Priest rams Illinois abortion clinic, attacks building with ax, police say

Sunday, October 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROCKFORD, Ill. – A Catholic priest smashed his car into an abortion clinic Saturday morning, then chopped at the building with an ax until the owner fired two shotgun blasts to stop him, police said.

The clinic was not open, and nobody was injured in the attack, which came just two days after federal approval of the abortion pill RU-486.

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A man drove through a door at the Abortion Access-Northern Illinois Women's Center in Rockford, about 85 miles northwest of Chicago, about 8:15 a.m. He was swinging an ax when the clinic's owner fired a 12-gauge shotgun twice. He did not hit the man.

The Rev. John Earl, 32, was arrested and charged with burglary and felony criminal damage to property, said Deputy Police Chief Dominic Iasparro. He was released on $10,000 bail.

The building owner, Gerald W. "Wayne" Webster, 56, has rented space to the clinic for 15 years. He sometimes sleeps in the building for security. No one else was inside Saturday.

Police said Mr. Webster's shotgun was legal, and he will face no charges.

"He came at me with an ax over his head," Mr. Webster told reporters. "He would have chopped my head off if I wouldn't have been armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. I thank God and my shotgun that I'm alive."

Father Earl has been pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Rochelle, about 30 miles south of Rockford, for about a year. Parishioners said he was respected by the congregation.

Parishioner Bill Cipolla said that Father Earl sometimes spoke about abortion, but he would not have considered him a radical.

Abortion providers are usually on alert for violence after abortion-related news, such as this week's approval of RU-486 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation.

"We haven't received any specific threats, but anytime abortion is in the headlines, we issue an alert to our clinics to take precautions because there is the potential for increased violence," she said.

Father Earl did not reach the clinic offices with the ax, so damage was confined to the exterior overhead door that he crashed through and woodwork in a hallway, Chief Iasparro said.

The clinic houses the office of Dr. Richard Ragsdale, who said there have been vocal protests outside the clinic in the last four or five months.