Abortion clinics across the country were taking extra precautions Wednesday after the anti-abortion activist who shot Wichita physician George Tiller in 1993 and committed a string of clinic attacks in several states was released from prison.
Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, the Oregon woman whose actions once triggered a federal investigation into the possible existence of a national conspiracy of anti-abortion terrorists, had been living in a halfway house in Portland, Ore., since May. She has spent 25 years in custody.
“We’re extremely concerned,” said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “We’re alerting providers, briefing them and making sure they have enough security precautions in place.
“We know by her own writings and the writings of those who went on to commit violence that this is a woman who inspired three murders.”
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Shannon’s release was confirmed Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. She will be on supervised release for three years, but the conditions of her release are not public information, the bureau said.
“She’s going on probation,” said the Rev. Donald Spitz, an anti-abortion activist who has remained in regular contact with Shannon. “She said the conditions of release are going to be very strict.”
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, said the fears of abortion-rights advocates are unfounded.
“I don’t think she’ll be doing anything violent,” he said. “Of course, no one knows, but I’d be very surprised.”
Spitz said he had an hour-long phone conversation with Shannon on Monday.
“She’s very upbeat,” he said. “She’s glad to be getting out, she’s going to church again. Just doing everyday things.”
He said Shannon told him she will likely be prohibited from communicating with anti-abortion extremists for some time.
“It’s a very common thing that they do that,” Spitz said. “So I won’t be able to speak to her again once she leaves the halfway house for 2½ years. I don’t know how closely they monitor that, but she’s not going to take any chances. She’s not going to contact anybody.”
Spitz said he had no details on Shannon’s plans: “She’ll probably be trying to get her own place to live and looking for a job.”
Shannon, now 62, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for shooting and wounding Tiller and 20 years for six firebombings and two acid attacks at abortion clinics in California, Oregon and Nevada.
The former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Shannon also has concerns about her being released.
“She’s completely unrehabilitated and totally incorrigible,” said Stephen Peifer, the lead prosecutor on Shannon’s federal case in Portland in 1995. “She has the same mentality and goals that she had when she was convicted.
“She may do something violent herself,” he said, “but that’s not as likely as her counseling and advising other people to do it. That’s her track record.”
That’s why stringent conditions will be placed on her during her probation period, he said.
“The probation office is going to be very careful in terms of her associates and naming people that she specifically cannot associate with,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll have strict supervision. They were very concerned.”
News of Shannon’s release has clinic operators on edge. In addition to showing no remorse for her actions, they say, Shannon has been visited in prison by several activists who believe that killing abortion doctors is an act of justifiable homicide. Clinic supporters also note that Tiller, a regular target of abortion protesters because he was one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, was shot to death in 2009 by Kansas City-area anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder, who had admired Shannon and visited her many times in prison.
Among Shannon’s other prison visitors in recent years: Kansas City-area activist Regina Dinwiddie, who made headlines in 1995 when a federal judge ordered her to stop using a bullhorn within 500 feet of any abortion clinic. Dinwiddie attended Roeder’s murder trial and spoke on his behalf at his sentencing, telling the court that “Scott loved our country and he knew the terror of our Lord regarding the shedding of innocent blood.”
Another of Shannon’s visitors was Dave Leach, an activist from Des Moines, Iowa, and another advocate of the “justifiable homicide” position. Leach, speaking to The Star on Tuesday as he worked at an Iowa polling booth, said he visited Shannon once a year when she was incarcerated at the Waseca Federal Correctional Facility in Minnesota.
Some prison visits for Shannon’s supporters, he said, were funded by a doctor from Ohio who opposes abortion.
“He gave a bunch of money to allow several of us to go visit her,” Leach said.
Leach said he last spoke to Shannon about a month ago. He said the concerns that she might commit violence again were “silly,” then added, “Well, I guess anything’s possible with human beings.
“But I can’t imagine Shelley, after all this time,” he said. “They’ll be watching her pretty closely.”
So will clinic operators.
“Shelley Shannon’s release absolutely makes us nervous,” said The Very Rev. Katherine H. Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. “She’s not only committed multiple acts of violence herself, but has encouraged violence in others.”
Ragsdale said clinics have seen a spike in violence and disruption of services in the past year.
“Trespassing more than tripled, threats of harm have nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017,” she said. “They’re testing the waters, checking to see what they can get away with. And that emboldens the Shelley Shannons of the world.”
Julie Burkhart, a former employee of Tiller’s and founder and CEO of Trust Women Foundation, which operates the Trust Women Wichita clinic as well as clinics in Oklahoma City and Seattle, said Shannon’s release “raises deep concerns.”
“She tried to murder my boss,” Burkhart said. “And I absolutely do not believe under any circumstances that Shelley Shannon is reformed. She is still as dangerous today as she was in August of 1993.”
Shannon 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.
Shannon shot Tiller as he drove out of the clinic parking lot, striking him in both arms. Tiller was injured but 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 shooting Tiller as she tried to return her rental car. When she was booked into jail, police found a letter she’d written to her daughter describing what she’d 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.”
Five weeks later, authorities dug up an assortment of documents in Shannon’s back yard. Among the documents were her diary, books and manuals about bomb-making, letters from other anti-activists and several “Army of God” manuals.
The anonymous author of “The Army of God” document describes it as “a How-To Manual of means to disrupt and ultimately destroy Satan’s power to kill our children, God’s children.”
Shannon was cited in the manual, going by the name “Shaggy West.” In her house, investigators discovered Shannon’s computer files describing clinic arsons 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 had attended Shannon’s trial in Wichita and held a news conference in the courthouse to defend her actions.
Another fan of Shannon’s was Roeder, the man who killed Tiller in 2009. At his murder trial, Roeder testified that he admired Shannon and had visited her in prison about two dozen times. 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...,” Shannon wrote in an e-mail to Leach, the Iowa anti-abortion activist. “May God bless Scott for his faithfulness and brave actions and stand.”
Talk like that has abortion-rights advocates convinced that Shannon will continue to encourage others to commit violence against doctors now that she’s out of prison.
“Why would she follow the restrictions of her release now when she so flagrantly violated the law and attempted to commit murder before?” Spillar said. “Even from prison, she kept inciting more violence.”