Crime

Woman who shot Wichita abortion doctor, bombed clinics in 1990s released from prison

The Oregon woman who shot and wounded a Wichita abortion doctor 25 years ago and firebombed several clinics in three states has been released from federal prison, causing concern among clinic operators who worry her release could spark a new wave of attacks.

Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, whose actions triggered a federal investigation into the possible existence of a nationwide conspiracy of anti-abortion terrorists intent on shutting down abortion clinics, left the Waseca Federal Correctional Facility in Minnesota on Monday and was being transported by bus to Portland, where she will be staying in a halfway house, according to her friends.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday, but a Federal Bureau of Prisons website was updated to say she is no longer in BOP custody.

Shannon was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the 1993 shooting of George Tiller, the first attack on the outspoken doctor. In 1995, she received a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to a series of bombings, arson and vandalism of clinics in California, Oregon and Nevada.

"She and I have been in touch for a long time, quite often," said the Rev. Donald Spitz, leader of Pro-Life Virginia and sponsor of the Army of God website, which supports those who have committed violence against abortion clinics and doctors. "The plan is for her to be in a halfway house for now. I think she’s getting there tonight."

News of Shannon’s release has put abortion-rights advocates on high alert. They say Shannon has shown no signs of remorse for her actions and has been visited in prison by several well-known activists who believe killing abortion doctors is an act of justifiable homicide. They also note that Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, was shot to death in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist who had admired Shannon and visited her many times in prison.

"The conditions of her probation must be the most stringent possible," said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "This is a woman who inspired three murders. And she has never renounced murder as a legitimate strategy. Never.

"So to have her out and having ongoing communications with extremists from across the country who promote the use of violence, this is a dangerous situation waiting to explode again."

Spillar said clinics across the country are being warned about Shannon's release.

"We're working very closely with the National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood to alert all providers," she said, "including those who she attempted to burn down before she was caught."

Spitz said Shannon's supporters — among them anti-abortion activists who for decades have called the killing of abortion doctors an act of justifiable homicide — were thrilled to hear she was out of prison.

"Everybody's very pleased," he said. "We commiserated quite often about how unjust the whole thing was with the judge and the sentencing."

When doling out Shannon's punishment on the arson and bombing charges in 1995, U.S. District Judge James Redden went beyond the normal sentencing guidelines, saying to Shannon: "Though I am loath to call anyone a terrorist, you are a terrorist."

Spitz told The Star that Shannon has been in touch over the years with many who share her beliefs.

"I know she's extremely well-respected, and she has an enormous number of friends who communicate with her," he said.

Shannon, now 62, was a 37-year-old Oregon homemaker when she boarded a Greyhound bus in her hometown of Grants Pass and went to Oklahoma City. There, she rented a car and headed to Tiller's clinic in Wichita. The clinic, Women's Health Care Services, had been the target of numerous protests, was bombed in 1986 and was the focus of Operation Rescue's 46-day "Summer of Mercy" campaign in 1991 that resulted in more than 2,600 arrests.

When Shannon arrived at the clinic, she went inside, pretending to be a patient, but left when she didn't see Tiller. She later returned and shot Tiller as he drove out of the parking lot, striking him in both arms. Tiller returned to work the next day.

The shooting was the second attack on an abortion doctor in five months. In March 1993, Michael Griffin shot a physician to death outside a clinic in Pensacola, Fla.

Shannon was arrested in Oklahoma City several hours after the shooting when she tried to return her rental car. When she was booked into jail, police found a letter she had written to her daughter that described in detail what she had done.

"I'm not denying I shot Tiller," she wrote. "But I deny that it was wrong. It was the most holy, most righteous thing I've ever done. I have no regrets."

Then she added, "Oh! Do not dig up my stuff under any circumstances. Don't keep anything incriminating in the house. It will most likely get ransacked before long."

Five weeks later, authorities dug up a treasure trove of documents in Shannon's backyard. Among the documents were her diary, books and manuals about bomb-making, letters from other anti-abortion activists and several Army of God manuals that contained details ranging from how to get and use butyric acid — a liquid with a vomit-like odor used to close clinics for days at a time — to how to make and detonate bombs.

The anonymous author of the document described it as "a How-To Manual of means to disrupt and ultimately destroy Satan's power to kill our children, God's children."

"The editors of this manual hope and pray that the information contained herein will be useful to those who are committed to pro-life activism, and may perhaps provide the catalyst to inspire others to such a commitment," it said.

Shannon was cited in the manual, going by the name "Shaggy West." In her house, investigators discovered computer files describing arson and acid attacks she had committed.

In July 1994, less than a year after Shannon shot Tiller, Florida anti-abortion activist Paul Hill killed an abortion doctor and his bodyguard outside another Pensacola clinic. Hill, the author of a petition signed by about 30 anti-abortion extremists that said killing abortion doctors was an act of justifiable homicide, had visited Shannon in jail in Wichita and attended her trial, holding a news conference in the courthouse to defend her actions.

Another fan of Shannon’s was Scott Roeder, a Kansas City-area anti-abortion activist who visited Shannon on numerous occasions when she was in prison in Topeka. On a Sunday morning in May 2009, Roeder entered Tiller’s church in Wichita and shot Tiller in the forehead at point-blank range.

As Roeder awaited trial for murder, Spitz told The Star that Shannon had been writing to people from her prison cell, encouraging them to support Roeder and send him money. Spitz shared part of a letter she sent to a supporter after Tiller’s death.

Shannon wrote that when she heard of Tiller's murder, "I almost thought I saw a whole cloud of babies clapping, like a standing ovation."

And in a statement posted on Spitz's website, she said: "If the abortionist remains alive, many babies die. ... Those who killed abortionists chose life for all the innocent babies he would have killed, and did our country a great service."

At his trial, Roeder testified that he admired Shannon and also sought out other abortion foes who were open to using force against abortion doctors. After Roeder was found guilty in 2010, Shannon issued a statement of support from prison.

"Abortionists are killed because they are serial murderers of innocent children who must be stopped, and they will continue to be stopped, even though Scott didn't get a fair trial," Shannon wrote in an email to Iowa anti-abortion activist Dave Leach. "May God bless Scott for his faithfulness and brave actions and stand."

Spillar said the Army of God is still active and that the 2015 shooting that killed three at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood was inspired by the shadowy group.

"These extremists are not stopping, and now that Shelley Shannon is out of prison, that just gives her more access to these individuals," Spillar said. "Now, she will essentially have free reign to inspire others. And I hope that federal law enforcement and local law enforcement understand the threat that she poses."

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