Written by Jessica Mason Pieklo for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.
A court ruled communications with Tiller's killer to be covered by ministerial protections.
On Friday U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten handed anti-choice terrorist Angel Dillard a win, ruling Dillard doesn’t have to disclose “ministerial discussions” she had with Scott Roeder, the man convicted of murdering abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.
As reported in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Marten’s ruling reversed an earlier decision that Dillard’s communications with Roeder were not protected by the ministerial exception because Dillard is not an ordained minister. But Marten held that Dillard was acting as a lay minister and was therefore entitled to the protection. It’s an incredible expansion of the privilege and one which the radical anti-choice community is no doubt taking notice.
Dillard is accused of sending a threatening letter to Dr. Mila Means who was training to provide abortion services after Tiller’s murder. According to the Department of Justice complaint against Dillard, the letter to Means mentioned Tiller’s assassination and warned Means against providing abortion services in Wichita.
In the same ruling Marten said Dillard must disclose communications she had with another inmate, Robert Campbell. Campbell claims Dillard hired him to stalk Means, while Dillard denies this and claims Campbell is trying to blackmail her.
But just because those communications must be disclosed does not guarantee they will make it into evidence in the trial, currently slated for October. At the time of trial they can be excluded from evidence if a judge decides the statements are too unreliable, a fact judge Marten made clear in his ruling. At issue in the case is whether the letter Dillard wrote to Means was a “true threat” in violation of the federal law designed to protect access to abortion clinics. In the letter, Dillard allegedly wrote that thousands of people from across the nation were scrutinizing Means’ background and would know “your habits and routines.”
The letter is chilling. In it Dillard writes, “They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live,” the letter said. “You will be checking under your car every day — because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
The Dillard trial has shed light on the violent underworld of radical anti-abortion activists and the last thing this community needs is any additional enabling by the federal courts. But that’s exactly what this ruling does. If someone like Dillard can claim to be a minister so as to shield communications with convicted assassins like Scott Roeder who have admitted to wanting to instigate more deadly violence against clinic workers, then we can expect to see a lot more ministers among the most violent actors in the anti-abortion movement.
Written by Kari Ann Rinker for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.
Every community has its own unique history shaped its people, its geography, and its circumstance. Wichita, Kansas, has been home to such notable people as Carrie Nation and Wyatt Earp. Its geography has made it home to Indian settlements, cattle drives, and the aircraft manufacturing industry. It was the home to the first civil rights sit-in. It also earned notoriety as the home of the serial killer BTK. But another undeniable part of Wichita’s history is its place as the epicenter of the “abortion wars.” The 1991 “Summer of Mercy” (SOM), when thousands of anti-choice activists flooded into Wichita to protest Dr. George Tiller, marked the beginning of the use of extreme anti-choice tactics like harassing doctors, clinic staff, and women seeking abortions. As reproductive rights supporters in this community celebrate the recent opening of Southwind Women’s Care Center and the access to abortion care that it brings, they also brace themselves for a new wave of SOM-style tactics and a new round of anti-choice terrorist actions.
Nearly four years after Dr. Tiller’s assassination, anti-choice violence continues to percolate in Wichita. It started up again two years ago, with the harassment of Dr. Mila Means. Anti-choice terrorist Angel Dillard penned a letter threatening violence against the doctor, who sought to include abortion care in her private practice. That letter has resulted in federal charges against Dillard brought under the FACE Act. In addition to the letter, it was reported this week by RH Reality Check that the U.S. Department of Justice filed papers in court revealing that a Kansas county jail inmate said Dillard asked him last year to firebomb the home of Dr. Means.
The opening of the new abortion clinic has brought yet another round of frightening behavior from local anti-choice forces. The clinic’s executive director, Julie Burkhart, has been harassed at her home and has had to file a temporary restraining order against local terrorist Mark Hollick after he pointed a sign saying “Where is Your Church?” at her home (an obvious reference to the place of Dr. Tiller’s assassination). Meanwhile, Troy Newman, of Operation Rescue infamy, is already posting pictures and audio of a person who he claims is a new physician at the clinic.
A recent YouTube video posted by David Leach from the anti-choice group Army of God should cause local law enforcement officials to raise their local terrorist alert to red. The video is a recording of a recent jailhouse conversation with Scott Roeder, the convicted murderer of Dr. Tiller. What follows is a partial transcript of the video:
Next in this series will be "Keeping the Peace. A Law Enforcement Perspective on the FACE Act."
Thomas Burke isn’t a household name. And with any luck he never will be.
Burke, 48, is a fixture at a number of Kansas City, Kan., area reproductive health centers. He has assaulted clinic staff, damaged property and been repeatedly arrested for anti-abortion protests that have spanned nearly 30 years.
The escalation of Burke’s protest activities has culminated in eight trespassing charges, six stints in local detention, a permanent federal injunction, two felony indictments for violating the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and years involuntarily remanded to mental health facilities. Yet, nothing has deterred him and he continues to harass patients to this day.
For clinic staff and local law enforcement, it’s also a trajectory of eerie similarities.
Breeding ground of anti-abortion violence
Kansas has long been a hotbed of anti-choice protests stoked by a hard-right political climate and conservative religious views. But the prairie state has taken on something of a mythic quality among the most radical elements of the movement.
It was the seat of mass protests organized by Operation Rescue in Wichita where thousands were arrested in the summer of 1991 for blockading clinics. The city also served as a backdrop for the early activity of the Lambs of Christ and the Army of God, extremist groups law enforcement experts describe as anti-abortion domestic terrorists.
The state’s ill-gotten reputation was further cemented when Army of God member Shelley Shannon was convicted of attempted murder in a 1993 shooting assault of Dr. George Tiller. Her 11-year Kansas prison term was followed by a 30-count federal indictment for a clinic arson and acid attack spree in the Pacific Northwest. She was sentenced to a consecutive 20 year term in federal prison.
Kansas resident Scott Roeder would later kill Tiller in an execution-style shooting at a Wichita church May 31. During the trial, Army of God members visited Roeder in jail, served as character witnesses and pushed defense lawyers to present a convoluted Biblical defense justifying the murder as religiously sanctioned.
Operation Rescue disavowed knowledge of Roeder until local news reports of his posts on the group’s web pages that specifically targeted Tiller which were hastily removed. The organization was also forced to backtrack after its policy director Cheryl Sullenger admitted under pressure that she had talked to Roeder leading up to the shooting. Sullenger, herself, served two years in federal prison for a 1987 conspiracy plot to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic.
According to his own testimony, Roeder spent the better part of ten years stalking Tiller while repeatedly vandalizing the Kansas City abortion clinic, Aid to Women.
The very same place that Burke protests. Though, it’s important to note, local clinic staff do not report any known direct connections between him and national extremist groups.
Burke is an army of one.
Competing forces: God and antipsychotics
One of Burke’s first criminal incidents involved storming inside the Comprehensive Health for Women clinic and destroying a wall-mounted television. When three staff members intervened, he physically assaulted them. Court documents relate how Burke broke the receptionist’s jaw after hitting her in the face.
Continuing his apparent Magnavox crusade, he also reportedly demolished televisions in the reception area of Aid to Women and a county detention center, according to clinic director Jeffrey Pederson and court records.
Burke, however, says he regrets the attack on the clinic staff.
"There was one time when I was violent and I’m sorry about that," he said. As Burke tells it the 1992 incident occurred after he walked away from the state psychiatric hospital and hiked ten miles to the Overland Park clinic. It’s actually 41 miles, according to Google Maps.
But he is not deterred from what he perceives as a personal mission from Jesus to prevent women from using any form contraception, including abortion. He says his duty to obey God is more important than the risk of suffering a federal prison sentence. His biggest fear of incarceration is not being able to take the Sacraments at Holy Communion to atone for his sins.
Burke though differentiates himself from Roeder. "I don’t think that way," he said explaining that he does not agree with the Biblical defense some anti-choice extremists use to justify clinic violence.
"Nobody gets away with murder. Even Scott Roeder isn’t going to get away with it. And the people who are responsible for abortion are being punished by God just like Paul Hill was."
Hill, a Presbyterian minister and early member of the Army of God, shot and killed Pensacola, Fla., physician John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett outside the Ladies Center Clinic. Barrett’s wife, June, was wounded in the attack. Hill was convicted of a FACE Act violation and sentenced to life without parole. He was also convicted of state murder charges and received the death penalty. He was executed by lethal injection in 2003. Hill is viewed as a martyr in radical anti-abortion circles.
When laws don’t deter
"There’s a different kind of extreme person out there," said Sabrina Williams, security director for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, of the protesters, like Burke, who are simply not deterred by a mishmash of local laws that carry light penalties. Planned Parenthood began operating the Comprehensive Health clinic as one of its affiliates in 1997.
"We’ve got to have something that gets these folks attention that says ‘we’re not going to allow this.’"
Burke is relentless, as are many of the most aggressive protesters who are not following the law. Within a day or two of being released from jail for his many trespassing convictions, he immediately returns to the clinic to berate patients and hurl himself in front of the door. And the cycle continued. For years.
Burke now claims that he’s not protesting as much since he has become disabled by psychiatric medication.
Pederson confirmed that Burke’s visits to the Kansas City clinic have become increasingly infrequent though a raft of threatening letters, sometimes signed under the alias "Brother Martin Francis," document that he has not strayed from his single-minded cause. Williams said Burke continues to protest in Overland Park twice per month on Saturdays. "You can set your watch by it," she sighed.
That sense of vigilance is critical. Over the years, the Planned Parenthood in Overland Park has invested heavily in security measures to maintain clinic safety to thwart physical altercations. But Williams is circumspect about how much can really be done by clinics alone to hinder Burke’s efforts.
"If he could get into the building again he would be violent," she fears.
Williams notes that strong working relationships with local law enforcement agencies and domestic terrorism coordination agencies have helped to keep a lid on Kansas City area protests where local Army of God members Regina Dinwoodie and Jonathan O’Toole have long operated.
Overland Park Police spokesman Jim Weaver concurs.
"We respond whenever necessary and we get proactive information from the feds," said Weaver on the importance of multi-agency collaboration with law enforcement, the joint terrorism taskforce and clinic personnel to maintain public safety. Weaver also keeps in touch with protesters to help maintain a sense of neutrality for all concerned.
Yet for repeat offenders, like Burke, local police have few tools to deter them from continuing to break the law when brief jail terms and small fines are viewed as mere inconveniences and not punishment.
Next: Keeping the Peace. A law enforcement perspective on the FACE Act.
Written by Wendy Norris for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
This article is one of a series of original criminal justice journalism projects around the country produced by 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Fellows. The series on the FACE Act was coordinated with editorial input by Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice. RH Reality Check and Wendy Norris are deeply grateful to the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for their generous support of this project.
Next in this series will be Anatomy of FACE: How a violent anti-abortion protester has terrorized a clinic for more than 30 years — and why he’s still there.
John Dunkle paces along a narrow alley waiting for his cue.
As clinic escorts hoist heavy blue tarps to shield patients from the phalanx of anti-abortion protesters assailing them, Dunkle springs into action.
Megaphone in hand, the spry 72-year-old stakes out the door barking lurid catcalls at women entering the Allentown Women’s Center.
By day’s end, the retired English teacher will have bolted across that alley at least a dozen times.
Until one day when the scene took a much more sinister turn.
Days after the May 31 execution-style murder of Wichita physician George Tiller by an anti-abortion extremist, Dunkle sidled up to a clinic escort and asked:
Which way would you rather die — by bullet or the slow torturous death of a knife?
So goes the abortion wars. What could be sloughed off as callous behavior in the midst of heated debate is causing renewed alarm among law enforcement experts.
Menacing behavior is on the upswing nationwide and is proving to be emblematic of a growing extremism against clinics by militants emboldened by Tiller’s death. Currently, federal authorities are currently investigating more than two dozen cases of suspected violent criminal acts or serious threats, according to law enforcement insiders.
And that trend is prompting officials to question the effectiveness of the federal law created to serve as a deterrent to clinic violence.
Playing cat and mouse
In the years following the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade affirming legal access to abortion services, organized protests grew in number and intensity.
In 1994, after decades of escalating extremism, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act to provide both civil and criminal remedies to stem clinic violence and blockades.
The law prohibits "certain violent, threatening, obstructive and destructive conduct that is intended to injure, intimidate or interfere with persons seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services." The new rules also defined federal penalties for clinic property damage and destruction that had been the early aim of radical abortion foes primarily through bombing, arson and vandalism.
The intent of FACE was also to provide needed clarity for local law enforcement agencies on the often murky degrees of separation between constitutionally-protected free speech and public safety threat.
Even as the law was initially vigorously enforced violence-prone abortion opponents have adapted to test its limits.
Dunkle’s scrapes with the law offer a telling roadmap.
In 1994, he was arrested along with 20 members of a nomadic extremist group, the Lambs of Christ, for physically blockading a Rochester, N.Y., clinic by chaining themselves to a junked car dropped near the door. It took police and firefighters hours to extract the protesters. The protesters were charged in federal court with a miscellaneous civil rights violation, collectively fined $20,000 and ordered to stay away from the clinic.
Except, the permanent injunction, like others before FACE, did little to thwart the protesters. The Rochester clinic and others in western New York would be the scene of violent and repeated clashes with local police for years to come despite repeated injunctions, unpaid fines and brief jail stints. The mayhem unleashed by extremists also provided cover for increasing violence that resulted in the deaths of four people and wounding of five at clinics in Buffalo, Brookline, Mass., and Pensacola, Fla., in 1994.
Over the next dozen years, Dunkle continued his protests while building connections to one of the most virulent extremist groups, the Army of God, a shadowy network that advocates a paleo-conservative Biblical justification for the murder of abortion providers.
In 2007, Dunkle publicly resurfaced in northeast Pennsylvania and once again came to the attention of federal authorities. The devout Catholic posted on his blog that a Philadelphia-area physician should be shot in the head to prevent her from providing abortion services. He was charged with a FACE Act violation and slapped with a permanent injunction barring him from making death threats or otherwise intimidating clinic patients and staff.
But it seemed to have little effect.
Now, when Dunkle and his megaphone aren’t holding fort outside Lehigh Valley women’s health centers, he’s reveling in the exploits of other ideological extremists.
He operates a website that mimics one operated by the Army of God. On it he features serialized manifestos and unrepentant letters from anti-abortion protesters imprisoned for murders, bombings, arsons and attempted attacks against clinics. A point noted by a U.S. District Court judge in his 2007 injunction ordering federal authorities to periodically monitor Dunkle’s site for compliance.
Federal prosecutions don’t keep pace
The situation prior to the FACE Act and in the ensuing 16 years following its enforcement points to a grim reality for reproductive health clinics, staff and patients.
Prior to FACE, the National Abortion Federation tallied 1,641 violent incidences and 8,110 disturbances at clinics between 1977-93. The most violent acts — homicide, kidnappings, stalking, arsons, bombings, butyric acid attacks and clinic invasions — are nearly always attributed to anti-abortion extremists directly connected to or inspired by militant Christian organizations.
Since 1994, the Justice Dept. has prosecuted just 19 civil and 45 criminal cases. The prosecutions have overall been very successful — 62 convictions, one pre-trial diversion and one dismissal because the defendant was deemed incompetent to stand trial. Yet, they pale in contrast to the thousands of incidents reported.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorneys are currently prosecuting four cases and notched another conviction Apr. 28 in New York City involving a blockade of a long-targeted clinic in Manhattan. The defendants will be sentenced June 10.
The incident and prosecution trends also reveal another truth in enforcing the FACE Act. Some types of violations, like bombings and arson, which alone carry heavy federal sentences have decreased significantly while other crimes are skyrocketing. Again, signaling an evolution in the violence-driven protesters’ tactics to thwart local law enforcement efforts while continuing their mayhem.
Bead-holders versus bomb-throwers
Anti-abortion activists may be united in their anger over Roe but they occupy two very distinct camps.
Motivated by a sense of personal morality, flocks from mainstream Christian churches and affiliated institutions invoke their constitutionally-protected free speech rights to express their opposition.
Largely peaceful, the protesters often recite rosary prayers, sing hymns or try to distribute well-intended but medically inaccurate literature outside the clinic. The more zealous of the bunch resort to shouting at patients about abortion alternatives — a tactic dubbed "sidewalk counseling" by proponents.
In broad terms, the "bead-holders" prefer to legally challenge Roe v. Wade by incrementally restricting abortion services through onerous state and federal laws.
The other end of the protest spectrum is so radicalized that even the most staid law enforcement insiders and religious figures are increasingly describing their actions as domestic terrorism.
They are bomb-throwers, literally and figuratively.
A May 1988 RAND Corporation report on domestic terrorism provides one of the earliest mentions of militant anti-abortion groups as threats to national security. The analysis notes that during the early 1980s these groups were among the most active terrorist movements in the United States. Nearly ideologically-driven "anti-abortion terrorist cells" conducted nearly 50 percent of all domestic terrorist activity in 1984 and 1985.
Groups like the Army of God, Lambs of Christ, Missionaries for the Preborn and the various Operation Rescue splinter groups created from internecine power struggles, all espouse the violent rhetoric, paleo-conservative theocracy and hyper-militancy typically used to describe armed anti-federalist militias and racist groups. And, like other terrorist groups, they are highly networked.
Proselytizing with self-published manuals on arson and bomb-making techniques, they fuel their adherents with fiery, convoluted fundamentalist Biblical interpretations.
Throughout the now 22-year-old report RAND specifically names the Army of God as domestic terrorists — the group to which Dunkle and Tiller’s murderer Scott Roeder have allied themselves. Further, the analysis found that law enforcement officials frequently dismissed evidence of an armed, organized anti-abortion network that threatens national security.
Today, that’s no longer the case.
Over the coming days, RH Reality Check will explore the FACE Act. We’ll be asking tough question about its effect as a deterrent to clinic violence and obstruction. State, local and federal law enforcement officers are talking candidly about jurisdictional issues that impede arrests and prosecutions. And we’ll assess the rise of militant anti-abortion groups and potential new solutions to ensure public safety.
NEXT: Anatomy of FACE. How a violent anti-abortion protester has terrorized a clinic for more than 30 years — and why he’s still there.
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