Three years ago, Phelps, the sharp-tongued fundamentalist preacher of Topeka's tiny Westboro Baptist Church, started picketing Gage Park at S.W. 10th and Gage with his blunt message blasting homosexuals and anyone who disagreed with him.
Surrounded by his large family of children and grandchildren and a smattering of non-family loyalists, Phelps and the picketing spread across Topeka. It became a regional phenomenon, then went nationwide, popping up on both coasts and the nation's capital.
Phelps and his anti-gay messages have spread to national magazines and television talk shows.
But Topeka gets the brunt of Phelps' attention. Holding signs sometimes two and three tiers high, Phelps and his followers picket throughout Topeka on a regular schedule seven days a week.
Phelps and his flock are simply called "The Picketers" when they come up in conversations in offices and homes throughout the city.
The picketing hasn't been without cost. Phelps' followers and counter picketers have scrapped with each other on the streets of Topeka almost constantly since Phelps laid siege to the city.
Hundreds of police reports have been filed by people on both sides, most for misdemeanor battery.
In addition to the streets, Phelps, a non-practicing lawyer, and his clan of lawyer children are engaged in a series of legal fights with people who oppose them.
Judges in Topeka Municipal Court, Shawnee County District Court, U.S. District Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have heard and continue to hear cases tied directly to the anti-gay message and resultant picketing.
Phelps and his followers have had setbacks during their crusade, but they've zinged some big successes, too.
They make interesting subjects for newspaper stories. They also, by the nature of their tactics, create obstacles to reporting and writing about them.
For instance, try asking an average Topekan, other than those on record already as Phelps critics, whether they want to talk about him for a news story. The answers vary from a nervous "no comment" to laughter. Generally, people politely say they don't want to talk about Fred Phelps Sr.
Many fear being sued, others fear showing up in the faxes that accuse politicians of corruption, public figures of philandering and the like.
The simple fact is, many people in Topeka fear Fred Phelps and will not challenge him, no matter how angry he makes them. They are intimidated.
We are not.
Despite the groundless claims and a bizarre lawsuit filed by a disgruntled ex-intern, Jon Bell, who was brought in after much of the information contained in this series had been gathered, this is the original work of Capital-Journal reporters Joe Taschler and Steve Fry. It is not an agenda-driven manuscript filled with melodrama and strange analogies. It is a work of journalism. It is the most accurate, fair and complete work concerning the life of Fred Phelps that we know of.
This project has been in the planning stages for more than a year. It was prepared and submitted long before Bell filed his lawsuit, with publication delayed while we methodically checked and double-checked the information in this extensive report.
We categorically dismiss all the claims made by Bell, whose employment here was terminated, not as a result of the Phelps series, as he claims, but as a result of our inability to place any reliance on his judgment and his work product. His actions as an employee here were unprofessional and ethically questionable.
We are proud of the work done by Fry and Taschler, and we ask that you read this series critically and intently.
Let us know what you think. This is, after all, for you.
Here is a brief synopsis of the series:
The Capital-Journal series will chronicle Phelps' rearing in Mississippi, his sudden turn to religion as a teenager, his travels across the United States until he settled in Topeka, his successes and downfall during his turbulent career as a lawyer, the estrangement by some of this children with their father, and his strident, blistering campaign against homosexuals.
You will hear from some of Phelps' victims and you will take a fascinating trip into the mind of Fred himself and learn what he thinks about the end of the world and the fact that most, if not all of us, are doomed. We think it makes good reading. We hope you agree.