WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials are tracking a mysterious outbreak of antiabortion violence that is not lethal but potentially more elusive than the bombings and arson attacks that have plagued abortion clinics in recent years.
Between late May and early July, 19 abortion clinics--10 in central Florida, five in New Orleans and four in Houston--were squirted, sprayed or injected with butyric acid, an intensely noxious industrial chemical. The attacks have sent scores of workers and patients to hospitals with nausea and respiratory problems. Many clinics were closed for weeks until hazardous-materials cleanup crews could be called in and exposed surfaces could be replaced.
The acid attacks mark a return to a form of antiabortion violence that was common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But this time--unlike during the earlier incidents--federal investigators have jurisdiction to investigate and new tools for the task.
The 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act--commonly called FACE--makes it a federal crime to obstruct access to abortion clinics. Also, the FBI recently established a special chemical and biological terrorism unit and with it, an aggressive new federal focus on domestic terrorism.
In the wake of the attacks in New Orleans and Houston, the new FBI team was dispatched to the scene to help with the cleanup and to gather evidence, according to FBI sources. And an FBI forensic chemist has been added to the team.
"We consider these extremely serious crimes, and we're investigating them that way," said Suzy Bailliere, chief of the FBI's Hate Crimes Unit, which is heading the inquiry.
Investigators are reluctant to declare a trend, but the number and the similarity of the attacks have prompted investigators to look "very hard" at whether they are all linked to a single person or group, said Bailliere.
In the latest attacks, perpetrators have followed the same procedures that characterized the earlier wave of violence, which petered out by 1994 without apparent reason. And by using butyric acid they adhered to a recipe for "Liquid Rescue" that was laid out in a manual circulated among the antiabortion movement's violent right wing since the early 1990s.
Several factors make the FBI's investigations difficult, according to those who track abortion clinic violence. For starters, most of the 19 clinics attacked in the latest round of violence did not have security systems or surveillance cameras.
"I don't know how you protect a building that doesn't have 24-hour manned security on it," said Bailliere.
Beyond that, there is the ease with which anyone can obtain and legally possess butyric acid. A chemical used mainly in the making of fragrances and perfumes, butyric acid can be ordered easily from a chemical or lab equipment supply house. A thimbleful of the substance can suffuse an entire building with a choking odor described as resembling stale vomit. And law enforcement officials are just beginning to study whether they can trace the source of the acid to its manufacturers or suppliers.
Finally, investigators are hampered by gaps in their knowledge about the last wave of attacks in 1992 and 1993. Those attacks--numbering roughly 50--also cut a swath across the South, hitting Florida, Louisiana and Texas in brief spurts before moving as far west as California.
But because they occurred before passage of the FACE act, federal investigators had no jurisdiction to investigate and now must rely on the dated efforts of state and local law enforcement officials. Those inquiries were limited by the fact that investigators could not cross state lines to pursue links among the crimes. Beyond that, many local investigators viewed the attackers as harmless vandals lobbing stink bombs into clinic entrances.
In the most recent wave, FBI experts were not dispatched to collect evidence at the first 10 attacks in Florida. As a result, federal investigators are relying on Florida state investigators to help provide information that might link those attacks to the nine in New Orleans and Houston.
Abortion-rights activists who tracked the 1992-93 assaults said it appears that no one was arrested in the earlier attacks. As a result, federal investigators also are missing the key to another investigative lead: the possibility that whoever was responsible for the earlier butyric acid attacks may have resumed them this year after being jailed during the four-year lull.
But if there are doubts in the minds of federal investigators that the acid attacks are linked to each other--or to more violent bombing and arson attacks--abortion-rights activists have none whatsoever.