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How Fred Phelps Became The Most Hated Person In America

A timeline showing the rise and fall of the man who started Westboro Baptist Church.

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Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. founded Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955.

Phelps joined the bar in Kansas in the 1960s, filed several controversial lawsuits (including one against Ronald Reagan), and was eventually forced to stop practicing law in 1985.

A photo of Fred Phelps from 1977.
AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal

A photo of Fred Phelps from 1977.

In 1991, Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church held their first major campaign against LGBT people at Gage Park in Topeka, Kan.

Called the "Great Gage Park Decency Drive," Phelps and company began to regularly picket the park where gay men allegedly would meet.
AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal

Called the "Great Gage Park Decency Drive," Phelps and company began to regularly picket the park where gay men allegedly would meet.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phelps and Westboro began picketing the funerals of people who had died of AIDS.

"The most memorable of them was [journalist] Randy Shilts' funeral, a very large funeral," said Cathy Renna, an LGBT activist who faced Phelps and Westboro a number of times over 15 years. "People there knew Phelps was coming and so they threw eggs at him and it was ugly."

Westboro also picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in October 1998.

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"The media from the funeral, one of the most massively covered gay-related events ever, propelled Phelps onto the national media's radar," Renna said. "They were there all penned up and that was what really got him initial national-level notoriety."

And later, Phelps and members of Westboro appeared outside the trial of Shepard's killers on April 5, 1999.

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That was a "turning point," Renna said. Phelps and his church would meet a coordinated and peaceful counter-demonstration that aimed to block Shepard's family from seeing the protest.

Over a dozen people dressed as angels surrounded Westboro picketers outside the Laramie County Courthouse.

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"They respond to [Phelp's] message of hate with a different kind of message and not just reacting back and really wanted to shield Matt's parents," Renna said. "All the reporters, everybody turned around to watch them."

The angels, dubbed "Angel Action" stood in front of the Westboro demonstrators and sang "Amazing Grace," according to Renna.

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Phelps would lead the church to picket thousands of funerals and events. In total, the church has staged nearly 53,000 demonstrations, according to its website, The angels and other counter-demonstrators would follow, blocking the hateful church protestors.

Westboro Baptist Church also picketed at 9/11 memorials and at Ground Zero, the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers.

Shirley Phelps-Roper stands during a demonstration near Ground Zero in 2004.
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Shirley Phelps-Roper stands during a demonstration near Ground Zero in 2004.

For years, Westboro protested the funerals of soldiers slain during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the deaths were God's retribution for accepting LGBT people.

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The group keeps a count of how many soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan on its website.

More than 40 states have laws limiting picketing and protests at funerals, and in 2012, President Barack Obama signed a federal law establishing similar restrictions. The state and federal laws have appeared despite a March 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Westboro, which said protesters have the right to picket at funerals under the First Amendment.

Phelps and his daughter were banned from the United Kingdom in 2009.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

In 2011, Phelps appeared in a video, saying members of his church would picket at the funerals of the Tuscon, Ariz., shooting where several were shot, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was severely wounded. Six people were killed.

View this video on YouTube

The hacker group Anonymous released the personal information of Westboro Baptist Church congregation members after they threatened to picket the funerals of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

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Westboro protested the Supreme Court in 2013 as it considered the legality of the Defense Of Marriage Act. DOMA was shot down and the protestors became props for LGBT couples to kiss in front of.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In recent years, Phelps receded as the face of Westboro.

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His daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, often acted as the group's mouthpiece when talking to reporters and appearing on TV at demonstrations across the county. Renna can't recall the last time Fred Phelps personally attended a protest, but said "it had been a number of years."

Days before his death, Phelps' estranged son Nathan told the world his father was "on the edge of death" and had been excommunicated from his own church last August.

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"I'm not sure how I feel about this," Nathan Phelps said. "Terribly ironic that his devotion to his God ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made."

Westboro attempted to squash speculation that its founder was on his deathbed in a statement posted online the day after Nathan Phelps came forward.

"Fred Phelps is a person of advanced age, and such people sometimes have health issues," the statement read. "Fred Phelps has health issues, but the idea that someone would suggest that he is near death, is not only highly speculative, but foolish considering that all such matters are the sole prerogative of God."

Responding to questions of whether Phelps was excommunicated from the church, the statement simply said, "Membership issues are private."

Fred Phelps died late Wednesday night at Midland Care Hospice in Topeka, Kan. He was 84.

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