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U.S. to Act in 10 Abortion Clinic Attacks : Indictments: Charges are expected against an extremist in prison for attempted murder. Authorities hope action will lead to names of others.

October 23, 1994|RONALD J. OSTROW and JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Signaling a mounting federal commitment to crack down on anti-abortion violence, the government will soon seek charges in connection with 10 separate attacks on abortion clinics in Northern California and elsewhere in the West, The Times has learned.

The central target of the expected charges is Rachelle Shannon, an anti-abortion extremist in prison for the attempted murder of an abortion doctor, according to government and non-government sources. The indictments, under consideration by federal grand juries in Sacramento and Portland, Ore., could come early this week.

The indictments involve a series of fire-bombings and acid attacks on clinics in California, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho, sources familiar with the cases said.

Although the government is not expected to seek indictments against any others at this time, sources said investigators hope the charges against Shannon will pressure her to reveal the names of other extremists.

Shannon is serving nearly 11 years in Kansas State Prison for the 1993 attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita. She was convicted March 25 of shooting Tiller as he drove out of his clinic on Aug. 19, 1993, wounding him in both arms.

She also was convicted of aggravated assault for pointing a gun at a clinic employee and was found in contempt of court for refusing to say where she obtained the weapon. At her sentencing, Shannon compared herself to Jesus and insisted she had done no wrong.

The incident is one of three shootings of abortion doctors that have occurred in the last two years, leaving two physicians and one clinic escort dead. Attacks at clinics across the nation prompted the passage of tough federal legislation against anti-abortion violence, and federal law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts to investigate the possibility of conspiracies behind the violence.

The expected charges will deal with three arson attacks on clinics in Sacramento and Redding and an incident at a Chico clinic, where a foul-smelling acid was used to disrupt the facility. All occurred in 1992. Attacks on clinics in Reno, Eugene, Ore., and Idaho are also involved.

Shannon is a longtime anti-abortion activist and 38-year-old mother of two from Grants Pass, Ore. She has talked extensively in prison with agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and has acknowledged certain incriminating information, sources familiar with the investigation said.

One source noted that Shannon's apparent cooperation came after she was confronted with some of the evidence ATF agents had gathered. But the source said agents at first were concerned she could have been admitting to attacks for which she had not been responsible.

"You've heard of a boaster?" the source asked. "There's also the technique of copping out to some things you didn't really do" to try to protect those truly responsible. As a result, investigators conducted an extensive review of Shannon's statements, the source said.

The investigation of Shannon's participation in clinic attacks was prompted largely by a treasure trove of evidence obtained after her arrest in the Tiller shooting, and by her statements and letters she wrote from jail about her activities.

After her arrest, authorities searched her home and dug up materials in her back yard. Investigators obtained diaries and paraphernalia, including bomb-making materials and manuals, that seemed to provide a road map to her secret past.

Her diaries also revealed close ties to other extremists previously convicted of clinic attacks. Just weeks before she shot Tiller, for example, Shannon had traveled to Ohio to visit two anti-abortion leaders being held in different prisons on charges stemming from clinic bombings and vandalism.

Both leaders openly advocate anti-abortion violence, and Shannon was an editor of a newsletter for one of their organizations. Her diary entries describe her prison meetings with them as "awesome."

An account of Shannon's life, which has emerged from court testimony, interviews and government sources, shows that by the time she shot the doctor, she had gradually let her life become consumed by the anti-abortion cause.

Shannon's life in the anti-abortion movement began in 1988, when she began attending meetings of the Southern Oregon chapter of Right to Life.

But she quickly found Right to Life's emphasis on peaceful picketing and political lobbying stultifying. She said she was frustrated by its refusal to take direct action against abortion.

Shannon soon moved on to Operation Rescue, which used the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience and street theater to attract attention.

But ultimately her views moved beyond even Operation Rescue's nonviolent tactics, and she drifted into splinter groups that believed that violence aimed at stopping abortion was justified.

ATF agents have for months considered Shannon the prime suspect in the April, 1992, fire at the Catalina Medical Center in Ashland, Ore. Last January, Shannon wrote to Chico police to confess to vandalism at a clinic there in 1992.

And, in a letter she sent to a Wichita newspaper in February, Shannon acknowledged she was involved in a string of clinic arsons across the nation. "I figure at least six different states, several places in some states," Shannon wrote. "That's what I get for traveling hither and yon, doing this, that, and the other thing."

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