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  Turning From 'Weapon of the Spirit' to the Shotgun

By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 1994; Page A01

PENSACOLA, FLA. -- Paul Hill spent his life crossing lines, veering abruptly from one view of the world to another.

On July 29, the minister turned auto pin-striper crossed a new line and ended up in the purgatory of Escambia County jail.

Police have charged Hill, 40, with first-degree murder in the shotgun killing of an abortion clinic physician and his escort.

Were there foreshadowings? That is always the question. In his middle-class youth, for a time, Hill let his blond hair grow long, used drugs and raised hell. Then, in a muddy swimming pool baptism, he found Jesus. He dated enthusiastically, watched what he ate, went through a body-builder phase. Later, he had his wife put him through seminary, but then he failed as a minister.

Still, neither longtime acquaintances nor, more recently, wary law enforcement officials sensed the turn from what Hill called the "weapon of the spirit" to the black pump-action shotgun. Even when he abruptly began to advocate the murder of abortion doctors, about 15 months ago, Hill vowed he would not commit such an act himself. Both friends and adversaries generally believed him.

"He has a frightening ... grin plastered on his face all the time," said Dallas Blanchard of the University of West Florida, author of a book on the Christian antiabortion movement. "The combination of the grin and this little gleam in his eye seemed to say, 'Here's a dangerous person'... . But I thought he was a ... coward."

"Until about a month ago, he never crossed the line," said special agent William Charles "Charlie" Griffith of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who had been assigned to keep an eye on Hill (along with other extremists) since March 1993.

And yet, here are the stark facts of that morning nine days ago, as described by witnesses, Pensacola Police Department officials and Incident Report No. 94-04266:

By 7 a.m., Hill had taken up his usual protest station on the front lines of the abortion wars -- outside the weathered wood fence around the small, two-story clinic. He had been coming to The Ladies Center almost every Friday for a year.

The street is heavily traveled, with a supermarket, drugstore and numerous fast food outlets nearby.

Officer Bruce Martin, on patrol duty, found Hill that morning laying white crosses along the right-of-way at the clinic entrance. Martin asked Hill to move the crosses and he did so.

Shortly before 7:30 a.m., abortion doctor John Britton, 69, arrived for regular duty at the clinic, wearing a bulletproof vest. Driving the blue pickup truck was his unarmed volunteer escort, retired Air Force Col. James H. Barrett, 74, and Barrett's wife, June, 68, a retired nurse who also volunteers as a protective escort.

As they passed Hill, Barrett muttered, "Get out of the way, Paul Hill. You know us. You know this truck." They drove through the entrance and into the parking area behind the wood fence.

June Barrett noticed that Hill "had something up to his face," she told interviewers last week. "I did not realize it was a gun. Then I saw the recoil ... and heard the boom."

She hit the floor as a spray of glass shards exploded through the truck's cabin. "Oh, my God, he's shooting," she cried.

The doctor still sat upright in the passenger seat. But she saw a pool of blood forming near his head, and dripping between the seats. The shotgun blasts had caught both men in the head.

June Barrett had been wounded in the forearm and breast, and she also felt blood running down her legs from glass splinter wounds. She saw her husband lying on the ground beside the vehicle. The police would not let her near him to say goodbye.

Still on patrol nearby, Officer Martin responded to the report of the shooting. He saw Hill walking south toward him as he approached the clinic with his lights and siren on. Following Hill were three or four men who "began to wave frantically to draw my attention ... pointing towards {Hill}."

Martin stopped his patrol car in front of Hill, drew his gun, ordered Hill to the ground. Just as he responded when Martin had directed him to move his crosses about a half hour earlier, Hill complied and was handcuffed.

Martin found three spent shotgun shells at the entrance to the clinic property. Another officer soon found a black pump-action shotgun behind the trunk of a spreading oak that shades the property.

It takes only 10 minutes to drive from the manicured lawns of Confederate Drive, where Hill lived a seemingly comfortable existence with his wife and three children, to The Ladies Center, the focus of his personal jihad.

This glimpse of his bizarre pilgrimage comes from dozens of friends, fellow parishioners, activists on both sides of the abortion fight, law enforcement officials and others who knew him.

Paul Jennings Hill was born in Miami on Feb. 6, 1954, the son of Oscar Jennings Hill, an airline pilot, and his wife, Louise. Paul was raised in nearby Coral Gables.

Jeff Sloman, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Brevard County, grew up two doors away from the Hill family. "Paul was a serious type of guy, but I always felt that he was unconcerned with the consequences of things that he did," such as scaling the roof of a school. While others would worry, "he was kind of emotionless, and quite content with himself."

One occasion stuck vividly in Sloman's memory. Paul had a dog named Randy. "Once, when Paul was about 13, he called the dog and was getting him to roll over and he had him on his back and he pried his mouth open like a lion tamer. He spit in the dog's throat... . It wasn't a mean thing to do; it was just strange."

Sloman said Paul's father seemed very proud of him. "When Paul made the football team {at Coral Gables Senior High}, his dad came over to my house and ... was just busting out with pride. Not long after that, Paul quit the team."

Bob Travis went to junior high and high school with Hill, and both families attended Granada Presbyterian Church. In junior high, Paul was not yet interested in religion.

"He was interested in girls," Travis said. "He was very popular, he had long blond hair, he was carefree and rebellious back then. He was, however, a strong-willed person. He had a very fast-paced walk, a deliberate walk."

Once, Travis said, "he saved me from getting beat up by some bullies. Paul walked up and because he was big he got them to stop."

By high school, Paul Hill had become a member of the '60s counterculture. According to a Coral Gables police report (first disclosed in the Pensacola News Journal and confirmed by police): In April 1971, when Hill was 17, his father signed a warrant charging him with assault. The police report said Hill's parents took the action to get their son treatment for a drug problem.

When police searched Hill, a small bag of marijuana fell from his clothing, and his father turned over 11 more such bags, the report said. "Paul Hill's attitude has been getting worse and violent since he has returned home from the last incident," the report said. The earlier incident was not described. Hill's parents, now living in Atlanta, have declined to comment. At least one of Paul's friends said he has not been in touch with them for years.

John Leonard was a student in Paul Hill's class at Coral Gables High School and attended Granada Church. Now a Presbyterian missionary, based in France but teaching in Orlando for a year, he recalled last week Hill's description of his conversion in 1973.

"He said he had been working construction and they were cleaning out the mud and filth from a swimming pool and some guy was telling him to accept the Lord. He didn't think much about it.

"But when he got home, while he was washing the filth off of himself, he prayed to receive Christ and he was converted just like that. There was no warming up to it ... no gradual withdrawal from his drug lifestyle. It was immediate and complete."

As he told Leonard about his conversion, Hill also confided that he had earlier used marijuana and LSD. "He told me that he had had a couple of bad trips on LSD."

Hill did not drop his old friends. "He got along well with non-Christians, he mixed well."

Leonard and Hill roomed together for almost four years beginning in 1973, when they enrolled in Bellhaven College, a Christian liberal arts college in Jackson, Miss.

"Paul got up every morning at 4 a.m. for devotions and Bible study alone for two or three hours.

"He was hypoglycemic and if he ate the wrong thing it would throw him off." (Hypoglycemia is a low blood sugar condition that can be mild, with symptoms such as sweating or headaches, or it can lead to aggressive or uncooperative behavior.)

Hill had a very structured lifestyle, and "no tolerence for gray," Leonard said. "Everybody liked him, but ... he went to the extreme on everything. He was a body builder and he was extreme about that. When he got into health food, he became a fanatic. No one could ever change his mind about anything."

Hill tried to be the model Christian.

"Once, we had an argument because I had gone over the speed limit, because if I disobeyed authority, it was un-Christian," Leonard said. "Paul didn't come up with his opinions casually. He always thought about everything."

The two friends hunted and fished together. "He wasn't sadistic or violent, he enjoyed guns for sport."

In his senior year of college, Hill met his future wife, Karen Denise Demuth. He had just broken up with another steady girlfriend who suggested he go out with Karen, a certified public accountant (CPA).

The two were married in May 1978 in West Memphis, Ark.

Hill went from college to the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He arrived in the midst of a controversy about Theonomy, the belief that God's law supersedes the laws of government, and he joined St. Paul Presbyterian Church, which espoused Theonomy. The pastor was his friend Michael Schneider, who had preached at the Hills' wedding.

Equipped with a Master of Divinity degree from the seminary, Hill in March 1984 was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Between 1984 and 1989, the Hills lived in Kingstree, S.C., where Paul was pastor of two Presbyterian churches before switching his allegiance to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and being assigned to a church in Lake Worth, Fla., where he served as pastor through 1990.

But he was restless, impatient and confrontational as a pastor. In the end, he concluded that was not his true calling. He had also developed a strong belief that young children should be able to take communion, a belief not widely held in Christian churches.

Once again, he was drawn to a church where the pastor was his friend Michael Schneider, Trinity Presbyterian in Valparaiso. At Trinity, little children take the bread and wine, or grape juice, of communion as young as they are physically able.

There was no work for Hill close to the church, Schneider said, so the Hills moved to Pensacola, just over an hour away.

In early October 1992, Paul and Karen Hill purchased the white brick ranch house on Confederate Drive, a well-tended neighborhood shaded by tall oaks and pines. County records indicate they paid $76,500 cash.

Hill also bought an auto paint franchise. Like a number of such independent suppliers in the area, he operated out of the back of his truck, mixing the paints there. His services might include painting delicate lines called pin stripes, washing and cleaning, fitting chrome moldings and repairing vinyl.

Special agent Griffith said he had tried to talk to Hill once while he was on a job at a dealership. But Hill "flat told me he never talked to law enforcement. Anyway, most of the major dealers used Hill, but once they found out who he was, they decided it wasn't worth it." Independent artisans such as Hill typically make $30,000 to $35,000 a year, according to one dealer. Another said a real hustler might make $80,000.

This question arises because no one is sure how the Hills managed to afford their house, the auto paint franchise and Paul's protest activities, which included some travel.

Karen had a good income as a CPA, friends said, but in recent years she had given up her outside career to provide home schooling for the older children, 8 and 6. The youngest is 4.

During his years as a minister, Hill probably made no more than $30,000 a year, according to fellow ministers, although some churches provide a place to live.

In any case, such concerns no longer seemed to matter to Paul Hill after March 10, 1993. That's the day the first Pensacola abortion clinic doctor, David Gunn, was shot to death. The act galvanized Hill. Once again his life turned sharply. Within days, he contacted the Phil Donahue show and declared himself the new national spokesman for abortionist killers, whoever they might be. He appeared on ABC's "Nightline" and CNN's "Sonya Live." Abortion activists -- on both sides -- had never heard of him.

On March 15, 1993, Hill told Donahue on nationwide TV that if someone were killing children on a playground, "if you were to come up behind that man and shoot him in the back three times, you would have protected and saved innocent life from undue harm."

He said, "I'm advocating the consistent theology of the Bible, and that is that we must protect innocent life." He equated killing an abortionist with killing Hitler and said that a woman who has an abortion is "an accessory to murder."

His fellow antiabortion parishioners at Trinity were troubled. They went to their pastor and said they were having trouble refuting the theological logic of Hill's arguments.

After wrestling with the issue for several weeks, the church elders excommunicated Hill.

In March, he was a constant presence at the trial where a chemical plant worker was convicted of killing Gunn. There is no evidence that Hill knew him.

After the trial, some acquaintances have suggested that Hill was disappointed as the spotlight moved away and public attention wandered elsewhere.

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, said that, in the midst of confrontations over abortion, he had engaged Hill in several stimulating discussions of their opposing views. "He was disarming, civil, articulate."

But Hill "had a thing about cameras," he added. "He knew where every camera was. He really got into the media thing. I'm sure he's thrilled today his picture's on the front page."

In June, Hill turned up the volume. He took to screaming "Mommy, mommy don't kill me," over the fence at patients at The Ladies Center. Pensacola police charged him with disorderly conduct and violation of the noise ordinance, but he did not go to jail.

Two weeks ago, two days before the killings, the Pensacola News Journal published a letter to the editor from Karen Hill, complaining about city police officers moonlighting as clinic guards. "These officers have abortion money in their pockets as they arrest pro-lifers," she said.

Police responded that they are trained to be neutral.

Neighbors have told reporters that Karen and the children were in North Carolina when the shootings occurred.

At the end of the Hills' shaded driveway, a basketball goal hangs limp. In a small shed, a blue powerboat on a trailer, a small red wagon and a child's bicycle sit idle.

There are a few -- a priest in Mobile, an activist in Jackson -- who openly echo Hill's grisly dogma. But their crusade may not have the desired effect.

On Tuesday, outside the clinic where Gunn was shot, there was an interlude in the war. A volunteer escort who supports abortion rights and an antiabortion protester chatted briefly as they passed each other. As they talked, they found common ground in their determination to watch for the next terrorist in their midst -- on either side.

The two old adversaries hugged.

Special correspondent Anne Day contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post

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