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the Body Politic
Vol. 7, No. 11 - December 1997, Page 17
Copyright © 1997 by the Body Politic Inc.

Wrath of Angels Descends

Interview by Anne Bower

Just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision comes a major work, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. Written by two of the nation's most knowledgeable reporters, Judy Lundstrom Thomas of The Kansas City Star and Jim Risen of The Los Angeles Times, the book chronicles the rise of the anti-abortion movement told in the words of its own leaders.

It was OR's Summer of Mercy in Wichita that began Ms. Thomas investigation of Operation Rescue. She was a new hire at the Wichita Eagle when Randy Terry and Keith Tucci decided to stage demonstrations in the "heartland," especially at the clinic of Dr. George Tiller who performs late-term abortions. Ms. Thomas had done a story on Dr. Tiller and when OR announced Wichita was their next target, she took a "crash course" in the two weeks before their arrival. The protests lasted forty-six days. Ms. Thomas was there for forty-five of them and saved all her notes and tapes. She said those notes came in handy when she and Mr. Risen began collaborating on their 400 page book.

During her interview, Ms. Thomas stressed that one of the important things to remember about Wrath of Angels is that all of the material is direct from interviews, documents and videos shared with the authors by those in the anti-abortion movement. Gary Leber, one of Randall Terry's right-hand men in the early days, gave the authors many tapes as did Bob Jewett who offered 60 tapes from the Atlanta protests in 1988. Some clinics even shared their tapes.

In drawing up their Source List for the book, Ms. Thomas said she and Mr. Risen were amazed to find they conducted over 200 interviews. "No wonder it took us so long to do this," said Ms. Thomas. Among those interviewed were Joe Scheidler, John Kavanaugh O'Keefe, Joe Foreman, Michael Griffin, and Paul Hill. Randall Terry also gave interviews and the authors were able to have lengthy conversations with many of the early members of Operation Rescue, plus some who knew Mr. Terry as a student at Elim Bible Institute.

Early reviews of Wrath of Angles rave about the excellent journalism, its scholarliness and analysis. The pro-choice community will appreciate that, but the opportunity to learn from the inside what and who shaped the anti-abortion movement will make riveting reading. Without having seen one page of the book, I encourage every pro-choice activist to run to their local bookstore when this is released in early January insisting they carry Wrath of Angels.

For a little taste of what's in the book, read the following interview with Ms. Thomas. The Body Politic is pleased to print the first public discussion about this major contribution to our understanding of the past twenty-five years.

Naughty Angel

Q: Without giving away the whole book, I'd like to give my readers a taste of what you've got. I'm going to be chauvinistic and start with my "neighbor" Randy Terry. You interviewed a number of people from his past.

A: Yes, and we had several interviews with Randy himself. Jim and I were in Binghamton several times and we tracked down as many people as we could who had known him. We went to Elim Bible Institute and talked to some of his old teachers about what he was like; talked to most of his old friends and those who were part of the inner circle, the "Little Buddies" road show, during the heyday of Operation Rescue. This gave us a really good picture of what went on and what happened.

When Randy formed OR, he did it with Scheidler in mind and there were plans for some major events -- one in New York City and the other in Scheidler's hometown of Chicago. The book details the major falling out between those two, so consequently OR never got off the ground in Chicago.
For example, did you know that years before Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue he fell under the spell of a fundamentalist minister who later became a cult-like figure? (This was an exact description from the people who worked with him.) This is one story we've never seen told before.

When we started this book, Jim and I wanted to write about OR, but the editor and publishers wanted to expand the concept to the "whole civil disobedience movement." They didn't think it had been documented. The Basic Books editor wanted us to go back to Roe. v. Wade and work forward. Neither one of us were prepared for this. (I was fourteen when Roe was decided and it had little impact on me at the time.) Obviously, we had a lot of research to do just to do the first couple of chapters.

Jim and I went way back to before Roe finding out what lead up to it and in that research we came upon John Kavanaugh O'Keefe, but didn't know his influence on civil disobedience. We found out he was basically the "father" of the whole thing.

What we did was document the early roots of the anti-abortion sit-in movement which was mostly Catholic leftists. (This was way before the fundamentalist Protestants joined in the 1980s.) The Catholics were veterans of the anti-war movement in the 60s and 70s. For them, opposition to abortion was just a logical extension of their pacifism. The book explains some of this through some of the early people like O'Keefe and how he got involved in the movement.

Q: Was O'Keefe an influence on Scheidler?

A: They knew each other well, but I don't know how influential he was. They both were very staunch Catholics who were disgusted with the mainstream Church.

We do have some interesting correspondence between O'Keefe and Scheidler but people can read about that in the book. What we found was, later, there was disagreement between O'Keefe and Scheidler about the violence going on and eventually a falling out.

Q: You did a lot of research on Scheidler. Do you think he had a great deal of influence on Randy Terry?

A: Oh definitely. The book talks about how the two met. Some people said Scheidler was Randy's mentor; others that, later, Scheidler actually tried to copy from Randy. The story we have is, Randy invited Joe Scheidler to Binghamton in January 1986.

Q: That's right. We were there.

A: In January, Randy had done his first-ever clinic invasion at Southern Tier Women's Services and gotten arrested. Scheidler heard about this and called Randy. We were told that Randy didn't know at that time who Scheidler was but invited him to Binghamton. Randy and Joe hit it off and started a relationship.

Bray ended up betraying O'Keefe over one of the clinic bombings.... When O'Keefe found out Bray was guilty, this was a major betrayal and probably changed the course of the whole movement.
When Randy formed OR, he did it with Scheidler in mind and there were plans for some major events -- one in New York City and the other in Scheidler's hometown of Chicago. The book details the major falling out between those two, so consequently OR never got off the ground in Chicago.

There is also an interesting story in the early part of the book telling how the American Catholic Bishops decided not to mount an all-out attack on abortion after Roe because they were afraid of jeopardizing the Church's tax-exempt status. (Editor's Note: Good advice, not followed by the pastor of Randy's Church who lost their IRS status for electioneering in 1992.)

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops pulled back from the issue of abortion and people like Scheidler and then Randy got all the media attention for the movement.

Q: You also did a lot of research on Michael Bray, author of A Time to Kill.

A: There's a chapter on him. Michael Bray came from a navy family. He went to the naval academy even though he was against the Viet Nam War. While in Bible college in Colorado he met his wife, Jane. After graduation, he was offered a job as a minister helping to get cults out of the church but turned it down to return to a job as a Lutheran minister in his hometown of Bowie, Maryland.

Eventually, he and the other minister at the church had a falling out (Bray tried a coup and lost). He left, taking a small part of the congregation with him and that's how Reformation Lutheran Church came about.

When Jim and I started writing, we didn't know that Bray and O'Keefe had been friends. Bray ended up betraying O'Keefe over one of the clinic bombings. O'Keefe believed Bray wasn't involved and was raising money for Bray's defense. When O'Keefe found out Bray was guilty, this was a major betrayal and probably changed the course of the whole movement.

If this hadn't happened, the anti-abortion movement might have been rooted in more civil disobedience and Ghandi-style pacifism. Consequently, Bray and his extremism have come to dominate the movement in the 90s.

Q: Speaking of extremism, you interviewed Paul Hill, a good friend of Bray's.

A: Yes. The two were close. Bray and several others helped raise money for the family after the shooting. Hill has no remorse for what he did, but I also interviewed Michael Griffin who murdered Dr. Gunn. Griffin was very confused when I did the interview. He was going back and forth from admitting he pulled the trigger to saying there was another person who shot first, which then prompted him to do so.

Q: The "grassy knoll theory."

A: Exactly. That's what was going through my mind as I talked to him. That's his story now. He is very upset with some people in the anti-abortion movement he thinks sold him down the river. In his trial they wanted an insanity defense but it wasn't allowed so they tried to show he was under the influence of others like John Burt. However, he still got convicted.

Now Griffin's talking about a police report that was missing at the time of the arrest which shows that someone was picked up before him and the police are hiding that. A lot of conspiracy theories are floating around. I talked to the police and they say that story's ridiculous. They have witnesses that saw him shoot Dr. Gunn.

Q: Paul Hill is not denying anything he did.

A: It's very different interviewing Hill. He doesn't deny anything and recounted to me in detail how he killed Dr. Britton and Jim Barrett and how he planned the murders. It's chilling to listen to him. Hill is convinced what he did was good and right and he believes he'll go to heaven.

Q: Why do you think he did it? What prompted him to become a murderer?

A: We talked a lot about his theological background and his philosophy. One of the similarities shared by many of the anti-abortion extremists is a belief in Reconstructionism. Paul Hill and Michael Bray are. (Randy Terry says he's not a Reconstructionist.)

Q: What about Shelley Shannon?

A: I was told recently she is joining the Catholic Church. Fr. Trosch is supposedly working on her. I don't think she was ever a Reconstructionist. I do know that before she shot Dr. Tiller, she and Joe Foreman had conversations about the issue of violence. Joe Foreman and Michael Griffin both said they helped Paul Hill formulate his Defensive Action statement, so they obviously all knew each other before Hill's shooting.

Paul Hill also told me that when he went to Jackson Theological Seminary he studied with Joe Foreman's father. I'm not sure if Foreman's father was a Reconstructionist, but Hill lead me to believe he was. Hill also studied under Greg Bahnsen, a known Reconstructionist.

Q: So you think it was Hill's theology that motivated him as much as anything?

A: Yes, definitely.

Q: I've often wondered if Hill also needed to find more validation within the anti-abortion movement. When he first appeared after the Gunn shooting on the Donahue Show, the pro-choice community was taken aback because we'd never seen this man before. I heard there was some concern on the other side because they thought he was a plant.

A: That's true. In fact, we found out from people like Keith Tucci from OR and Joe Scheidler that they thought that very thing. In some of the files that Scheidler showed us, there was a letter to Mike and Vicky Conroy, activists in Pensacola, asking them to check this guy out and find out what was the deal with Paul Hill. Scheidler even wanted to know if he was working for Janet Reno!

When he killed the doctor and his escort, a lot of the pro-life groups distanced themselves from Hill saying he never had anything to do with the movement. The interesting thing we found out was, back in the 80s, Hill received an award from a Mississippi pro-life group, and the keynote speaker at the ceremony was Joe Scheidler. A lot of people in Mississippi said Hill was doing "sidewalk counseling" before it was popular, while he was going to school there. But he certainly wasn't a national leader before he went on Donahue.

Q: Judy, after you and Jim have done all this research, are there any general conclusions you've drawn about where this movement came from?

One of the last things Paul Hill told me was the violence was definitely not over. "I hope people will look at me as a teacher and learn from my example."
In thinking about this, we believe the breakup of Operation Rescue has a lot to do with all the violence we are seeing now. The vacuum created when OR disbanded lead to the development of this new breed of activist. People like Joe Foreman, Andrew Burnett and Michael Bray stepped in and filled the void. They were willing to commit more aggressive acts, even murder, to stop abortion. These people carried the Justifible Homicide philosophy to the extreme, and in my opinion, ultimately killed the anti-abortion civil disobedience movement.

Today, there are still smaller groups doing sit-ins across the country, but there's never been another Wichita. After Wichita, OR went to Buffalo but it was not the event they hoped it would be. They've never been able to organize a demonstrations as large as Wichita again.

Q: Do you think that the pro-choice community taking a very firm stand with clinic defense had any impact?

A: Definitely. In Buffalo in 1992, the word from the pro-choice community was, this is not going to be another Wichita. When I went to Buffalo to cover events, it was really surprising to see the tactics compared to Wichita.

The Feminist Majority sent people to Buffalo ahead of time and they worked with the clinics. In Wichita, Peggy Jarmen, head of the Pro-Choice Action League, was reluctant of doing anything like that because she was afraid of turning everything into a media circus. Peggy didn't want confron- tation and didn't want riots. Maybe her approach was right for Wichita, but after that, the pro-choice movement has been more aggressive and that seems to have kept OR at bay.

Q: Do you see any end to the violence?

A: That's a tough question. It's been a little while since there's been any serious violence, but this issue hasn't gone away and it's not going to go away. There might be another Paul Hill out there. Obviously there is a network of people who espouse violence. You've seen the names on the Defensive Action list. There have been more bombings this year. It's clear there are people willing to commit acts of violence. I hate to say it, but I'm afraid it's not over.

One of the last things Paul Hill told me was, the violence was definitely not over. "I hope people will look at me as a teacher and learn from my example."

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