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Zealot's Tale : Pro-Choice Activist Faces Sentencing in Bomb Threats to Stir Sympathy for Cause

December 10, 1987|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

Time and again, he had stood up--at a rally in Washington, in a hearing room in Sacramento, at a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles--and told his story:

His twin sister, Rose Elizabeth, had been gang-raped and impregnated when she was 14. She was told she would die if she carried the fetus to term. In November, 1971, at the hands of an illegal abortionist, "she bled to death on a kitchen table," he would read aloud from a letter he had sent to President Reagan.

"Yes, Mr. President," he repeated, "on a kitchen table."

It was a true story; it just wasn't his true story.

Frank Mendiola had no twin sister, much less a twin sister who died that grotesque death.

If that had been the only lie the 30-year-old Mendiola had told in his zealous volunteer work for the pro-choice cause, he would not be in Los Angeles County Jail, awaiting sentencing today after pleading guilty to three counts of telephoning false bomb threats.

But last year, when he believed the public and the press were not sufficiently stirred by such harrowing stories as the one he told, nor by bombings and fires at abortion clinics around the country, Mendiola said he grew frustrated.

Mendiola picked up the phone five times over three months in 1986, court records indicate, and in late-night, anonymous calls to a newspaper, women's groups and police, said he would plant bombs in abortion clinics and offices and homes of people who ran them--including the home of Frank Mendiola.

There were never any bombs, just phone calls.

Mendiola hoped the bomb threats would arouse sympathy for his cause to "have you people, media, come down with a harder line on those people who are harassing the clinics," he said in a jail interview last week.

But the bogus bomb threats managed only to consume hundreds of hours of police investigation and to terrify his targets, who spent money for extra security and kept the calls secret for fear of copycats.

"It was quite a terrifying experience, being woken up in the middle of the night, thinking that my office or the office of my colleagues might have bombs in them," said Jo Ellen Pasman, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League, on whose behalf Mendiola had sometimes made speeches about his dead "sister's" ordeal.

"We couldn't have been more shocked when things seemed to lead to Frank," she said.

Sherna Gluck had met Mendiola in 1985 at the founding meeting of the January 22 Committee for Reproductive Rights. He was "very active and helpful," telling his searing, first-person story at public forums, helping to organize a march, escorting women who wanted abortions through angry pickets outside a Silver Lake clinic.

"Clearly, the whole thing is very sad," Gluck said. "I just feel very badly for him. He is a very fine person, and I guess the worst one can say is he is just confused. . . . I'm sure it was with the very best of intentions."

A few committee members showed up at his court appearance last month, "basically to say . . . 'We want to be there for you,' " Gluck said, " 'if you did this or not.' "

Somewhere in Mendiola's two falsehoods were verities about the abortion rights movement:

Clinics elsewhere had been threatened, even bombed, and the public and the press had taken notice.

And what befell the fictitious "Rose Elizabeth" had happened to many women, Mendiola reasoned. It had happened, he says now, to the sister of a friend, a woman whose Catholic and Mexican roots, like Mendiola's, made her afraid to tell the story herself. So, Mendiola says, "I was her voice."

To his fellow abortion-rights advocates, "those people who were hurt by the whole incident," Mendiola expressed "how truly sorry I am for the whole thing, that those I tried to help ended up being hurt the most."

Latino Rights

The first-generation son of Mexican immigrants, Mendiola came to the pro-choice movement with a resume of passionate and personal causes: the United Farm Workers, gay and Latino rights, Neighborhood Watch, a minority youth program and union organizing at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, where he once was a staff member.

As a gay Latino, he has felt "double discrimination," he said, and "once you take away someone's right, you infringe on everyone else's."

In union negotiations at the center, Mendiola was "well known for interrupting meetings and beginning to scream," said a former center official, "and much of that was looked on as a righteous grievance. . . ."

Mendiola "did acquire a certain amount of celebrity"--good and bad--at the clinic.

It was the same word a detective would choose nearly three years later to describe Mendiola's place in the abortion movement: "A junior celebrity."

In March, 1985, Mendiola helped organize the march route for a rally, Gluck said, and told his "sister's story" again at the vigil that evening.

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