Nine months after a blaze erupted inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Pullman, Washington, Detective Sergeant Jake Opgenorth is left with few leads.
The Pullman arson remains unsolved, as do similar arson attacks at clinics in Illinois, California, and Louisiana.
Here’s what a Opgenorth, a Pullman police investigator, believes: Someone, shortly before the attack, got access to a computer in the clinic and disabled the main security camera over the parking lot.
Was the computer hacked remotely? They’re not sure.
Opgenorth said surveillance footage from other cameras captured an arsonist hurling a flammable device through a clinic window at 3:30 a.m. on September 4, 2015.
What was the gender of the arsonist? Authorities can’t tell.
Opgenorth said they’ve shipped off the computer hard drive to a crime lab in Quantico, Virginia, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is analyzing it for clues. Federal agencies are involved in the Pullman arson because of the history of domestic terrorists targeting abortion providers in the region, FBI Special Agent Frank Harrill told the Spokesman-Review. In 1997, four men were convicted of pipe-bombing a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Spokane Valley, about 75 miles from Pullman.
Meanwhile, a $10,000 reward offered in connection to the Pullman arson has generated no leads, Opgenorth said.
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“We don’t have much more,” Opgenorth told Rewire in a recent phone interview.
Arsonists have attacked five Planned Parenthood clinics around the country since last July, wreaking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, closing down the facilities—sometimes for months—and sowing fear among staff and providers over safety.
“It doesn’t have to burn down a clinic to have a terrifying effect on the people who work there,” said David S. Cohen, law professor at Drexel University and co-author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism in a phone interview with Rewire.
Even a small blaze, Cohen noted, “sends the message that people are willing to go to extreme measures.”
In the 11 months since the start of the chain of arson attacks, authorities have made one arrest, as Rewire recently reported.
Arson is one of the most difficult major crimes to solve, with arrests occurring in only about one in five arson fires, according to the most recent FBI statistics. Murder, by comparison, has a nearly 65 percent arrest rate. An accounting of four decades of arson attacks by the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks anti-choice violence, shows that only 28 percent of the 192 cases resulted in convictions.
This violence, including the blaze that Opgenorth is investigating in Pullman, has followed in the wake of discredited videos that tried to make it seem as if Planned Parenthood officials unlawfully sold fetal tissue. Multiple state and federal investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing.
Five days after the anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released the first video on July 14, an arsonist struck a Planned Parenthood in Aurora, Illinois. Then came three more videos, and on August 1 an arsonist set fire to a car outside a New Orleans Planned Parenthood construction site. CMP released another five videos before the Pullman attack on September 4, 2015, and released its tenth video before a September 30 firebombing at Planned Parenthood in the California town of Thousand Oaks.
Just last month, an early morning blaze tore through a Modesto, California Planned Parenthood. The fire has also been deemed an arson, a criminal investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office told Rewire in an email Thursday.
In this recent wave of arson attacks, authorities have charged one individual: a California man who authorities said fire-bombed the Thousand Oaks Planned Parenthood because his former girlfriend worked there.
Such a climate of hostility isn’t new. NAF has reported 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, and thousands of other incidents at clinics since 1977. Last fall, however, the FBI warned of “an uptick in attacks on reproductive health-care facilities,” and said that arson attacks were “typical of the pro-life extremist movement.” NAF’s numbers have supported this; the organization logged 94 death threats in 2015, compared to one the previous year.
“This is an obvious consequence of the smear videos that were released this summer,” Cohen said of the rash of attacks. “It’s coming to fruition.”
Indeed, gunman Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who admitted in court to unloading a barrage of bullets at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last November, killing three, defended his actions with the chilling credo: “No more baby parts.”
This April, NAF’s analysis of clinic violence revealed disturbing details about a man calling online for a wholesale burning of “murder house[s]” nationwide:
“One person setting fire to an abortion clinic will not do anything but thousands setting fire to an abortion clinic will speak volumes….It is not violent to set a building on fire…If thousands rallied together to set each murder house on fire, we would see the end of abortion…”
Within three months of the man’s call to action, the NAF analysis notes, facilities in Washington, Louisiana, California, and Illinois were targeted by acts of arson. NAF turned over information about the man’s threats to federal authorities. He was interviewed, but not arrested, NAF president Vicki Saporta told Rewire in a recent phone interview.
She said the organization met in August 2015 and again in February with the U.S. Department of Justice Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers, and noted, “I think that when law enforcement aggressively enforces the law, it does act as a deterrent.”
The task force, formed two weeks after the 1998 shooting death of New York physician Barnett Slepian, counts among its responsibilities coordinating national investigations of anti-choice violence.
Even so, determining the degree of involvement by federal agencies, such as the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), in this recent chain of arsons is difficult. Fire Marshal Javan Cross, in Aurora, Illinois, where one of the arsons took place, responded to Rewire’s email inquiry by directing a reporter to the ATF, but a spokesman from the Chicago ATF office told Rewire that its office is not involved.
Brian Garner, a national spokesman for the ATF, told Rewire that the bureau typically gets involved at the request of state or local authorities.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s public information office, responding to Rewire’s information request, wrote in an email “while we are unable to address specific cases, the FBI’s general practice is to assist our law enforcement partners and we take these matters very seriously.” Local authorities that Rewire reached in New Orleans and Modesto, California, confirmed the FBI’s involvement in those arson investigations.
Asked whether law enforcement could be doing more, Saporta offered, “We were hoping they would be more proactive in identifying the threats.” She said that NAF had requested just that, but was told, “no.” She said NAF has hired an outside security firm, and hands over information on the threats it uncovers to law enforcement.
It was through NAF’s monitoring that authorities learned of death threats against an executive of StemExpress, a California fetal-tissue procurement firm that once worked with Planned Parenthood. A Washington state man recently pleaded guilty to the charges.
“We do have federal law enforcement’s attention and cooperation,” Saporta affirmed.
Still, she notes the toll of the violence, saying, “There’s a cost to society: In a democratic society, you cannot allow people to use violence to settle political differences. It needs to stop. Enough is really enough.”
Advocacy groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America are increasingly demanding that federal authorities sharpen the focus on anti-choice violence, given the fresh wave of clinic attacks.
“Where is the outrage?” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue asked in an online statement in October following the recent chain of clinic fires.
More than 68,000 supporters have signed NARAL’s online petition calling on the Department of Justice to investigate clinic attacks as domestic terrorism across the board. The equality group UltraViolet is advocating for the same, posting its call to action on YouTube. Such a move, advocates hope, would discourage copycats and ensure that officials would give investigating and preventing this violence the same attention as other attacks.
“told the Nation in December 2015.
What we’re concerned about is how limited the resources and the scope of the investigations as they currently stand must be, because they are being investigated locally. What we’re missing is the ability to investigate across these various attacks for connections,” Shaunna Thomas, UltraViolet co-founder,
“Is there a driving connection between all these attacks?” she continued. “Right now, those questions are not being asked.”