• U.S.

An Armed Fanatic Raises the Stakes

6 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

By all accounts, the somberly clad man acted cool and composed as he stepped up to the front desk at an abortion clinic on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Is this Planned Parenthood?” he asked. Receptionist Shannon Lowney, 25, replied that it was, whereupon the man took a .22-cal. semiautomatic rifle from a black bag and shot her dead. Then he sprayed the room with gunfire and left.

Ten minutes later, the grisly scene was replayed, almost step by step, at Preterm Health Services, less than two miles away. Again the man police identified as John C. Salvi III, a 22-year-old hairdresser from Hampton, New Hampshire, made sure he was in the right place. Again he fatally shot the receptionist — Leanne Nichols, 38 — and again he kept on shooting. It was only when a security guard returned fire that the rifleman dropped his bag and fled. Yet even in retreat, he kept his composure. Says Angel Rodriguez, who witnessed the shooter’s escape: “He was completely calm and took his time. He kept the gun low on his hip and ran backwards, firing at least five shots. He was trying to scare people, and it worked.”

Salvi moved quickly in the direction of Brookline’s Cleveland Circle. Within hours, police had identified him through a gun-shop receipt in the bag he had left behind. And on Saturday, even as local, state and federal law-enforcement officials were mounting a multistate manhunt for the 5 ft. 11 in. curly-haired fugitive, there came reports of another, nonfatal shooting at the Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, Virginia. The suspect, arrested shortly thereafter, was John Salvi.

The final toll in the two-day shooting spree was two dead and five wounded. Were it not for security guard Richard Seron’s quick reflexes, the casualties could have been much higher: Salvi’s abandoned satchel also contained a second gun and 700 rounds of ammunition.

Salvi’s rampage brought to five the number of abortion-clinic killings nationwide in the past two years. There have also been countless lesser acts of violence against abortion providers and their patients, including verbal and physical harassment, assaults and fire bombings. Government officials and activists on both sides of the contentious abortion issue were quick to condemn the killings. “You don’t use murder to solve the problem of other murder. It is heresy,” said the Rev. Flip Benham, director of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. Said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority: “While there are two sides to the issue of abortion, there are no two sides to the issue of shooting people for their opinions.”

So far, there is no evidence formally linking Salvi with a particular antiabortion group. He had reportedly been seen demonstrating outside the Boston clinics, but aside from the picture of a fetus he had plastered on his pickup truck (his boss made him remove it), there was little to distinguish him from the vehement but otherwise nonviolent protesters who make up the vast majority of the movement. People who know Salvi say he often acted oddly. Says Karen Harris, who attended the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Beauty School with the suspect: “He never showed emotion. He always had a straight face. But the main thing was how he would stare at people. He’d just stare and stare and wouldn’t look away.” Doreen Potter, manager of the Eccentric Beauty Salon, where Salvi worked as a trainee, recalls that he flew into a rage a week before the shootings when she told him he couldn’t cut a client’s hair. After the incident, she says, “this guy looked like he was ready to go off.”

But even if Salvi lacked ties to the more aggressive antiabortion organizations, some pro-choice advocates suspect that a conspiracy to commit violence does exist. And even if it does not, they say, the propaganda some antiabortion groups put out can incite attacks. Paul Hill, currently under a death sentence for a double murder at a Pensacola, Florida, clinic last summer, publicly advocates the doctrine of “justifiable homicide” against abortionists. A manual issued by a shadowy group known as the Army of God was found buried in the backyard of Shelley Shannon, now serving 10 years for wounding Wichita, Kansas, physician George Tiller in 1993. The pamphlet celebrates the murder that year of a Pensacola abortion doctor, gives instructions on how to handle explosives and offers such advice as: “If terminally ill, use your final months to torch clinics; by the time the authorities identify you . . . you will have gone to your reward.”

In response to the rising tide of antiabortion violence over the past several years, President Clinton last May signed into law the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, prohibiting anyone from using force, threats or physical obstruction to injure, intimidate or interfere with a person trying to enter or leave an abortion clinic. Immediately after the Pensacola murders last summer, Attorney General Janet Reno created the Clinic Violence Task Force to determine whether there was a conspiracy against abortion clinics. At about that time, U.S. marshals were deployed to guard nearly two dozen clinics. By fall, however, the contingent of marshals was cut drastically on the grounds that the threat had abated.

Abortion activists deny that is so. Says Smeal: “As of today, there has not been one arrest for death threats, yet there are known extremists who are making these threats against doctors and clinics. We’re not talking about the entire right-to-life movement. But for there to be so many threats, and for there to be so few arrests, it has to be a weak investigation.”

Attorney General Reno says there is only so much her department can do. But a Planned Parenthood spokesman insists the Beacon Street clinic had been receiving more threats than usual over the past month — perhaps because it is one of 20 facilities around the country testing RU-486, the so-called French abortion pill. Some Beacon Street clinic workers claim they had asked the local Justice Department office to supply protection — a charge the U.S. Attorney would not discuss.

With Salvi in custody, any threat he might pose is over. But how many others like him are out there, waiting to act? If it wasn’t already clear to law- enforcement officials, abortion-rights activists and clinic workers, it should now be tragically evident that the safeguards that exist to protect a woman’s right to abortion are not enough.

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