Federal investigators have found evidence that Sunday morning’s fire at an Olympia clinic where abortions are performed was started intentionally, and they now are searching for the culprit.
They have a few suspects, but none is in custody, Olympia Fire Capt. Kate McDonald said.
The person or persons responsible so far have not been linked to any organization that opposes abortion, said Scott Thomasson, a special agent with the Seattle office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is investigating the arson.
“It seems to be a random act at this time,” Thomasson said.
The arson is a federal crime, however, because the Eastside Women’s Health Clinic is a federally funded health care center, the ATF agent said. The arson does not constitute an act of domestic terrorism, and the FBI, which was investigating the crime Sunday, is no longer involved, Thomasson said.
The arsonist or arsonists ignited the roof of the clinic about 2 a.m. Sunday. Thomasson would not say what was used to start the fire.
Clinic co-owner Shelley Pacheco was tearful for a moment after ATF agents broke the news of the arson, but quickly grew resolute.
“I’m not going to be kicked down that easily,” Pacheco said. “I don’t feel that sense of fear.”
The clinic’s other owner, Nancy Armstrong, said she didn’t think the crime was random.
“The first thing that comes to mind is they’re anti-abortion,” Armstrong said.
If it’s not random, this would be the first time the clinic has been sabotaged in the five years the two women have run it, they said.
It’s the first arson at a Washington abortion clinic since 2001, when a clinic in Spokane was targeted, Thomasson said.
The Olympia clinic does draw picketers every Thursday, Armstrong said. That’s the day the clinic does abortions.
“They harass those patients” as well as patients who come in for cervical cancer surgery, she said.
The picketers have been a fixture since Pat Shively started the business in 1981. Armstrong and Pacheco were clinic employees who bought it from Shively before she died of ovarian cancer in February 2000.
Shively’s three daughters remember living in fear of what abortion protesters might do to them or their mother.
“(My mother) wore a bulletproof vest to work,” said Shively’s daughter, Allison Wolfe. “She carried a Glock (handgun) in a fanny pack.”
Wolfe recalled a weekend when every clinic worker had a pet die or nearly die — they think someone poisoned them. She recalled a death threat her mother got and a day someone set fire to a piece of paper on the front door of their home.
“She worked late, and there were a lot of times when people would throw rocks at the windows (of our house),” said Wolfe. “We would lie on the floors scared.”
But the girls grew up believing the risks were worth it, as their mother did, Wolfe said.
“She thought it was important to have a clinic for women, by women and have it be a feminist atmosphere. She was definitely a pro-choice activist,” said Wolfe. “(Armstrong and Pacheco) were good friends with my mother, and they wanted to continue the tradition. It was important to all of them.”
The clinic now has two practitioners and one physician who serve 30 to 40 patients a day, men and women. For many of those people, it’s their primary care facility, said Armstrong.
The fire does not seem to have spread much beyond the roof: A passer-by called 9-1-1, and the Olympia Fire Department put out the fire within 15 minutes of arriving at the clinic at 2 a.m. Sunday.
And although Armstrong expects the damage to cost more than $100,000, especially if smoke and water harmed expensive medical equipment, she thinks the center will re-open quickly.
“They didn’t accomplish anything. They didn’t bring us down,” she said of the arsonists. “Our patients shouldn’t feel afraid. We will create a safe environment.”
The Olympia Police Department is working with the ATF as they investigate the arson.
ATF agents sifted through debris on the roof of the building and scoured a field behind the clinic and nearby woods Monday. They are taking evidence back to their Maryland lab to investigate further.
The clinic’s owners will be allowed back inside the building this morning, when they can assess the damage and decide how long it might take them to reopen. In the meantime, they are looking into temporary space for clinicians to see patients.