He was a quiet man--full of fire and fury but outwardly calm. His storms raged inside his head.
Even last week, packing thunder in his pocket and violence in his heart, Michael Frederick Griffin seemed a soul at peace.
On his way to the abortion clinic to assume his self-appointed role as an agent of God, Griffin stopped to pay his bill at a nearby neurologist’s office where his daughter had been treated. He made small talk with the receptionist, Dee Slack.
“I’ve seen him in there before, and he wasn’t any different,” recalls Slack. Considering what he was about to do, “I would have thought he’d be sweating or acting real fidgety or something, but he didn’t show any sign at all that anything was wrong. He joked with me about my birthday.”
Hardly 15 minutes later, witnesses told police, they saw Griffin pull out a pistol and shoot the partly crippled Dr. David Gunn in the back, shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies.”
In the aftermath of the first known homicide connected with an abortion protest, the impulse is to view the crime as metaphor, to hold up the suspect as proof of an ever-widening tear in the social fabric.
But Griffin, who immediately gave up to police and reportedly confessed to the crime, is that and more. There is escalating conflict on the front lines of the abortion war, but Wednesday’s violence burst from the psyche of a man whose private troubles predate his active involvement in it.
According to court documents and people who knew him, Griffin had a long-standing propensity for violence, a loner’s mentality and an ability to stubbornly resist reason and logic when he had staked out a position.
Until a month ago, when he joined up with John Burt, the militant regional director of a national organization called Rescue America, Griffin had only flitted around the movement’s edges. But as far back as 1987, his extremist views and behavior had alarmed some.
“He was a fanatic, but not a wild-eyed fanatic,” says the Rev. John Kilpatrick, pastor of the Brownsville Assembly of God Church, where Griffin once had been a member. “He was a cold, reserved fanatic.”
Kilpatrick formed this opinion shortly before Griffin chose to leave the church in 1987 rather than modify what Kilpatrick describes as “radical behavior.” He won’t describe Griffin’s actions for fear of violating the family’s confidence but indicates that it had nothing to do with abortion. The pastor intervened after Griffin’s wife sought his counsel.
“He’d have ideas, and through wisdom you couldn’t reason with him,” Kilpatrick says. “I couldn’t penetrate him . . . I let him know that if he was going to be like that, he’d better look for another church.”
When he heard of Gunn’s death and then learned that Griffin had confessed, Kilpatrick wasn’t surprised by his former parishioner’s violent outburst: “When he left Brownsville I had to be forceful with him,” he says, adding that after the ouster, “I kind of watched my backside for a while.”
Griffin’s wife, Patricia, alleged in a 1991 petition for divorce that her husband of 10 years suffered from “great fits of violence.” She also said he’d threatened to take away their two daughters, saying that “if he can’t have them, neither of us will.” She obtained a restraining order against him, then the couple reconciled a year ago.
To others, Griffin was a loner who kept his passions well hidden.
“He was not outspoken,” says Linda Burt, John Burt’s wife.
Adds Vicki Conroy, an anti-abortion activist who met the Griffins through the home school movement: “You wouldn’t notice if he was there or not.”
Griffin and his wife taught their daughters, ages 8 and 11, at home, and the girls never played with neighborhood children.
Patricia Griffin has declined to talk to reporters since immediately after her husband’s arrest, but family friends say that she, too, was shocked by the slaying.
But, Kilpatrick says, “I think Trish knew all along that Mike had some irrational behavior and radical views.”
To understand the forces that drove Griffin, it is important to understand Pensacola. For although his motivations were private, there are those here who say this conservative Gulf Coast city’s violent climate granted him license to unleash his fury.
“Pensacola is a very violent culture,” says Father Jack Murray, a Catholic priest who supports a woman’s right to have an abortion. He says hateful intolerance coexists with a multitude of churches and a deeply rooted religious fundamentalism.
The Christmas Day bombing of three abortion clinics here in 1984 established the city as one of the country’s most violent abortion battlegrounds. Two men who called the bombings “a Christmas gift to Jesus on his birthday” were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After that, say members of less militant anti-abortion groups that decry civil disobedience, Pensacola became a lightning rod for unstable individuals. They seem drawn to John Burt, a lay minister and former Ku Klux Klansman who is a master of the extravagant gesture, the inflammatory comment.
While criticizing the 1984 bombings, Burt told reporters, “What’s more important--bricks and mortar or babies’ lives? I would say babies’ lives.”
Two years later, he and an adopted daughter stormed into an abortion clinic during business hours. Burt was tackled, but his daughter damaged medical equipment before she was arrested.
Then, in 1988, a Hebron, Ky., man whom Burt says he hardly knew drove to Pensacola to visit him with a car full of explosives. Burt showed him how to get to an abortion clinic but claims he did not know about the explosives. Nor did he know that the man, John Allen Brockhoeft, had been followed by federal agents. Brockhoeft was arrested near the clinic and convicted of trying to blow it up.
The Griffins joined Burt’s group a month ago, and Michael Griffin did maintenance work around the rural house that doubles as Burt’s residence and a home for troubled youths and unwed mothers.
Still, says the Rev. Don Gratton, a staff minister with Burt: “I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him on the subject of abortion.”
In an interview last week, Burt denied responsibility for Gunn’s killing: “I’m not a general in any way, but if I was a general who gave plans out to the troops and one of them went crazy and did the wrong thing, I don’t think I should be held responsible for that. The same materials I gave to Griffin I’ve given to thousands of people, and none of them did anything like that.”
Saying that he, too, has been a victim of violence and threats, Burt criticized what he called a double standard in the media and law enforcement. Where was the outrage when his house was burned down last year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade? he asked. Where is the outrage when people call his home and threaten to kill his children?
Burt has set up a fund to support Griffin’s family but says that does not mean he supports Griffin’s actions. Says Linda Burt: “The doctor had a very lucrative killing business, plus I’m sure he had life insurance.”
Griffin, a $14-an-hour skilled worker, did not leave his family financially secure, she adds. “If we didn’t do anything, then they’d say we don’t take care of our own. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s always going to be wrong.”