-degree assault and armed-criminal action after authorities said he attacked two men with a chain saw and two others with a knife. The attack happened Saturday at Mid-America Care Center in New Boomfield, about 125 miles northeast of Springfield.

Two of the men, Bruce Caulkins and Maurice Thomas, are still in the hospital. Callaway County Sheriff Dennis Crane said Tuesday that they had been upgraded to serious from critical condition and are "expected to make full recoveries."

He said one of the men had been struck in the abdomen by the chain saw while the other had been stabbed in the neck.

The shelter is affiliated with the New Life Evangelistic Center and connected with Christian television station KNLJ, run by the Rev. Larry Rice.

Rice told the Springfield News-Leader on Monday that he had spoken to Caulkins and Thomas and called their recoveries "a miracle."

His organization wants to open a center for homeless military veterans in an old Social Security Administration building a block away from Central High School in Springfield.

The proposal already had attracted opposition from parents, because the building's parking lot backs up to a building used for a school swimming pool. Saturday's attack exacerbated their concerns.

"This is exactly the type of thing we want to prevent at Central," said Bruce Johnson, whose daughter Jordyn is a freshman. "I don't believe we help our veterans or our children (with this location)."

Rice called the parents' complaints "not rational" but said he would work with the school and city officials to address their concerns. He noted that the center will be open only during regular business hours and will not be a live-in or emergency shelter.

"The project is going to proceed, so these people need to face reality," he said.

Parents said they're worried about when the shelter isn't open, such as when students are using the swimming pool, coming to school or waiting for rides in the afternoon.

They also said there have been problems at other New Life facilities in the past. A volunteer at the New Life Evangelistic Center Free Store in Springfield is scheduled to go on trial in May on a charge of forcible sodomy, while a trainee at New Life's shelter in Joplin has been charged with rape.

"These are not isolated incidences," said Mary Byrne, another Central parent. "This is because Larry Rice employs his own clients who have criminal records."

She also worried that some clients of the veterans center could be sex offenders legally banned from coming within 500 feet of a school.

"He puts three populations at risk: students, veterans who would be in violation of the law, and himself, if he doesn't identify these people to law enforcement," she said of Rice.

Byrne and other parents have sought help from Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and other lawmakers.

Blunt spokesman Dan Wadlington said the office was looking into the situation but added, "there is no way the federal government can stop the takeover (of the Social Security building)."

Rice said the centers are trying to help homeless people with a variety of problems, including substance abuse, mental illness and criminal backgrounds. He said New Life does criminal background checks of its clients and that New Bloomfield staff members knew Watkins had three prior convictions for third-degree assault.

"But there was nothing to demonstrate that this man would do this," he said.

He added, however, that Watkins had shown anger problems and "racial hatred" -- two of the four men he allegedly attacked were black.

"We try to help troubled people," he said. "These people are already out there in (Springfield)."

Information from: Springfield News-Leader,

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