When Andrew Burnett walked out of a bitterly divisive summit meeting of anti-abortion leaders in Chicago last April, he became convinced that it was time to create a new national organization--run by and for activists who could no longer abide the tactics of moderation.
At the summit, Burnett and others who support--or do not condemn--the use of violence against abortion clinic aides and doctors were thrown out of Operation Rescue, the national group that first mobilized them in the anti-abortion cause nearly a decade ago.
So Burnett, a longtime Portland, Ore., activist, quietly founded the American Coalition for Life Activists to bring together those willing to at least consider more aggressive action than the tactics of civil disobedience.
Now a bloody shooting spree outside clinics in Brookline, Mass., and Norfolk, Va., that left two women dead and five people wounded is shining an unwelcome national spotlight on extremist organizations run by Burnett and others like him who appear to condone attacks on abortion providers.
Burnett and other leaders insist that they do not believe that the 22-year-old man arrested in the shootings, John C. Salvi III, was a member of any anti-abortion organization. They say they don't know him and had no involvement in his case. Burnett also says he and other members of his organization do not engage in acts of violence themselves and still believe in nonviolent protest.
Still, Salvi's actions have intensified the pressures on federal authorities to determine whether there is a nationwide conspiracy responsible for the wave of anti-abortion violence that has swept the nation in the last two years, leaving a total of five people dead, seven wounded and 28 clinics damaged.
A memo issued by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to all U.S. attorneys in the wake of the latest shootings made it clear that determining whether there is an underground anti-abortion network is now one of the Justice Department's priorities.
The department's new task force on anti-abortion violence is charged with "investigating whether there is a broad-based group of individuals planning and executing acts of violence against abortion providers," Reno stated.
As the death toll has mounted, the question has become more urgent, but the answer is unknown. Some officials still believe that the attacks are probably individual fanatical acts, perhaps feeding off each other.
But Burnett's decision to bring many of the leading radicals under one national umbrella organization is offering law enforcement officials a road map to the anti-abortion fringe--and a tantalizing opportunity to plumb for a terror network within. As Burnett said: "No one would want to work with ACLA who would condemn the use of force."
Indeed, abortion-rights activists point out that organizations like Burnett's underscore the degree to which there are close links among many of the extremist leaders around the country who endorse violence.
What's more, some of those leaders also have direct or indirect ties to a number of activists who have been charged or convicted in shootings or other violence.
Many members of Burnett's group have already been questioned by the FBI or have testified before federal grand juries investigating conspiracy charges. A federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., working with the Justice Department task force, is now beginning to hear testimony from anti-abortion leaders. And grand juries in Portland, Ore., and Sacramento already have collected evidence.
One compelling reason why Burnett and other members of his new group have attracted so much attention from the FBI is that several, including Burnett, signed a petition circulated by Paul Hill endorsing the "justifiable homicide" of abortion doctors.
A few months after circulating the petition, Hill, a former minister, was arrested in the July, 1994, shotgun slaying of Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort, James H. Barrett, outside a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic. Britton had been targeted for harassment in a magazine published by Burnett.
But the cross-cutting connections among the extremists range beyond Hill and Burnett and offer a picture of a small community in which nearly everyone has been in contact with nearly everyone else.
Such personal ties do not constitute evidence of a criminal conspiracy. And every anti-abortion leader denies that any conspiracy exists. Yet the relationships among the leaders, their refusal to condemn violence and the fact that all of the abortion doctors who were attacked were targets of organized harassment by extremist groups have raised serious questions about the role those leaders play in fostering the violence.
In particular, Hill's petition--signed by 30 anti-abortion leaders--has been a guide for federal law enforcement officials in their search for evidence of a conspiracy.
The petition was circulated to show support for Michael Griffin, who had been arrested in the March, 1993, murder of Dr. David Gunn, another Pensacola doctor who performed abortions. Griffin had attacked Gunn outside his clinic during a protest organized by Rescue America, a Houston group run by Donald Treshman. Treshman is a member of Burnett's coalition. John Burt, Pensacola regional director of Treshman's Rescue America group, has been subpoenaed by the federal grand jury in Alexandria, which is hearing testimony for the Justice Department task force.
Two others who signed the Hill petition, Donald Spitz and David Crane, are anti-abortion leaders in Norfolk who demonstrated in support of Salvi outside the Norfolk jail where he was being held. Crane is a regional director of Burnett's new coalition. Another who signed the petition, Michael Bray of Bowie, Md., was convicted in 1984 of bombing the Norfolk clinic that Salvi attacked.
There are more intriguing links. Rachelle Shannon, an Oregon woman who has been convicted of attempted murder in the August, 1993, wounding of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., was an active member of Advocates for Life, a Portland-based group run by Burnett. Since her conviction, Shannon also has been indicted on charges stemming from an earlier series of bombings and vandalism attacks on abortion clinics in California and the Pacific Northwest. Leaders of Advocates for Life have testified before a Portland grand jury looking into whether Shannon was part of a conspiracy.
Shannon also has close ties to Jonathan Brockhoeft, who was convicted of a 1985 arson that destroyed a Cincinnati Planned Parenthood clinic and an earlier attempted bombing in Florida. While Brockhoeft was serving his prison sentence, Shannon edited his radical anti-abortion newsletter, "The Brockhoeft Report," and she visited him in prison two weeks before she shot Tiller. Brockhoeft is scheduled to be released from prison next month.
Fanning suspicions of conspiracy is the correlation between the targets of special harassment campaigns by Burnett's coalition and the targets of attacks. Abortion-rights advocates note that each doctor attacked in the last two years has been the target of such an organized campaign of protest.
Burnett and others insist there is no connection and that their actions, which include picketing doctors' homes and following them in caravans, are legal.
In fact, despite the Salvi shootings, Burnett's coalition plans to go ahead with an aggressive campaign later this month that will publicly identify and target 12 doctors for harassment. One such campaign is already under way in Southern California against Dr. Michael Morris in the Riverside-San Bernardino area. The organizer, Joseph Foreman, a founding member of Burnett's coalition, was questioned last year by the FBI about his connections to Hill after the Florida slayings.
The most important platform throughout the radical wing of the anti-abortion movement for publicizing the identities of doctors and clinics is a magazine called Life Advocate, published by Burnett and Advocates for Life Ministries. That was the magazine that identified Britton. Shannon carried Life Advocate articles about Tiller with her to Wichita. More recently, the magazine highlighted the Norfolk clinic that Salvi attacked.
Justice Department officials refuse to publicly comment on whether the task force has found evidence of a nationwide conspiracy. But privately, federal officials do not expect to find one grand conspiracy behind all of the violence. More likely, they say, would be smaller local or regional efforts, made up of a few individuals who commit repeated attacks.
Still, law enforcement officials continue to trace Salvi's involvement in the anti-abortion movement. They appear especially interested in why Salvi, after shooting up the Brookline clinic, went on to the Norfolk clinic that had been the target of protest by the extremist groups.
Spitz and Crane say they did not know Salvi and had no involvement with him.
But the Feminist Majority Foundation, which helps develop security measures for abortion doctors and their clinics, noted that Salvi passed more than 180 clinics as he drove from Brookline to Norfolk. And he went to one of the very few that was open on New Year's Eve.
In addition, police have found videotape of Salvi standing on the edge of a protest last May outside one of the Brookline clinics.
But in the months before the shootings, Salvi was rebuffed by anti-abortion groups in the Boston area when he sought to speak and hand out materials at their meetings, and all the leaders of the anti-abortion movement in the area insist that he was not affiliated with them.
Whether Salvi was working with the extremist wing of the movement, Burnett and others of like sentiment will attract intense scrutiny as long as the violence continues and the question of conspiracy exists, observers say.
Even if the attacks are not coordinated, leaders of nonviolent anti-abortion groups say they believe that this new coalition has done their cause great harm.
"These people are robbing the cross of its power," said Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue. Referring to Hill and his admirers, he said: "Wrong theology leads to wrong behavior."
* RELATED STORIES: A15, B1