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Owens Case May Spawn 3 Separate Court Trials

December 22, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

There may be as many as three separate trials stemming from allegations that the Rev. Dorman Owens and six members of his Bible Missionary Fellowship in Santee conspired to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic last summer, a federal prosecutor said in court Monday.

At a brief hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry A. Burns said that "potentially meritorious" motions have been filed by defense attorneys in the case against the fundamentalist minister and his parishioners, asking for separate trials for Owens and co-defendant Cheryl Sullenger. That would leave the rest of the defendants to be tried together.

"It is conceivable that there could be as many as three trials in the case," Burns told U.S. District Judge Earl B. Gilliam.

Forewarned, Gilliam agreed to hear those arguments for severance on Jan. 19, then set March 1 as the date that the trials will begin in the highly publicized case.

U.S. Plans Predicted

Thomas Warwick, Owens' attorney, told reporters after Monday's hearing that he believes the government wants to prosecute the other defendants in two different trials before taking on the fundamentalist preacher in court.

"The U.S. attorney has indicated that there are probably going to be two trials (before Owens' trial)," said Warwick. "One is for Cheryl Sullenger. The other is the defendants minus Pastor Owens. Then, Pastor Owens."

That way, said Warwick, any of the co-defendants who might be convicted could be offered immunity by the government to testify against Owens.

Warwick also said that the separate trial for Sullenger would be necessary because an alleged informant in the case had spoken with her. Using those conversations against other defendants in the case would be hearsay evidence, he said.

Burns, however, said any discussion about the order of the trials would be "premature" because Gilliam has yet to rule on whether there should be separate cases.

Arrested Last Month

Owens, Sullenger and five other Bible Missionary Fellowship members were arrested last month and charged with conspiring to bomb the Family Planning Associates Medical Group on Alvarado Road. The other defendants are Randall Sullenger, Cheryl Sullenger's husband; JoAnn Kreipal; Christopher Harmon and his wife, Robin Harmon; and Kenneth Neal Felder, associate pastor of the Bible Missionary Fellowship.

Owens, who remains in the Metropolitan Correctional Center without bond, is also charged with tampering with a federal witness.

A seventh church member, Eric Svelmoe, pleaded guilty this month to one count of maliciously attempting to "damage and destroy" the clinic after he was caught trying to plant a homemade bomb at the clinic in July. He has agreed to testify against Owens for the government. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 25.

The indictments touched off a flurry of motions and legal maneuverings in the criminal case, and have also raised new questions in a federal civil case involving the Womancare Clinic.

$60,000 in Damages

In September, a federal jury ordered the clinic to pay $60,000 in damages to five anti-abortion demonstrators who were arrested by Womancare employees during an October, 1985, picket of the clinic, at 2850 6th Ave.

Womancare officials made the citizens' arrests because they believed the demonstrators--one of whom was Cheryl Sullenger--had gone beyond a 1984 injunction that restricted picketing by Owens and his church members. The jury found there was no connection between the anti-abortion demonstrators and Owens, and it ruled that the demonstrators' First Amendment rights had been violated.

But on Monday, attorneys for Womancare appeared before Gilliam and asked for a new trial in the case based on the criminal indictment linking Sullenger to Owens in the alleged bombing conspiracy.

Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney representing the feminist clinic, told Gilliam that the criminal indictment damaged Sullenger's "credibility" in the civil case and "raised an inference" that the demonstrators were working in concert with Owens.

"Now we've established that one of the defendants was connected with Dorman Owens in an illegal plot," said Dickstein. "If the jury would have found out or known there was an indictment pending, it might have made a difference."

Dickstein conceded, however, that Womancare has little more than the indictments to go on because the government has refused to provide additional evidence from its criminal case that might link the demonstrators to Owens prior to the October, 1985, arrests.

"We've talked directly to the U.S. Attorney but at this point he was unwilling to give us information on the background on this relationship," said Dickstein.

The attorney for the demonstrators told Gilliam that the indictment should not prompt a new civil trial, mainly because the criminal charges involve only Sullenger and no other pickets.

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