Saying he wanted to set an example for those who would consider breaking the law even for a righteous cause, a federal judge Thursday imposed stiff prison terms on the first of the Rev. Dorman Owens’ followers to be sentenced for conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic.
U.S. District Judge Earl B. Gillam sentenced Cheryl Sullenger, 32, to three years. He sentenced her husband, Randall Sullenger, 35, to an 18-month term--six months of it in a halfway house so he can continue working at a warehouse before leaving for one year in prison.
In both cases, the sentences exceeded those suggested by a federal probation officer--two years for Cheryl Sullenger and one year and a day for her husband.
First to be Sentenced
The Sullengers are the first of eight members of the fundamentalist Bible Missionary Fellowship in Santee to be sentenced for their part in the attempted bombing of the Family Planning Associates Medical Group on July 27. The gasoline bomb failed to go off when wind blew out the fuse.
“I agree with all of you that these are good people,” Gillam told defense attorneys who argued vigorously for light sentences because the Sullengers, devout Christians, felt remorse and now understand that their strong biblical convictions were no excuse to violate the law.
But the couple overstepped the bounds of free speech during their anti-abortion crusade by plotting to plant the gasoline bomb at the clinic, Gillam added.
“Wrapped up in the punishment, this court feels it should almost make this an example, too,” Gillam said.
Gillam opted for the stiffer sentences, despite apologies from the Sullengers.
‘What We Did Was Wrong’
“Well, Your Honor, I know what we did was wrong,” Cheryl Sullenger said, adding that her religious beliefs “put a lot of emotional pressure on us to do this.”
“I believe it says in the Bible that abortion is murder, and when you see that, you are compelled to do something about that,” she said.
Added Randall: “Your Honor, this whole situation was a bad plan that got out of hand. I’m really sorry that happened. I do have real strong views on abortion, but I know this was the wrong way to go about this. To step outside the law was wrong.”
Gillam staggered the sentences so that at least one of the Sullengers could stay home with their two daughters, ages 6 and 4. Cheryl Sullenger will begin her term after her husband has completed his sentence.
Pastor Also Charged
Dorman Owens, an ardent abortion foe and the pastor of the Santee church, was among those charged with conspiracy in the bombing plot. The government also charged him with witness tampering after he visited one of the conspirators in jail and tried to convince him not to testify against the others.
Owens pleaded guilty to the witness tampering charge in March and is scheduled to be sentenced May 31. The conspiracy charge against him was dropped.
Five others, including the Sullengers, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges, and the man who planted the bomb, Eric Everett Svelmoe, has pleaded guilty to maliciously attempting to “damage and destroy” the abortion clinic.
Only one member of the group, Associate Pastor Kenneth Felder, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in June, prosecutors said Thursday.
The Sullengers’ attorneys tried Thursday to portray their clients as true believers who were incited to break the law through the “chemistry” of the conspirators’ religious zeal.
Helped in Surveillance
Randall is a “loving and loyal” husband who played a peripheral role in the conspiracy because of the influence of his wife, said Judy Clarke, his court-appointed attorney. Randall helped the group conduct nighttime surveillance on the abortion clinic to make sure no one was around to get hurt when the bomb went off, she said.
Clarke emphasized that the group, although motivated, was inept and unable to perform the bombing.
“When you really get down to it, this was like ‘F Troop,’ ” said Clarke. “These people would have bumped into each other in the night if they would have all been out there. The candle blew out in the wind. The device didn’t go off.”
Since the arrest, Clarke said, the couple have suffered shame, lost a job as apartment managers, moved several times and are now forced to live “paycheck to paycheck.” Clarke submitted a photograph of the couple’s daughters for Gillam to examine during the proceeding.
Cheryl Sullenger’s attorney, Lloyd Tooks, argued that his client was “compelled and constrained” by her religious beliefs to act against abortion, even if the actions were illegal. The indictment says she procured gunpowder and other material for the bomb, then gave Svelmoe a wig to wear as a disguise in the plot.
Her involvement in the bombing was an “aberration,” and, since her arrest, she has realized that what she did was wrong, Tooks said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry Burns agreed that the case against the Sullengers is “troubling” because they are “good people who did a bad thing.”
But, he said, they were “reckless” in planting a bomb that, had it gone off, could have started a fire at a medical complex that included other offices.
Burns asked for the stiff sentences to send a message.
“Whether it’s abortion or another political cause, when you cross the line and you go to the means of explosive devices, that simply will not be tolerated,” he said.