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Searching for common ground

As Florida prepares to execute an abortion doctor's murderer this week, friendships form across the clinic's fence.

LEONORA LaPETER
Published September 1, 2003

PENSACOLA - Outside a nondescript building along a busy highway, a man stands alone beneath gnarled oak trees, smoking a cigar. He gets testy as two people yell at him from the sidewalk.

"You want to play ball with that baby one day, don't you?" yells a protester holding an 8-foot wooden cross with red splotches.

"It's not even my baby," the man mutters.

The man's 25-year-old sister is pregnant and wants an abortion. She doesn't know who the father is, and she asked her brother to drive her to the closest clinic from her home an hour away in DeFuniak Springs. While she is inside, the protesters taunt him.

Nine years ago, he would have faced dozens of protesters, including a tall, intense man with glasses and a serene smile named Paul Hill.

On July 29, 1994, on the spot where the brother smokes his cigar, Hill pulled out a shotgun and calmly killed Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, 74.

Hill, now 49, called it justifiable homicide. He wanted to stop the abortions that day and spark a revolution that would end all abortions in America. He still hopes to be a martyr.

On Wednesday, Hill is scheduled to become the first person executed for murdering an abortion doctor.

Today, only a few people protest the weekly abortions at what was once ground zero for the antiabortion movement.

But Hill's revolution has come to this: When they are done for the day, protesters pack up their signs and crosses, volunteers remove their yellow escort vests, and they all head to the Golden Corral.

There they face each other over salads and rolls, pot roast and mashed potatoes. They do this every now and then. Friendships have formed.

They are searching for common ground.

"And the common ground is that you don't kill someone you disagree with," says the Rev. Robert Eddy, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola and a clinic escort.

Some days a question hangs in the air: Did Paul Hill accomplish anything that deadly day?

Strife in Pensacola

Pensacola has been called the Selma of the antiabortion movement. Three of the seven people killed by antiabortion extremists around the country lost their lives here. The first abortion doctor killed in America was killed here. Two clinics were bombed in 1984.

Few have seen more violence than Linda Taggart, the director for 29 years of Community Healthcare Center, once called the Ladies Center.

In her office at the clinic, Taggart rattles through the list of events with a weary voice: the two bombings in 1984, a clinic invasion in 1986, the killing of the clinic's medical director, Dr. David Gunn, in 1993, and finally, the fatal shootings of Dr. Britton and Lt. Col. Barrett in 1994.

"They've picketed my house, threatened to kidnap my daughter and when they invaded the clinic, they rushed through the door and kicked me down the stairs," Taggart says, growing angrier.

Taggart doesn't break bread with the protesters. She pulls her Cadillac into the small clinic parking lot and backs it up so her license plate isn't visible. Then she disappears inside for the day.

During the week, the clinic offers a myriad of reproductive services, but on Fridays an out-of-town doctor flies in. Abortions are performed and a few protesters show up with signs and crosses.

"I don't have any use for any of them," Taggart says. "They have every right to picket, but what I object to is their lies and harassment and killing people.... I'm sick of them. After 20 years of putting up with them, it's kind of tiring."

After antiabortion activist Michael Griffin shot Gunn in March 1993 at Pensacola's other abortion clinic, Hill began showing up at the Ladies Center.

A Presbyterian minister, Hill moved to Pensacola to join a church that practiced infant communion. He went on Donahue and Nightline to proclaim Griffin's act "justifiable homicide."

From the moment she first saw Hill, Taggart knew there was something different about him. So she called police. "There was just pure evil in his eyes," she explains.

The theory of justifiable force had been floating around among the most militant abortion opponents, but Hill brought it to the country's attention. He wrote a manifesto he called "Defensive Action" and got some three dozen people to sign it.

Among them: John Brockhoeft, a Kentucky protester who was arrested on his way to the Ladies Center with bombmaking materials in 1988; the Rev. Michael Bray, of Bowie, Md., who served four years in prison for bombing seven clinics.; and the Rev. Donald Spitz of Chesapeake, Va., who created the militant antiabortion Army of God Web site.

In early 1994, Hill disappeared for several weeks from his post outside the Ladies Center. Where he went is a mystery.

"Yes, there's a lot of speculation about that, but I'm not sure anyone knows," says Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. "There were a lot of peculiar questions about whether he acted alone, where he got the gun. These are still unanswered questions. I find it implausible that a man like this acted alone."

In March 1994, Griffin was sentenced to life in prison for killing Gunn.

In early April, Hill was getting louder. The protesters were videotaping patients, the doctor and employees. Now, the clinic's volunteer escorts were videotaping the protesters.

Anger and frustration were escalating.

Protesters, meanwhile, purchased the land next to the clinic's 8-foot fence. John Burt, one of the most vocal antiabortion activists who had invaded the Ladies Center in 1986, erected scaffolds so protesters could lean over the fence and yell at patients.

Hill favored a huge sign: "Execute Murderers, Abortionists, Accessories." He would go on clinic property and scream at the waiting room, "Mommy, Mommy, please don't kill me."

The video cameras taped him saying: "We have the right to kill anyone here, I would think. We have got to maintain our right to choose to kill people."

A month before the shootings, Hill was arrested at the clinic for disorderly conduct and violating the noise ordinance.

"I'm not packing'

Dr. John Britton was a gaunt, bedraggled man, a father of four whose wife died of lung cancer in 1983. He lived in Fernandina Beach and took over as clinic doctor after Gunn was killed in 1993.

He had performed abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal in 1973 and had created a suction machine in his garage.

In early 1994, Britton and Barrett, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who occasionally drove him to and from the airport, were profiled in GQ magazine. The article pointed out that Barrett, a small, tough-talking man who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola, carried a gun and was willing to use it.

Some clinic supporters did not want Barrett to carry a gun. "We wanted to counteract the idea that there were two armed camps," says Bill Caplinger, a clinic escort and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola.

Caplinger had a good-natured conversation with Barrett, but the disagreement was unresolved. Still, the night before the murders, Barrett called Caplinger. "By the way, listen, don't worry," Barrett said, "I'm not packing."

"Then the next morning," Caplinger says, "he's killed."

Blood in the parking lot

Hill always has said he spent eight days thinking about the shootings. On the morning of July 29, 1994, Hill says he awoke at 4 and prayed. Then he went to the clinic, hiding his shotgun in the cardboard tube he used to carry his protest signs. He hid the gun in the grass in front of the fence.

When Barrett pulled into the Ladies Clinic parking lot, Hill retrieved his gun and shot him as he stepped out of his Nissan pickup truck. Barrett's wife, June, sitting in the jump seat, threw herself to the floor. She knew her husband was dead.

Hill ran behind an oak tree on the other side of the car, knelt down, reloaded and aimed at Britton. The doctor, wearing a homemade bulletproof vest, darted his head back and forth, trying to avoid the blasts. Hill fired and missed. He lowered his aim and fired again, hitting Britton in the body. He fired three more shots.

Britton stopped moving.

Mrs. Barrett was taken to the hospital with injuries to her chest and arm. Caplinger, the clinic escort, visited her there. After her husband was shot, she told Caplinger, Britton asked: "June, do you have the gun?"

No, she said.

Caplinger recalls: "And I said, "June, I don't know why I'm saying this, but I'm glad there wasn't a gun in the car.'

"And she said, "Bill, I'm glad there wasn't a gun in the car either because it wouldn't have made any difference, and I'd hate to think of anyone spending their last few seconds of their life scrambling for a gun."'

Setbacks and change

Many in the antiabortion movement say Hill's act was a setback.

"I think what happened when the killings occurred, everybody ran for the hills," says Bob Brady, a protester since the days of Hill who runs a maternity home for women in Fort Walton Beach.

Still, the small, violent underbelly of the antiabortion movement hasn't disappeared: An abortion clinic was bombed in Birmingham, Ala., in 1998; a doctor who performed abortions was shot dead in his kitchen in Amherst, N.Y., the same year; and death threats were recently made against Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, prison officials and the judge who sentenced Hill.

In Pensacola, police bring a doctor to the abortion clinic every Friday in a car with tinted windows. The doctor's identity is secret. Usually, only a handful of protesters are there.

Hill is content.

"The way Paul Hill looks at it, at the end of the day, 25 babies were alive instead of being dead," says Spitz, who met with Hill every day last week as Hill's spiritual adviser.

On a typical Friday, 30 women have abortions inside the building where Hill made his stand.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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