This article is one of a series of a series by RH Reality Check and Wendy Norris on anti-choice violence and enforcement of the FACE Act. The first article in the series was “The Abortion Fight at Ground Zero: Is the FACE Act Being Enforced?“
Next in this series will be “Keeping the Peace. A Law Enforcement Perspective on the FACE Act.”
Thomas Burke isn’t a household name. And with any luck he never will be.
Burke, 48, is a fixture at a number of Kansas City, Kan., area reproductive health centers. He has assaulted clinic staff, damaged property and been repeatedly arrested for anti-abortion protests that have spanned nearly 30 years.
The escalation of Burke’s protest activities has culminated in eight trespassing charges, six stints in local detention, a permanent federal injunction, two felony indictments for violating the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and years involuntarily remanded to mental health facilities. Yet, nothing has deterred him and he continues to harass patients to this day.
For clinic staff and local law enforcement, it’s also a trajectory of eerie similarities.
Breeding ground of anti-abortion violence
Kansas has long been a hotbed of anti-choice protests stoked by a hard-right political climate and conservative religious views. But the prairie state has taken on something of a mythic quality among the most radical elements of the movement.
It was the seat of mass protests organized by Operation Rescue in Wichita where thousands were arrested in the summer of 1991 for blockading clinics. The city also served as a backdrop for the early activity of the Lambs of Christ and the Army of God, extremist groups law enforcement experts describe as anti-abortion domestic terrorists.
Operation Rescue would permanently decamp in Wichita to continue the onslaught of harassment against Tiller. The group pushed dozens of frivolous civil and criminal complaints, mass protests, onerous state and local laws, and a now-disabled page on the group’s website that tracked Tiller’s whereabouts.
The state’s ill-gotten reputation was further cemented when Army of God member Shelley Shannon was convicted of attempted murder in a 1993 shooting assault of Dr. George Tiller. Her 11-year Kansas prison term was followed by a 30-count federal indictment for a clinic arson and acid attack spree in the Pacific Northwest. She was sentenced to a consecutive 20 year term in federal prison.
Kansas resident Scott Roeder would later kill Tiller in an execution-style shooting at a Wichita church May 31. During the trial, Army of God members visited Roeder in jail, served as character witnesses and pushed defense lawyers to present a convoluted Biblical defense justifying the murder as religiously sanctioned.
Operation Rescue disavowed knowledge of Roeder until local news reports of his posts on the group’s web pages that specifically targeted Tiller which were hastily removed. The organization was also forced to backtrack after its policy director Cheryl Sullenger admitted under pressure that she had talked to Roeder leading up to the shooting. Sullenger, herself, served two years in federal prison for a 1987 conspiracy plot to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic.
According to his own testimony, Roeder spent the better part of ten years stalking Tiller while repeatedly vandalizing the Kansas City abortion clinic, Aid to Women.
The very same place that Burke protests. Though, it’s important to note, local clinic staff do not report any known direct connections between him and national extremist groups.
Burke is an army of one.
Competing forces: God and antipsychotics
One of Burke’s first criminal incidents involved storming inside the Comprehensive Health for Women clinic and destroying a wall-mounted television. When three staff members intervened, he physically assaulted them. Court documents relate how Burke broke the receptionist’s jaw after hitting her in the face.
Continuing his apparent Magnavox crusade, he also reportedly demolished televisions in the reception area of Aid to Women and a county detention center, according to clinic director Jeffrey Pederson and court records.
Burke, however, says he regrets the attack on the clinic staff.
“There was one time when I was violent and I’m sorry about that,” he said. As Burke tells it the 1992 incident occurred after he walked away from the state psychiatric hospital and hiked ten miles to the Overland Park clinic. It’s actually 41 miles, according to Google Maps.
But he is not deterred from what he perceives as a personal mission from Jesus to prevent women from using any form contraception, including abortion. He says his duty to obey God is more important than the risk of suffering a federal prison sentence. His biggest fear of incarceration is not being able to take the Sacraments at Holy Communion to atone for his sins.
Burke though differentiates himself from Roeder. “I don’t think that way,” he said explaining that he does not agree with the Biblical defense some anti-choice extremists use to justify clinic violence.
“Nobody gets away with murder. Even Scott Roeder isn’t going to get away with it. And the people who are responsible for abortion are being punished by God just like Paul Hill was.”
Hill, a Presbyterian minister and early member of the Army of God, shot and killed Pensacola, Fla., physician John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett outside the Ladies Center Clinic. Barrett’s wife, June, was wounded in the attack. Hill was convicted of a FACE Act violation and sentenced to life without parole. He was also convicted of state murder charges and received the death penalty. He was executed by lethal injection in 2003. Hill is viewed as a martyr in radical anti-abortion circles.
When laws don’t deter
“There’s a different kind of extreme person out there,” said Sabrina Williams, security director for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, of the protesters, like Burke, who are simply not deterred by a mishmash of local laws that carry light penalties. Planned Parenthood began operating the Comprehensive Health clinic as one of its affiliates in 1997.
“We’ve got to have something that gets these folks attention that says ‘we’re not going to allow this.’”
Burke is relentless, as are many of the most aggressive protesters who are not following the law. Within a day or two of being released from jail for his many trespassing convictions, he immediately returns to the clinic to berate patients and hurl himself in front of the door. And the cycle continued. For years.
Burke now claims that he’s not protesting as much since he has become disabled by psychiatric medication.
Pederson confirmed that Burke’s visits to the Kansas City clinic have become increasingly infrequent though a raft of threatening letters, sometimes signed under the alias “Brother Martin Francis,” document that he has not strayed from his single-minded cause. Williams said Burke continues to protest in Overland Park twice per month on Saturdays. “You can set your watch by it,” she sighed.
That sense of vigilance is critical. Over the years, the Planned Parenthood in Overland Park has invested heavily in security measures to maintain clinic safety to thwart physical altercations. But Williams is circumspect about how much can really be done by clinics alone to hinder Burke’s efforts.
“If he could get into the building again he would be violent,” she fears.
Williams notes that strong working relationships with local law enforcement agencies and domestic terrorism coordination agencies have helped to keep a lid on Kansas City area protests where local Army of God members Regina Dinwoodie and Jonathan O’Toole have long operated.
Overland Park Police spokesman Jim Weaver concurs.
“We respond whenever necessary and we get proactive information from the feds,” said Weaver on the importance of multi-agency collaboration with law enforcement, the joint terrorism taskforce and clinic personnel to maintain public safety. Weaver also keeps in touch with protesters to help maintain a sense of neutrality for all concerned.
Yet for repeat offenders, like Burke, local police have few tools to deter them from continuing to break the law when brief jail terms and small fines are viewed as mere inconveniences and not punishment.
Next: Keeping the Peace. A law enforcement perspective on the FACE Act.