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Five arson attacks at pro-life centers unsolved

Groups report varying experiences with local and federal law enforcement agencies


CompassCare in Amherst, N.Y., on June 7 Associated Press/Photo by Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News

Five arson attacks at pro-life centers unsolved

Since May, vandals and arsonists have targeted the buildings of 75 pro-life political organizations and pregnancy centers, according to an ongoing tally by the group Catholic Vote. The covert pro-abortion group Jane’s Revenge has publicly taken responsibility for many of the attacks, five of which were arson cases.

WORLD confirmed with the targeted organizations that officials have not yet made arrests in any of the arson cases. Other news outlets have reported that none of the 70 other attacks have resulted in arrests, either. Federal agencies, meanwhile, are racking up arrests of pro-lifers under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a law that the Department of Justice website acknowledges also protects pro-life pregnancy centers from threats and property damage.

In interviews with leaders of the five organizations targeted in the arsons, some of them expressed satisfaction with the work they’ve seen local and federal law enforcement put into the arson investigations. But others point to the FBI’s numerous arrests of pro-life activists, saying the delays reflect the political bias of the pro-abortion Biden administration and its influence on federal agencies.

Kathy Roberts is the executive director of Life Choices, a pregnancy center in Longmont, Colo. Arsonists set fire to the center in the early morning hours of June 25, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court released the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Four months later, officials have yet to catch the perpetrators, and Roberts said that frustrates her: “I had hoped that we would have this case resolved sooner than later.”

But her frustration is not directed toward the investigators. She said she knows other pro-life groups in similar situations feel unsupported by law enforcement, but Roberts said she’s been in touch regularly with the FBI special agent on her case and is pleased to see her “actively pursuing all leads.” Roberts said the agent calls her with questions and sometimes shares information about specific vehicle descriptions or names of people of interest. If Roberts hasn’t heard from the agent in a few weeks, “I call, and she is always good at getting back to me,” Roberts said. Local law enforcement confirmed to WORLD that the case is still under investigation and that Longmont Police “continue to work with the FBI to bring this case to closure.”

Luke Cirillo, CEO of First Image pregnancy centers around Portland, Ore., said the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have kept in consistent contact since arsonists set fire to his Gresham center on June 10. From the beginning, he said, he “never had super high expectations” that law enforcement would be able to do much. Cirillo said the fire destroyed the building’s security camera equipment, and he hasn’t heard from the FBI or ATF if they recovered the footage. On top of that, he said Portland-area law enforcement agencies are short-staffed and struggling to function in an anti-police environment.

Cirillo said officers with whom he and his staff have interacted tend to be more conservative and supportive of First Image’s pro-life work. He said the FBI has advised his staff on how to make security upgrades and even contacted some of the center’s donors during the summer to notify them of potentially threatening chatter on anarchist websites that mentioned their names.

“We don’t feel abandoned,” he said. “It does really feel like they’re doing the best they can with not a lot to go on.” Because of that, he said he’s hesitant to believe that investigations have stalled because of pro-abortion federal agencies. “I see how challenging [the case] actually is, and [that narrative] doesn’t reflect our actual experience with police and federal authorities,” Cirillo said.

Attacks on pro-life organizations aren’t the only unresolved arson cases from this spring and summer. An unidentified female caught on surveillance camera May 25 set fire to an abortion facility ready for its grand opening in Casper, Wyo. Wellspring Health Access was slated to open in June and would have become the only surgical abortion facility in the state. Staff at the facility declined WORLD’s request for an interview. An Oct. 15 article from The Intercept said the facility’s supporters think local pro-lifers know who started the fire but have stayed quiet to protect the perpetrator. Wellspring’s founder Julie Burkhart theorized, however, that it was someone from out of state, which would explain the minimal information available locally.

The Casper Police Department confirmed to WORLD that there have been no arrests in the case and that it is working with federal agencies to investigate. It said the investigation “remains at the forefront of our caseload, with every piece of information we receive being closely scrutinized.” In May, the department said it was working with the FBI, but in October, it said its main federal partner in the case is the ATF. In June, ATF offered a $5,000 reward to anyone with information leading to an arrest and conviction.

The fact that the investigation in Wyoming is also moving slowly is little comfort to Julaine Appling, president of the pro-life group Wisconsin Family Action. Unknown arsonists set her office on fire on May 8, making it the first of the five arson cases at the buildings of pro-life organizations. She told WORLD she hasn’t heard from the FBI or ATF since May or from the detective on the case with the Madison Police Department (MPD) since early June. At the end of May, the pro-life organization posted an offer of $1,500 to anyone who can provide information leading an arrest and conviction. Appling said there is no surveillance footage of the perpetrators but the questions investigators asked her implied they had other evidence to work with.

Appling said the MPD rejected a public records request that Wisconsin Family Action filed on Sept. 15 seeking information about the department’s investigation. “We certainly don’t want to think that there would be any prejudice by any law enforcement agency based on our particular beliefs and values, but not hearing anything from MPD or any other law enforcement agency since early June certainly raises questions,” Appling said in an announcement about the request.

The MPD confirmed to WORLD that the case is ongoing and that it is working with federal law enforcement partners. When asked about the public records request, an MPD spokesperson said the department denied the request because the case is open and active. “This is a standard practice,” the spokesperson said.

The same day that unknown perpetrators set fire to Wisconsin Family Action offices, arsonists also torched the Oregon Right to Life offices in Keizer, Ore. Communications specialist Trevor Lane said Oregon Right to Life initially felt supported by local law enforcement. The surveillance video footage from the office building was poor quality, he said, but he praised investigators for collecting video footage from surrounding businesses and using available images to identify the make and model of the vehicle the suspects used. “They told us about the evidence they collected and really went above and beyond with this situation,” Lane said.

But around the end of June, Lane said the Keizer Police Department told Oregon Right to Life in a phone call that they were passing the case on to the FBI because of attacks on pro-life locations across the country. According to Lane, the first time the FBI contacted Oregon Right to Life was on Oct. 18. “It’s been crickets,” he said. The Keizer Police Department told WORLD that no arrests have been made and that “evidence from the scene has been sent to state and federal labs for processing.”

Appling pointed to a case in Michigan involving arson of an abortion facility. Unlike the arson attacks on pro-life buildings, law enforcement in the Michigan case made an arrest in that case within days of the attack.

Someone set a small fire outside Kalamazoo Planned Parenthood’s building in the late afternoon on Sunday, July 31. The fireplace log set on fire in a landscaped area was extinguished in under 10 minutes. Surveillance cameras captured footage of the suspect, and the local public safety office the next day released an image of a man in a camouflage coat, black ball cap, and medical mask. Three days later, a U.S. attorney filed charges against 25-year-old Joshua Brereton, alleging that he started the fire.

According to the complaint, local law enforcement partnered with the FBI and ATF in the investigation. Investigators found fragments of a Duraflame starter log at the site of the arson and searched for local sellers of that product. They eventually tracked down video surveillance of Brereton purchasing a Duraflame log at a Walmart half an hour away. They got a receipt of the additional items he purchased, including the hat that appeared in the Planned Parenthood’s surveillance video. Brereton pleaded guilty to the arson on Oct. 12 and faces the possibility of up to 20 years in prison.

The CEO of the pregnancy center in Buffalo, N.Y., that arsonists hit on June 7, told WORLD he just saw his center’s surveillance footage for the first time last week after months of requesting access. Like Appling, the Rev. Jim Harden, CEO of CompassCare, is suspicious of the delays in the investigation.

His center filed a lawsuit against the local Amherst Police Department on Sept. 19 in an attempt to get the footage back so that the pro-life organization could attempt to file its own civil suit against the arsonists. He told local news that the center turned in the footage the day of the fire because extensive damage made it impossible for staff to copy or view it themselves and that the police department has since refused to return the video or make a copy. Amherst Town Attorney Stanley J. Silwa said doing so would jeopardize the investigation. The Amherst Police Department confirmed to WORLD that the arson investigation is ongoing and that the FBI is aiding local police. The department did not respond to additional questions regarding the surveillance video footage.

Harden said the FBI has twice canceled scheduled visits to his Buffalo pregnancy center to analyze the crime scene, citing other priorities. But he said he met with FBI special agents on Oct. 18 and 19. In the Oct. 18 meeting, he said the agents encouraged him to back off from the lawsuit to retrieve the video and media engagements. He said the FBI scheduled that meeting just a few hours after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other members of Congress released an open letter to FBI director Christopher Wray on Oct. 12. In the letter, the signers asked Wray to account for investigations related to the FACE Act and to outline how many of those investigations involve abortion facilities versus pregnancy centers or churches.

In the Oct. 19 meeting, Harden, said the FBI showed him the video footage for the first time. A spokesperson at the FBI Buffalo field office confirmed to WORLD that agents are “working with” CompassCare and have met with the CEO but wouldn’t talk about any of the details of the investigation. She said the CompassCare investigation is a “top priority” for the office, listing other similar incidents that the FBI is continuing to investigate “as potential acts of domestic violent extremism, FACE Act violations, or violent crime matters, depending on the facts of each case.” Harden said the FBI rescheduled its visit to the facility for a later date.

Back in July, CompassCare posted descriptions of the perpetrators and their vehicle on its website, offering a $5,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest. Harden said he and two other CompassCare employees based the descriptions on their memories of still images from the surveillance videos that the Amherst Police Department showed them in July. CompassCare has received tips on people who fit the descriptions and passed them on to law enforcement, Harden said. Meanwhile, the FBI and local law enforcement have not yet released the images to the public.

Coupled with the increasing arrests of nonviolent pro-life protesters, the lack of progress in the CompassCare investigation has made Harden suspicious of the influence of a pro-abortion administration on the local FBI field office. “It’s naive to think that the largest policing agency on the globe with the best forensic technology known to man doesn’t know who’s doing these things,” Harden said.

He acknowledged that the Buffalo FBI agents he’s met with so far identified themselves as conservative Catholics who want to get the job done. “But I think … politicians have gotten involved and politicized federal law enforcement and they can’t apply the resources they need,” Harden said. “The resources are being taken away from them. The investigation has been deprioritized.”

So what exactly is causing the delays in these investigations?

Timothy Dimoff is a national security expert and former police detective who has advised pregnancy centers and pro-life organizations on how they can improve their security in light of increasing attacks. He was skeptical that bias in a government entity would affect an ongoing investigation.

In his mind, the different progress in each of these cases comes down to the quality of the available evidence and of the investigative resources available, which would explain why the Wyoming abortion facility case remains unsolved. Did the crime happen in the day or night? Is there footage of the perpetrator and, if so, what’s the quality? These factors and others, he said, can make the difference in closing a case. Even with sufficient evidence, some departments lack the necessary tools that help move investigations along, such as money to offer an award for tips or the number and skill of the officers or agents involved in investigating. In Dimoff’s experience, it’s not unusual for similar cases to take six months or more to solve, so he said the lack of arrests so far does not surprise him.

Former FBI agent John Wyman had a different perspective. He worked a number of domestic terrorism cases during his career before retiring last year. While he acknowledged some cases are just harder to solve than others, he said FBI field offices need the support and cooperation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Department of Justice to work an investigation aggressively enough to make arrests.

Even with little apparent evidence in a particular case, Wyman said federal agencies have numerous internal resources to move an investigation forward, including intelligence collection and analysis, interviews, video enhancement, and neighborhood canvasses. The assistance and support of DOJ prosecutors is necessary for the FBI to utilize key tools in their investigations such as subpoenas, phone tracing, search warrants, and even making an arrest. In certain situations, he said, the FBI’s priorities may not align with the local federal prosecutor’s office. An investigation can stall or hit a dead-end before a field office has tried all investigative techniques.

Harden said if he is wrong and the FBI succeeds in exposing those who have attacked pro-life centers, “I will be the first to sing the praises of the FBI and apologize.” But he noted, “People think that law enforcement are always doing the right thing because well, they’re law enforcement. Well, that’s not true. … Law enforcement is full of sinful people, like any institution, and they’re susceptible to being misused and abused by their leadership. They’re also susceptible to doing the wrong thing based on their own political views. No one is as objective as they [appear].”


Leah Savas

Leah is the life beat reporter for World News Group. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.

@leahsavas

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