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U.S. Shifts Strategy for Probes Into Abortion Clinic Attacks

Crime: Effort to prove national conspiracy is dropped in favor of pursuing suspects one at a time. FBI also revives use of undercover informants.

January 26, 1997|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But as antiabortion extremists became more aggressive, escalating their violent acts from clinic arsons to the murder of abortion doctors, the FBI and ATF finally began recruiting spies. The decision has caused an outcry within the antiabortion movement as well as unease among civil libertarians, but it is paying off in the courts.

Federal officials refuse to comment, but sources on both sides of the abortion battle say that one ATF informant, Rick Thomas of Virginia, and an FBI informant, Phil Eck of Kansas City, Mo., both provided evidence that led to Sperle's arrest in connection with two clinic arsons in the Norfolk, Va., area.

Sperle pleaded guilty in the case in November and faces sentencing in February. She accepted a plea bargain after another defendant, Clark Martin, pleaded guilty last May and agreed to testify against her.

Sperle was charged with sliding a lighted flare and lighter fluid through the mail slot of the Peninsula Medical Center in Newport News, Va., in December 1994, igniting a small fire that caused minor damage. Martin allegedly drove with her to the clinic and provided Sperle with the flare.

In March 1995, Martin and Sperle broke a window at the Tidewater Women's Health Center in Norfolk and then ignited two gallons of kerosene inside. The fire caused modest damage.

Sperle and Martin went undetected, but Sperle couldn't keep her mouth shut. One person she talked to was Thomas, the husband of a Norfolk-area antiabortion activist. Thomas was serving as a bodyguard and driver for David Crane, an antiabortion leader in Norfolk, where Sperle then lived.

Crane had come to the attention of federal law enforcement after he signed a 1993 petition endorsing antiabortion violence that was circulated by Paul Hill, a former minister from Florida who later killed an abortion doctor and his escort outside a clinic in Pensacola, Fla. Hill was convicted in the murders and is now on Florida's death row.

While serving as Crane's bodyguard, Thomas was also secretly acting as an informant for the ATF.

Sperle trusted Thomas enough to detail her involvement with the clinic vandalism in Virginia.

In the meantime, Sperle and her family had moved from Norfolk to Wichita, Kan., and befriended Eck, who they believed to be a fellow activist. Eck, who lived with Sperle and her husband in Wichita for two months, was actually an FBI informant who was telling FBI agents what Sperle said.

Sperle, in her first interview with the news media about the subject, said the antiabortion activist movement in Norfolk felt betrayed by Thomas.

"His wife was a rescuer, which is why we trusted him," she said.

She also finds it hard to accept Eck's actions, saying, "He lived in my home, I took him to the hospital when he was sick."

The campaign to recruit informants has placed civil libertarians in an uncomfortable position. Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have long sided with abortion clinics against Operation Rescue-style protests, but now find it difficult to support undercover operations.

"We do have some qualms about this," said Lisa Landau, a staff attorney for the Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU. "Certainly the clinic bombings are distressing, and we support all efforts to investigate them. But there have to be stringent restrictions on the FBI's ability to infiltrate these groups."

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