John C. Salvi III, the aspiring hairdresser who killed two women and wounded five others in a New Year’s weekend shooting rampage at two Boston abortion clinics in 1994, died Friday after an apparent suicide in his jail cell.
The 24-year-old Salvi was discovered by guards at 6 a.m. during a routine cell check, a spokesman for the state’s maximum-security prison here said. He had a plastic trash bag tied around his head. He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. The state medical examiner said in a preliminary report that the death was a suicide apparently caused by asphyxiation.
Earlier this year, Salvi was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the Dec. 30, 1994, killings of Shannon Lowney, 25, a receptionist at the Boston Planned Parenthood Clinic, and Lee Ann Nichols, 38, a receptionist at another clinic nearby. The killings took place just 15 minutes apart. Those wounded included patients, a guard and several friends and family members who had accompanied women to the abortion clinics.
The shootings followed killings at two Florida abortion centers and acts of terror and violence at other clinics around the country. None were linked to Salvi. Antiabortion groups swiftly distanced themselves from Salvi, who fancied himself a warrior battling anti-Catholic conspiracies. As he opened fire on Nichols and two others at the clinic where she worked, Salvi shouted, “This is what you get! You should pray the rosary!”
Learning of Salvi’s death, Nicki Nichols Gamble, the president of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, which later merged to incorporate the Preterm clinic where Lee Ann Nichols was killed, called Salvi’s suicide “the final chapter in a tragic series of events that destroyed three young people’s lives.”
Gamble also extended condolences to Ann Marie and John Salvi, the parents of the former apprentice hairdresser from Hampton Beach, N.H. But from her home in North Olmsted, Ohio, Ruth Ann Nichols, the mother of one of Salvi’s victims, was less generous.
“He was a bad boy who grew up to be a bad man,” Nichols said. “God have mercy on his soul.”
In Naples, Fla., John Salvi II said he was too shaken to discuss his son’s death. His wife expressed sadness that her son had been placed with a general prison population.
“My young John is gone,” she said. “But there are others who will suffer in prison instead of a mental hospital where they belong.”
Throughout his trial, Salvi frequently disrupted the proceedings by screaming out a religious philosophy that appeared to be highly personal, and based mainly on a belief that Catholics were suffering severe persecution from the Mafia, the Freemasons, the Ku Klux Klan and others. Portions of the long, rambling diary Salvi kept to document his beliefs were introduced in the trial as defense lawyers sought to portray their client as mentally unstable.
During a May 1995 competency hearing, Salvi circulated another rambling, handwritten document, this one declaring that he wanted the death penalty if convicted.
Salvi’s defense attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., said Friday that in the last year, guards had twice found Salvi with torn pillowcases tied around his neck. Carney joined Ann Marie Salvi in condemning prison officials for making a “political decision” to place Salvi in jail rather than “a humane decision” to put him in a mental hospital.
University of Massachusetts psychiatry professor Dr. David Bear, who examined Salvi for the defense, called the suicide unsurprising. “He was wrapped up in delusion,” Bear said. “The most important thing for him was to get out what he felt was his critical message about the oppression of the Catholic people. He was convinced that was the purpose of the life.”
Once Salvi lost his courtroom audience, and realized that in jail his rhetoric would go nowhere, he experienced the “loss of the central motivation of his life,” Bear said.
His own diagnosis was that Salvi was suffering from schizophrenia, the psychiatrist said. But Salvi refused all treatment.
Prosecutors displayed little sympathy for the defense contention that Salvi suffered from mental illness, portraying him instead as a rabid antiabortionist whose attack on the clinics constituted nothing less than an act of terrorism.
They pointed out, for example, that Salvi had practiced shooting at a firing range the day before the killings. They showed that he possessed 1,000 lethal hollow-point bullets. And immediately after the deadly assault, prosecutors observed, Salvi cut his hair in order to alter his appearance.
Salvi had also faced the possibility of federal charges. Abortion clinics are protected under federal law, and Salvi had traveled to several states in the course of his shooting spree, which ended when he fired at least 23 bullets at a clinic in Norfolk, Va.
Federal action could have brought Salvi the death penalty. But the U.S. attorney here said after his trial that he would not pursue the case. Massachusetts has no death penalty.