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Investigation into Casper abortion clinic arson at a standstill

It has been seven months since someone set fire to an abortion clinic in Casper amid fierce national debates over reproductive rights.

A Casper Police Officer stands in front of the Wellspring Health Access clinic on Wednesday, May 25, in Casper after suspected arson and vandalism occurred. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News File)

Police have no active leads on the May fire at Wellspring Health Access.

 Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

It has been seven months since someone set fire to an abortion clinic in Casper amid fierce national debates over reproductive rights.

Detective Andrew Linkowski with the Casper Police Department said the case is still on his desk, and he’s still working with analysts, an agent from the FBI and another from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

At the moment, however, they don’t have any active leads.

“There’s not a whole lot more we can do right now,” he said.

The fire

Wellspring Health Access’s founder announced plans in April to open the Casper facility, laying the groundwork for the state’s second active abortion clinic. That came a month after Gov. Mark Gordon signed a “trigger bill” into law that would ban most abortions in Wyoming if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

By May 2, a draft decision to overturn Roe was leaked from the high court, but the clinic persisted, planning to open over the summer to provide abortions as well as other health services. 

But in the early hours of May 25, a neighbor called police after hearing glass break and watching someone leave the area with a gas can and black bag. 

Police responded at 3:49 a.m., according to a report, “located a broken window on the north side of the business building and observed smoke coming from the northeast corner of the building. Officers immediately requested support from Casper Fire-EMS who responded to the scene.”

The facility incurred serious damages in the blaze and was forced to delay opening. Months after the fact, there have been no arrests and the clinic remains closed. Wellspring is working to open a mobile clinic to park in front of the burnt facility while it’s being repaired.

Security cameras captured video of the arsonist. The video shows a woman in a dark hoodie and mask, which she pulls down for a moment. 

Surveillance image showing an individual law enforcement suspect. (Casper Police Department)

Despite the visual evidence, Linkowski said images of the shrouded woman haven’t led anywhere. Investigators also followed tips, he said, but those haven’t led to solid evidence, either. 

“If someone gets physical evidence, we can use the video to help confirm who it is,” he said. “Arsons are historically very difficult to investigate.”

According to national crime data compiled by the FBI, only about 21% of arson investigations ended in arrest in 2021. Part of the problem is evidence going up in flames.

Many crimes are perpetrated by someone a victim knew or had connections with, Linkowski said. Arson, however, can be politically motivated, he said, and people without ties to the community may travel long distances to commit the crime. 

“There’s no telling if this person is even from Casper,” Linkowski said. 

Detective Linkowski pointed to the fire set at an abortion clinic in Jackson in 1993. The perpetrator of that crime lived in Washington state and wasn’t arrested for three years.

Jackson clinic

Dr. Brent Blue ran that facility, Emerg-A-Care Medical Clinic, and he remembers both the fire and the man behind it.

“This guy was going across the country doing these firebombings,” Blue said. “And he apparently got stopped on a traffic violation.”

Richard T. Andrews was 58 when he was arrested in 1996. He had firebombed seven abortion clinics across Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and California between January 1992 and September 1995. He burned one clinic in Redding, California, twice.

“His vehicle matched the description of a car leaving the scene of one of the arsons,” U.S. Department of Justice documents state. “Police found plastic 5-gallon containers filled with gasoline, addresses of clinics in Fresno and Spokane, and other objects consistent with materials used in all of the eight arsons.”

Even though it took years for police to catch Andrews, Dr. Blue remembers some positives that came directly after the fire. 

“It’s one of those things that, when it happened to me, I certainly appreciated the community support,” he said. 

If the fire had caused him to quit, he said, then those terrorizing abortion clinics would win. So he persisted. 

Rising out of the ashes

Julie Burkhart is founder and president of Wellspring Health Access, the Casper clinic that burned. In a statement, she expressed gratitude to people in Casper for supporting her in the fire’s aftermath.

“In the wake of the horrible arson attack, the outpouring of support from the Casper community reminded us at Wellspring why we do this work,” Burkhart said. “Our Community Advisory Committee, made up of local people in Casper who care deeply about this issue, have been by our side since the beginning, and even volunteered to guard the clinic in the wake of the arson attack.”

Burkhart added that her clinic remains “confident in law enforcement and hope[s] that the new year will bring us closer to justice in this matter.”

Arson at abortion clinics has a long history, according to the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers. Since 1977, NAF tallied 196 instances of arson at clinics, with the majority occurring in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. 

While the number of arsons hasn’t gone up much in recent years, the NAF has foundseveral metrics — ranging from stalking to assault — are increasing rapidly at clinics.

Since 1977, the NAF also lists 11 murders, 42 bombings, 491 assaults and thousands of other crimes directed at clinics, staff and patients. 

Burkhart with Wellspring was a close colleague of abortion provider George Tiller in Kansas. An anti-abortion activist shot and killed Tiller, one of the few abortion providers offering later-term procedures, while Tiller was ushering at his church in 2009. 

“Wyomingites deserve access to reproductive health care, including abortion care, and Wellspring is committed to working with our vast number of supporters in the state who want to see this clinic open,” Burkhart stated. 

Wellspring is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion ban. That suit recently moved back to the Ninth District Court in Jackson after the Wyoming Supreme Court declined to take up a dozen constitutional questions posed by the suit so far.

As of Tuesday, there were no dates set for hearings in that suit to proceed.

If you have any tips about the arson at the abortion clinic, you can call the Casper Police Department at (307) 235-8278. 

You can also contact ATF, which is offering a $5,000 reward for tips leading to the arrest of a suspect in the case. The agency takes tips via phone at (307) 633-9400 or (888) 283-8477, email at ATFTips@atf.gov or through ATF’s website at atf.gov/contact/atftips.

People can also submit information anonymously. Those tips can be sent to Crime Stoppers of Central Wyoming at crime-stoppers.com or by calling (307) 577-8477. Anonymous tipsters can also use the Reportit® app or visit www.reportit.com.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.