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Vandalism arrests surprise pro-lifers

The Justice Department uses federal law to protect pregnancy centers

The CompassCare facility in Amherst, N.Y., after a firebombing, on June 7, 2022 Associated Press/Photo by Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News, File

Vandalism arrests surprise pro-lifers

To some pro-life groups, the indictment of two pro-abortion vandals in Florida is an encouraging development after more than eight months of unsolved vandalism and arson cases at pregnancy centers. But, to others, the federal government’s apparent prioritization of pro-abortion cases and the sheer number of unsolved attacks on pro-life organizations drown out these encouraging developments. They say the indictment and the posted rewards would not have happened without pressure from pro-life lawmakers and organizations.

The indictments were made public on Jan. 24. They accuse 27-year-old Caleb Freestone and 23-year-old Amber Smith-Stewart of spray-painting, “If abortions aren’t SAFE Then niether [sic] are you” and other threatening messages on pro-life centers in Winter Haven, Hialeah, and Hollywood, Fla., between late May and early July 2022. The indictment mentions that Freestone and Smith-Stewart conspired with “other persons known and unknown” to target the pregnancy centers.

Records obtained by WORLD from the Miami Police Department showed that officials arrested the pair for disorderly conduct during an Oct. 8 pro-abortion protest in Miami. For the pregnancy center attacks, Freestone and Smith-Stewart face charges of conspiracy and of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, penalties that could put them in prison for up to 12 years. According to pro-life lawyers, this is the first known instance of the federal government using FACE—a law originally passed in 1994 to address violence by activists at abortion facilities—in defense of pro-life pregnancy centers.

On Jan. 19, the FBI announced rewards of $25,000 for information regarding a series of attacks against nine pro-life organizations and one abortion facility. In the news release, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the announcement “reflects the FBI’s commitment to vigorously pursue investigations into crimes against pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, and reproductive health clinics across the country.”

The news of the indictment surprised Thomas Glessner, the president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a pro-life pregnancy center organization with affiliate centers across the country. One of those affiliates, the Winter Haven center, was one of more than 70 similar organizations targeted since May 2022. The wave of vandalism started after news first broke that the U.S. Supreme Court would likely overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that declared a right to abortion. Glessner was not expecting to see the Department of Justice do anything about these cases.

Months had passed without any sign of progress. Glessner knew Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke had a history of calling pregnancy centers “fake clinics” and assumed her views were influencing priorities at the department. As pregnancy centers waited for answers, the federal government ramped up arrests of pro-life activists. The department charged peaceful protesters and sidewalk counselors with violations under the FACE Act. A Pennsylvania jury this week acquitted pro-life father and sidewalk counselor Mark Houck of FACE charges over allegedly assaulting a pro-abortion facility escort. The fact that he faced charges in the first place shocked the pro-life community.

That’s why Glessner in fall 2022 turned down an invitation from Justice Department officials to join a Zoom call with other pro-life groups about the attacks. “What are they really after? Are they after information that, say, they can turn and use against you? That was my suspicion,” said Glessner.

He said the Florida indictment doesn’t completely quell his concerns about how the federal government is handling these cases. “They have a high bar to overcome if they want to gain our confidence,” Glessner said. “I would say right now this is just a mini step in that direction.”

Staff from national pregnancy center organizations Care Net and Heartbeat International attended the Oct. 7 call with Justice Department staff. They said Clarke was on the call. (The Department of Justice did not respond to WORLD’s request for comment.) Department officials on the call reinforced that they were investigating the attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers, participants said. The officials said those attacks were punishable under FACE. But Heartbeat and Care Net staff told WORLD that, at the time, they didn’t have much faith in the department to take the attacks on pregnancy centers seriously.

A November update to an FBI resource booklet advising safety measures for centers, though, gave Care Net some optimism. Roland Warren, Care Net CEO, said the Justice Department’s meetings with pregnancy center staff led to new language in the booklet that clarified FACE defends pregnancy centers as well as abortion facilities. “So, the news about the indictments in Florida is not surprising to us in that we have known for several months that federal officials have been making efforts to protect life-affirming organizations amidst an outbreak of threats and violence against them since the Dobbs leak in May of 2022,” Warren said. But, to Heartbeat International President Jor-El Godsey, the document “still reads as being very slanted towards abortion clinic violence.”

Reactions from individual pro-life groups were similarly mixed. The three Florida pregnancy centers mentioned in the indictment did not return WORLD’s phone calls. But Trevor Lane, communications specialist for Oregon Right to Life—one of the organizations targeted by arsonists last summer—said the arrests give him “more confidence that federal law enforcement is actively pursuing justice.” Luke Cirillo, the CEO of Portland-area pregnancy centers that he said have been targeted at least six times since last spring, also saw the indictment and the FBI reward as encouragement. He reinforced that he has felt supported by the FBI all along. “These are tough cases, with little evidence to go on,” Cirillo said.

Both the Oregon Right to Life arson and the arson at one of Cirillo’s pregnancy centers appeared in the FBI’s posted reward offer. The FBI also offered a reward for tips related to the Mother’s Day arson at the offices of pro-life organization Wisconsin Family Action. President Julaine Appling called the indictment and the reward offers “moderately encouraging” but said they “don’t prove that these cases are being aggressively pursued.”

She cited continued interest from conservative media outlets and Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives as reasons why she believes “the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have pretty much been shamed or forced into taking more aggressive steps to find those responsible for these attacks.”

Rev. Jim Harden, CEO of the CompassCare pregnancy center in Amherst, N.Y. called the reward “a day late and a dollar short.” The FBI first posted a reward related to the firebombing of CompassCare in November, after the U.S. election. Harden believes the move was connected to the House Judiciary Committee’s accusations of FBI corruption. He suspects the reward offers signal that the trail of the criminals has gone cold. CompassCare has since partnered with the pro-life Thomas More Society law firm to hire private investigators to track down the perpetrators.

Despite delayed results in these cases, law enforcement officials solved a Jan. 15 arson at a Planned Parenthood facility in Peoria, Ill., within 10 days. Investigators used surveillance footage of the suspect’s vehicle—a white truck with red doors—to track down the suspect. On Jan. 25, an FBI special agent filed a complaint charging the truck’s owner, a 32-year-old Illinois man, with the arson. According to the man’s testimony, his distress over a girlfriend’s abortion three years earlier motivated his actions.

Harden cited this case and another case of Planned Parenthood arson from July that law enforcement also swiftly resolved as evidence of possible bias at the FBI and Justice Department: “They make arrests on these people within days—days.” In comparison, he said, the investigations of dozens of attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers have turned up few results.

But attacks on other abortion facilities remain unsolved. The single abortion facility attack listed in the Jan. 19 FBI release happened in March 2022 at a Planned Parenthood medical building in California. The Los Angeles FBI field office was still seeking information as of Monday. A May 25 arson at a Wyoming abortion facility also remains unsolved. In December, the Casper Police Department told a local news outlet that investigators don’t have any active leads in the case and confirmed to WORLD Tuesday that the investigation is ongoing. The swiftness in solving the other two Planned Parenthood attacks could simply come down to the quality of the available evidence, such as notable red doors on a white truck.

Delays in prosecuting attacks on pro-life organizations don’t necessarily mean there has been no progress in those cases. The delays could mean officials are building a case against the remaining persons “known and unknown” who have participated in the attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers. The indictment against Freestone and Stewart-Smith could be the first steps toward tracking down other attackers across the country.

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.


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