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Murder of New York abortion doctor denounced as 'terrorism'

Scene
Local police and the FBI investigate at the house where Slepian was shot to death  

Reno vows to do 'whatever it takes' to track down killer

In this story:

October 24, 1998
Web posted at: 9:03 p.m. EDT (0103 GMT)

AMHERST, New York (CNN) -- A doctor who performed abortions was shot to death by a sniper in his western New York home Friday night in an attack denounced as "terrorism" by the state's governor.

"It's beyond a tragedy. It's really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination," Gov. George Pataki said of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian.

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In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a statement saying federal law enforcement officials "will do whatever it takes to track down and prosecute whoever is responsible for this murder."

While local police have not discussed a motive, Reno said the Justice Department is "actively investigating the possibility that Dr. Slepian was murdered because of his work providing abortion service."

"The federal government will continue its vigilant defense of constitutionally protected rights to provide and to obtain reproductive health service," Reno said.

Shooter remains at large

Slepian, 51, who has been the target of anti-abortion protesters since the 1980s, was killed by a single bullet fired through his kitchen window at about 10 p.m. EDT, as he and his family returned from synagogue to their home in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo. His wife and four sons were not injured.

Slepian
Slepian  

Slepian's killer fired from behind a backyard fence. A helicopter search for the suspect was fruitless, and the shooter remained at large Saturday.

The slaying came just days after authorities warned abortion providers in the area to be on guard for possible violence. Since 1994, there have been four other sniper attacks -- one in Rochester and three across the border in Canada -- that all took place in early autumn.

None of the previous attacks killed anyone. All occurred within weeks of November 11, Veterans Day.

"There's some type of connection on the date. We don't know what it is," said Inspector David Bowen of the Hamilton-Wentworth police department in Ontario.

Doctors in area were given warning

Royal Canadian Mounted Police officials have said they believe the same people were responsible for all of the earlier attacks. On Tuesday, Canadian and American authorities issued safety tips to abortion providers throughout the region.

"They were told to stay away from windows that weren't covered with curtains or blinds and to be aware of their surroundings and anything suspicious at their clinics," said Frank Olesko, Amherst's assistant police chief.

On Saturday, security was stepped up at Buffalo GYN Women's Services, the clinic where Slepian worked and the only clinic providing abortions in Buffalo.

Slepian "was one of the few physicians with the integrity to stand up for what he believed in," said clinic spokeswoman Susan Ward. "He was a strong supporter of women's right to choose. He had some fearfulness, I'm sure, but he was determined to continue the work he was doing and was not going to let extremists interfere."

Abortion rights forces call for more protection

Outraged by Slepian's death, abortion rights advocates called on law enforcement officials to step up their protection of doctors and clinics who provide abortions to women.

Slepian and patient
Slepian practiced at a women's clinic in Buffalo  

"We are very upset. We are seeing extremists using bullets and bombs to get their way in our democracy," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We believe the authorities must consider this political terrorism and act as if it is."

"No matter where we stand on the issue of abortion, all Americans must stand together in condemning this tragic and brutal act," President Clinton, an abortion-rights supporter, said in a statement from the White House.

"For anyone to take it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner is nothing but sheer evil," said Karen Swallow Prior, who is running for lieutenant governor of New York on the ticket of the anti-abortion Right-to-Life Party.

The Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, another anti-abortion group, said his organization did not support Slepian's killing, even though the doctor "murdered countless thousands of innocent children."

"He has been a killer for a long time .... (but) I am sad to learn of his death," Benham said.

Doctor targeted by Operation Rescue in 1992

Slepian has been the target of anti-abortion protesters since the 1980s. In 1988, as his family opened gifts during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, protesters in front of his home taunted him, calling him a "murderer." An altercation ensued in which one of the protesters claimed Slepian attacked him with a baseball bat.

Protesters
Slepian had been the target of anti-abortion protesters since the 1980s  

A misdemeanor assault charge against Slepian was settled in March 1989. The doctor paid about $400 for repairs to a van and for part of the man's medical bills.

In 1992, Slepian closed his Amherst office during a protest by Operation Rescue in the Buffalo area. At the time, he said he closed the office to avoid inconveniencing other doctors in his building, but he vowed to continue providing abortions at his Buffalo clinic.

"He said, 'They're not going to scare me. They're not going to threaten me,'" said Harvey Rogers, Slepian's lawyer.

As police looked for clues Saturday, neighbors lamented the loss of a friendly guy who always built elaborate Halloween displays.

"This is sad, to kill someone to prove a point,' said neighbor Suby Shastry. "He has a family, too. Killing someone doesn't solve a problem."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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