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Photo courtesy of FBI

Terror in the Clinics
By Darryl McGrath

As James Kopp awaits sentencing for the murder of an abortion doctor in Buffalo, abortion-services workers worry that other extremists are training to carry on his work—and wish the feds would exert greater effort in rooting them out

James Kopp may very well spend the rest of his life in prison for gunning down an abortion doctor in his kitchen in suburban Buffalo. So why don’t more abortion-services workers in upstate New York feel safe?

Certainly, the argument could be made that clinic workers should at least feel safer, given that the man believed to be responsible for the shootings of five abortion doctors in upstate New York and Canada is locked up.

Kopp, who was convicted last month in Erie County Court of the murder of Dr

. Barnett Slepian, has been charged in the shooting of another doctor and is a suspect in the shootings of three more. He has freely admitted to killing Slepian by firing a high-powered Russian assault rifle through a back window of the doctor’s Amherst home. Kopp never implicated anyone else in the murder.

The best efforts of federal and state investigators to uncover a conspiracy by a radical anti-abortion terrorist group in the case so far have been unsuccessful. The only other two people charged in connection with the killing are Loretta Claire Marra and Dennis Malvasi, a New York City couple accused by federal authorities of helping Kopp flee the United States after Slepian’s murder.

A spate of other, non-fatal shootings of abortion doctors in upstate New York and Canada from 1994 to 1998 abruptly stopped at the same time that Kopp went on the run.

After the murder, additional doctors stepped in to take Slepian’s place at the clinic on Buffalo’s Main Street, where he performed abortions. Abortion services in the Buffalo region have actually expanded in the three and a half years since Slepian’s murder. And the massive demonstrations by the more radical factions of the anti-abortion movement that were expected in Buffalo during the state’s trial of Kopp last month never materialized.

But a number of abortion-services workers say that despite these many encouraging signs, they have never let their guard down. To them, it’s not enough that Kopp is behind bars and that state and federal laws have made it far more risky for anti-abortion extremists to harass, threaten or attack reproductive health clinics. Many clinic staff members have a very real fear that one of the dozens of domestic terrorist groups that target abortion clinics in the United States is already training a replacement for James Kopp. They worry that somewhere right now, a gunman is practicing his marksmanship on some isolated rural tract of land, just like Kopp did.

“It’s always been our concern—what’s next? Because we still don’t think that’s the end of it,” says Marilynn Buckham, executive director of the GYN Womenservices clinic, where Slepian performed abortions.

In 1997, a Rochester doctor who performed abortions—law-enforcement authorities have never released his name—was shot and wounded outside his home.

Three years earlier, anti-abortion extremists had used butyric-acid attacks to close a Syracuse Planned Parenthood clinic and the office of a Syracuse doctor who performed abortions.

In November 2001, Planned Parenthood of Buffalo & Erie County had to close when a staff member opened a Federal Express package and a white powder spilled out in what appeared to be an anthrax attack. The substance turned out not to be anthrax; however, the Buffalo clinic is one of hundreds that have been targeted with similar bioterrorism threats since 1998.

Around these incidents, individual abortion-clinic staff members have at different times been threatened, stalked or besieged in their workplaces during anti-abortion protests that have sometimes gone on for weeks at a stretch.

“We hope for the best, we prepare for the worst, but our history unfortunately demonstrates that those of us dealing with reproductive health care have to deal with violent threats,” says Dana Neitlich, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood in Buffalo.

Neitlich is among those who believe that a new recruit may take James Kopp’s place.

“There is no question that there are organized groups who attempt to encourage and, in fact, attempt to recruit anti-choice members who will assume a posture or a stance that violence toward abortion providers is justifiable, and in the eyes of God,” she says.

Paul Drisgula, co-president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, agrees, basing his belief on his own experiences. Longstanding anti-abortion protests against a Utica clinic that was part of the Mohawk Hudson network prompted Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to file a 2001 lawsuit against four members of a Utica family for repeatedly obstructing access to the clinic.

The lawsuit became the test case for the state’s new clinic access law, and it could be argued that Spitzer won the battle but not the war. While Spitzer succeeded in halting the family’s protests at the Utica site, at least one member of the family turned her attentions to a different clinic and started protesting there, buttressing Drisgula’s belief that the most hard-core protestors can’t easily be thwarted.

“Could there be another James Kopp? Of course there could be. Is it likely? I don’t think so. He appeared to be unique, thank goodness.”—Frank Clark, Erie County district attorney.
Photo byLisa Haarlander

Last month, Drisgula was at the annual conference of the National Planned Parenthood Federation in Portland, Ore. Conference attendees noticed that a van kept circling the hotel. When police pulled the van over, they found a gun on one of the passengers, Drisgula says.

During the same conference, Drisgula was walking out of the hotel when a man carrying a sign accosted him. “Is this clear enough to you?” the man asked. The sign read: “Kill all the murdering abortionists.”

“I do believe that there are very few degrees of separation between a number of people who picket regularly at clinics around the state, and people who support murdering physicians,” Drisgula says. “We’re pretty much aware of the fact that even if they don’t propose violence themselves, a number of our local folks are not that far removed from people who advocate violence against clinics.”

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, an abortion-rights organization, says workers in reproductive health clinics are prudent to fear for their safety.

“One of the reasons they don’t feel safe is there has been a pattern of violence aimed at abortion providers for more than 25 years,” she says. “Within four to seven months, we in all likelihood will have another assassination attempt. These people recruit others to take their place.”

National Abortion Federation staff members have charted the pattern of shootings around the country and have discovered that they occur in clusters, suggesting that would-be shooters have either been inspired or recruited to take the place of fellow extremists who have been arrested. A series of shootings and killings between 1993 and 1994, ending in the deaths of five abortion clinic doctors or staff members, and the wounding of another, happened in rapid succession, months apart: March and August 1993; and then July and December 1994.

While no link among all four shootings was ever established, one of the killers, Paul Hill —convicted and sentenced to death in the Florida shootings of a doctor and an escort at a Pensacola clinic—said he had been inspired by Michael Griffin, who 16 months earlier had also shot and killed a doctor at a Pensacola clinic.

It was at this time, back in 1994, that another shooting took place, one that barely gained notice on the national scene, in part because it happened in Canada, not the United States, and in part because it didn’t result in a death. In November 1994, an abortion doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia, was shot and wounded in his home. The assailant used a high-powered assault rifle to fire through the rear of the house.

The sniper operated with the stealth of a deer hunter, slipping into sheltered areas behind the homes of abortion doctors—always at night, or the early morning when it was still dark—and then vanishing.

Five such shootings occurred in Canada and upstate New York between November 1994 and Slepian’s killing in October 1998. The only fatality was Slepian, who died on a Friday night in front of his wife and four children, minutes after getting home from a memorial service for his father.

As one Canadian investigator put it, all of the cases were “shockingly similar.” They always occurred in the fall, leading some investigators to believe that the sniper wanted the leaf cover to hide footprints in the wooded areas used as shelter during the shootings.

““Within four to seven months, we in all
likelihood will have another assassination attempt. These people recruit others to
take their place.”

Photo by John Normile/Getty Images

In all but one—the shooting of the unnamed doctor in Rochester—the sniper fired through a rear window of the home. The Rochester doctor was on his property but outside of his house when he was hit. In every case except the first, in Vancouver, the gun was fired from a wooded area. A fence concealed the sniper in the Vancouver attack.

Kopp never admitted to any shooting other than the Buffalo murder of Slepian. The high-powered Russian assault rifle that Kopp later admitted using in the murder was found buried in the woods behind Slepian’s home.

Still, Canadian authorities have charged him in the shooting of Dr. Hugh Short, an Ontario gynecologist who was shot and wounded in November 1995. Frank Clark, Erie County District Attorney, says Kopp is a suspect in the Rochester shooting and the two other Canadian shootings.

It’s uncertain whether Canada will ever extradite Kopp for trial, says Inspector Keith McCaskill of the Winnipeg Police Service, spokesman for the Canadian investigations.

Canada did not press for action on its case last year when the United States extradited Kopp from France, where he had been living under a false identity.

“That was appropriate,” McCaskill says. “Although our offenses were very, very serious, there was a murder in New York. With a case like that, you may very well see, depending on that outcome, that Mr. Kopp may never see the light of day again.”

Canadian authorities worked with abortion providers to develop heightened security measures, which McCaskill won’t discuss.

“There was certainly a feeling of fear on the part of people performing therapeutic abortions,” he says. “It was almost a feeling of terrorism.”

Still, for all the precautions taken by Canadian authorities, McCaskill says there is only so much that law-enforcement agencies can do to protect abortion-services workers.

“I think just the nature of the occupation they’re in, I think people have to be guarded at all times,” he says.

Elizabeth McDonald has a ready response when told that abortion-services workers fear for their safety.

“Why should they feel safe?” asks the longtime St. Louis anti-abortion extremist. “These are people who kill children for a living. There’s distinctions between innocent lives and those who are posing an imminent threat to the lives of the innocent. Preserving the lives of the innocent takes precedent over the lives of those who would attack them.”

McDonald has known Kopp since 1986, through their shared involvement in the extremist faction of the anti-abortion movement. He stayed at her home in the mid-1980s when both participated in “rescues” through Pro-Life Direct Action League, a group which McDonald says is now defunct.

She is corresponding with Kopp in prison, where he is awaiting his May sentencing. She sat through his one-day trial last month in Buffalo, maintaining eye contact with him in response to the greetings he mouthed to the handful of supporters who showed up in the Buffalo courtroom. Like Kopp, she has been arrested more times than she can count.

When asked during a court recess for her reaction to Slepian’s murder, McDonald smiled and replied, “I know the shooting was justified. There were babies who were going to be killed Saturday morning.”

She is dismissive of more mainstream anti-abortion organizations that eschew violence, such as the National Right to Life Committee. “They hardly speak for us,” she says. “They’re focused on the political, largely.”

“Us” is the community of self-named “rescuers,” the people who gained national attention a decade ago by physically blocking abortion clinics and chaining themselves to fences to disrupt clinic activity.

Although the rescue movement has largely fallen into disarray—done in by fractious relationships among its leaders and the threats of walloping fines under the 1994 federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act—a number of its adherents still believe that violence is justifiable in stopping abortions.

McDonald, 52, a divorced artist who has two children, became drawn to the anti-abortion movement almost 25 years ago after her best friend had an abortion and then suffered what McDonald calls “devastating” emotional trauma over her decision.

There may be hundreds, even thousands, of anti-abortion extremists in the United States who believe, as McDonald does, that any means necessary should be used to stop abortions. But law-enforcement authorities say they have never been able to establish that there is link among these diverse groups and individuals.

“A number of doctors have been shot over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Kathleen Mehltretter, first assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, who has been the lead investigator in the pending federal case against Kopp. “That in itself proves that the conviction of one person doesn’t mean that all doctors are safe. But it’s never been established that any of these persons convicted of shooting doctors were related.

“There are many people motivated by the same belief,” Mehltretter adds. “You have to have evidence to establish a link and charge a conspiracy.”

Clark, the Erie County District Attorney, agrees that it would be difficult to prove that a statewide or even national underground organization exists that is training and financing the next James Kopp.

“There are no absolutes, but I don’t think it makes much sense to say there are sleeper cells out there,” he says. “Could there be another James Kopp? Of course there could be. Is it likely? I don’t think so. He appeared to be unique, thank goodness.”

Semantics matter to repro-ductive-health-services workers. They want the adherents of the extremist anti-abortion movement labeled as terrorists. It’s a label that does not easily enter the abortion debate, but those pushing for such a change in the lexicon also feel that with that term will come a change in approach by law-enforcement authorities.

“We’re pretty much aware of the fact that even if they don’t propose violence themselves, a number of our local folks are not that far removed from people who advocate violence against clinics.”
—Paul Drisgula, co-president and chief executive officer
of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson

Photo by Teri Currie

Reproductive-health workers will point out that if it was terrorism for someone to send anthrax spores through the U.S. Postal Service in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, then it is no less terrorism for someone to send a white powder intended to look like anthrax to specific addresses that happen to also be the locations of reproductive-health clinics.

“It is very important that law enforcement takes violence against abortion providers seriously—labels it domestic terrorism,” says Saporta of the National Abortion Federation. “I think that they are doing better, but I still think there needs to be more done to uncover the network of violence that regularly aids and abets.”

When asked what federal authorities could do differently or better in their efforts against anti-abortion extremists, Drisgula of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson says, “I think they need to pursue domestic terrorists the way they’ve pursued Al Qaeda terrorists. And they need to send the same message that there will be zero tolerance.

“I mean, we’ve put up within our movement for years with bombings, intimidation and murder, and felt that federal authorities—while they took each incident seriously—never took the string of incidents seriously and never tried to make a connection about the perpetrators.”

Drisgula takes hope in his belief that the country as a whole is less willing to accept domestic terrorism—whatever its target—since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Saporta says that federal authorities “have improved their law-enforcement response considerably” and that the improved response has continued, even during the tenure of decidedly anti- abortion Attorney General John Ashcroft. Her organization pressed Ashcroft to make a statement labeling the practice of sending express-delivery fake anthrax samples to clinics as terrorism, and eventually, albeit with some prodding, Ashcroft did just that.

Now, Saporta is pressing for the federal government to respond before another shooting or bombing or stabbing occurs at a clinic.

“First, I would like to be able to prevent these incidents,” she says. “I think it very likely that we’ll have another assassin recruited, and the FBI needs to be trying to find out who it is and stopping it before it happens. We’re dealing with domestic terrorists, and they need to be treated as such.”

There is little doubt that James Kopp had help in escaping the country after he murdered Slepian. Authorities have always believed that someone drove a getaway car parked near the Slepian home, but they have never positively identified the driver. Investigators are confident that a network of sympathizers sheltered Kopp along the way, may well have believed or hoped that he would kill a doctor, and may have known he was finally going underground for good because he had done something far more serious than lock himself to a chain-link fence.

But authorities have not yet proven that Kopp’s wide circle of contacts among the fringe extremists of the anti-abortion movement knew that they were helping someone plan a murder, or flee the country after he committed it. The only people charged in connection with his case are the New York City couple, Marra and Malvasi, and they have yet to be tried.

So for now—frustrated but refusing to be intimidated—abortion-services workers are quietly ratcheting up their precautions, waiting and hoping that their fears are proven wrong.

One thing they are sure of: The extremist anti-abortion movement is still here, though it may have changed tactics. The days of the massive, threatening demonstrations may be part of the past. But the movement that created that phenomenon of those demonstrations and gave James Kopp his earliest training has not gone away. It has just gone further underground.

“These people do not operate alone, and they do have a support network, and they are able to obtain money and they are able to obtain food,” says Neitlich of Planned Parenthood in Buffalo. “And we do associate them with terrorism, because they adhere to the mindset of terrorists: They have a willingness to die for their cause.”

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