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  Sniper Kills Abortion Doctor Near Buffalo

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page A01

AMHERST, N.Y., Oct. 24—A sniper wielding a high-powered rifle from the cover of darkness shot and killed a well-known abortion doctor Friday night just days after U.S. and Canadian police warned of such an attack, citing four previous shootings against abortion doctors at this time of year in Canada and upstate New York.

Barnett Slepian, 52, was killed by a single shot fired through a window as he stood in the kitchen of his home about 10 p.m. in this Buffalo suburb, police said today. Slepian, for years a defiant target of antiabortion protesters here, had just returned from a synagogue with his wife and four sons, aged seven to 15, Amherst police said.

Police said the fatal shot was fired from a wooded area behind Slepian's home and crashed through a kitchen window before mortally wounding him. His wife called emergency personnel, who took Slepian to nearby Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m.

The murder shocked activists on both sides of the volatile abortion issue, not only because of its cold-blooded execution, but also because it bore eerie similarities to a series of sniper attacks that have wounded four abortion doctors here in the border region over the past four years. In each of those cases, the doctors were fired on with high-powered rifles through the windows of their homes at approximately this time of year.

Those shootings prompted formation of a joint U.S.-Canadian investigative task force, which last Tuesday warned abortion doctors in upstate New York and Canada to be wary of possible attacks. "The U.S.-Canadian task force has been investigating this string of shootings for over a year," said a spokesman for Canada's Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police Service.

President Clinton, Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and a number of abortion rights activists denounced the murder of Slepian, an obstetrician and gynecologist who refused to stop offering abortions in the face of death threats and furious protests that have sharply reduced the availability of abortions in western New York state.

"No matter where we stand on the issue of abortion, all Americans must stand together in condemning this tragic and brutal act," Clinton said.

Attorney General Janet Reno also condemned the murder, calling it an "outrage. We will do whatever it takes to track down and prosecute whoever is responsible for this murder," Reno said. She added that federal officials are "actively investigating" that Slepian was murdered because of his abortion work.

Pataki said the killer should face the death penalty, adding: "It's beyond a tragedy. It's really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination."

National abortion rights leaders expressed anger at the attack, the latest in a string of bombings, shootings and other violent assaults carried out against abortion providers.

"The cold-blooded assassination of Dr. Slepian is a shocking example of just how far some opponents of abortion and reproductive rights will go to deny women their constitutional right to choose," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Abortion rights activists said Slepian appears to be the seventh person killed in the United States by antiabortion extremists since 1993. The most recent murder occurred in January, when an off-duty police officer was killed in a bomb explosion at a Birmingham abortion clinic. The suspect in that incident, Eric Rudolph, is still at large, having eluded his pursuers in the mountains of North Carolina.

In the wake of Slepian's murder, Planned Parenthood of New York City said its clinics have been put on "an increased state of security alert."

Slepian, a figure both beloved and reviled here for two decades, had long been a target of antiabortion protesters. He temporarily closed his Amherst office in 1992 during "Spring of Life," a massive protest by the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue in the Buffalo area.

At the time, Slepian told colleagues that he closed the office to avoid having protesters inconvenience other doctors in his building. He said he would continue to perform abortions at a clinic in Buffalo.

Operation Rescue's national director, the Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham, told Reuters that Slepian had "murdered countless thousands of innocent children." Still, he said, his group did not support Slepian's killing.

Through the years, Slepian has made it clear that he was determined not to let protesters or the threats that frequently brought police to his home deter him. In 1988, Slepian was charged with assault after allegedly using a baseball bat to smash the windows of a van that had carried a band of antiabortion protesters to his home. Before the incident, protesters reportedly taunted Slepian, calling him "murderer," while he and his family opened Hanukah gifts in their home.

About 200 mourners attended a candlelight vigil outside Slepian's office tonight. During the brief ceremony, speakers vowed not to be intimidated by the doctor's slaying. They also said they will always remember Slepian not only as a man with the courage to stand in the face of harassment, but as simply a good doctor. "He was a kind, gentle, sweet man," said Candy Stiles, a patient of Slepian's for 15 years. "He took wonderful care of people."

Special correspondent Jennifer Adach in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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