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Abortion Doctor Killed by Sniper in Upstate N.Y.

October 25, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A prominent abortion practitioner was shot and killed while sitting in his kitchen in upstate New York on Friday night by a sniper who waited in the shadows outside the house. The killing of Dr. Barnett Slepian, 52, who became the first fatality in a series of attacks on doctors in the area since 1994, set off a manhunt Saturday that extended into Canada.

Slepian, who once proclaimed, "The more that they come after me, the more I will dig in," was killed only days after authorities had warned clinics of possible attacks.

Slepian had returned from Friday night services at a synagogue when the sniper, hiding near the swimming pool in Slepian's backyard in Amherst, N.Y., fired the fatal shot from a high-powered rifle.

In the previous shootings, three Canadian doctors and a physician near Rochester, N.Y., were wounded by a sniper using a high-powered rifle since 1994.

In each case, the bullets were fired through the windows of the physicians' homes.

Authorities in the United States and Canada had issued the simultaneous warning to abortion clinic personnel because the other attacks took place within weeks of Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

"There is some type of connection on the date. We don't know what it is," Inspector David Bowen of the Hamilton-Wentworth police in Ontario, Canada, said.

"The feeling is one man did the sniping," said Melinda DuBois, director of GYN Womenservices, a clinic in Buffalo, N.Y., near Amherst. "We believe this could be connected to the four other shootings."

The clinic director said Slepian had received vague threats over the years in the mail, but nothing that would raise a major alarm.

"He never let the threat of violence interfere with his decision to help women," DuBois said.

On Saturday, abortion clinic personnel in the Buffalo area held a news conference, calling for greater police protection. A candlelight vigil outside the home where Slepian lived with his wife and four sons, ages 7 to 15, also took place.

"We are concerned about the need for more law enforcement," DuBois said.

The killing drew wide condemnation.

President Clinton said in a statement that he was "outraged." The FBI and other federal investigative agencies quickly entered the case.

"The nation cannot tolerate violence directed at those providing a constitutionally protected medical service," Clinton said. "No matter where we stand on the issue of abortion, all Americans must stand together in condemning this tragic and brutal act."

New York Gov. George Pataki called for the death penalty for the killer.

"It's beyond a tragedy. It's really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a coldblooded assassination," the governor said.

Karen Swallow Prior, a former official of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who is running for lieutenant governor as the candidate of the Right to Life Party, labeled the killing "sheer evil."

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno vowed to do "whatever it takes to track down and prosecute" the killer.

"We are actively investigating the possibility that Dr. Slepian was murdered because of his work providing abortion services," she said in a statement.

Slepian rose to prominence in the Buffalo area when he was the target of large-scale protests by Operation Rescue in 1992.

During the demonstrations, he closed his office briefly but vowed to continue performing abortions. Slepian said he shut the office so as not to inconvenience other physicians in the building.

But the protest left a bitter mark. Friends said the physician vowed when he resumed abortions that he was not going to be scared off or threatened.

A decade ago during Hanukkah, other protesters picketed his home and taunted his family, shouting "Murderer!" as they opened their presents.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, charged that police should have provided the physician with "surveillance and bodyguards"--which drew an angry rejoinder from a member of the Amherst police force that it was not their role to provide Slepian with bodyguards for life.

"We believe this fifth sniper-style shooting of an abortion doctor is part of an organized campaign of domestic and international terrorism aimed at denying a woman's right to choose," charged Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

The warning from authorities Tuesday told physicians and clinic workers to keep away from windows not covered by curtains or blinds and be on the lookout for anything suspicious. The blinds in the kitchen were raised when he was shot.

Amherst police were summoned by Slepian's wife.

He was treated at the scene by members of the volunteer fire department and rushed to Millard Fillmore Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m. EDT.

Police said the single shot apparently was fired from a wooded area behind the house.

Officers in a helicopter searched for the killer. On Saturday, local and state police officers and FBI agents canvassed the area for possible leads.

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