If he had to do it again, Robert Weiler Jr. wouldn’t have told his friend about his plan to blow up the Maryland abortion clinic. That was how he got caught 10 years ago. His friend told Weiler’s parents. His parents told the police. And Weiler, then 25, wound up spending almost five years in federal prison and three more on supervised release.
His regret, he says, is not that he was caught. It is that he didn’t achieve what he set out to do.
“I don’t object to the use of force to stop abortion at all,” Weiler says. “I believe it’s completely justified. If it weren’t for the fact that I’d probably go back to prison, I’d do it myself.”
Now the fervent activist is at the center of a different abortion battle — one that is playing out in the District just as the U.S. Supreme Court considers its most important abortion case in decades.
Weiler and four other abortion opponents are the targets of a closely watched lawsuit filed in December by Two Rivers Public Charter School. The high-performing school in Northeast Washington is seeking to restrict protests by anti-abortion activists of a Planned Parenthood clinic that is being built next door. The lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court charges that beginning last summer, Weiler and the other defendants have harassed students, some as young as 3, and their parents in an effort to halt construction of the clinic, which is scheduled to open its doors this spring.
The suit alleges that the defendants displayed gruesome images of aborted fetuses, held up signs declaring that a “murder facility” was being built next door and yelled at children such things as, “They are going to murder kids right next door if your parents don’t do something about it.”
Tony Goodman, an ANC commissioner and a parent of a 5-year-old kindergartner at the school, says that there was chaos when the protesters began targeting students last fall.
“It was disruptive and terrifying at times,” he said, “to have people yelling at kids right in front of us.” Although his own child was too young to fully understand why the protesters were there, Goodman said that many parents had to have difficult conversations with their children about the abortion issue.
Several of the defendants, including Weiler, have filed motions to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the school is trying to prevent them from exercising their First Amendment right to speak out on a matter of public concern.
An initial hearing has been pushed back until April 29, but the case is already being monitored by abortion providers, pro-life activists, civil libertarians and constitutional lawyers because it raises questions about what restrictions, if any, can be placed on protesters based on the nature of their message and intended audience.
Can activists be told they must limit the content of their protests? Is the nature of the protests causing the children emotional distress and irreparable harm? Can the school keep protesters a certain distance from school grounds? Can a school sue on behalf of its students?
All of these questions are before D.C. Superior Court Judge Jeanette J. Clark. In the meantime, the protesters are allowed to continue their activities at the school and the clinic that is under construction.
For his part, Weiler says that his appearances outside the clinic have been few. In November, he held up a large banner that read “They kill babies nearby! Tell your parents to stop them.” But when he was served with the lawsuit, he took it personally. He returned to the school to protest holding another sign that said “Two Rivers attacks free speech.”
On the issue of abortion, Robert Weiler does not want to be told to be quiet.
If there is an easily imagined stereotype of an avid anti-abortion activist, Weiler doesn’t seem to fit it. He was raised Catholic and later converted to Mormonism, but he says he’s not sure what he believes. Or if he believes. He’s interested in religion, but he doesn’t go to church. In prison he worked in the chapel, but he also formed a Dungeons and Dragons group.
On a February day, Weiler sits drinking a large black coffee at a bustling Starbucks in Forestville, Md., about 15 miles from the clinic that Weiler targeted in 2006. His shaggy black hair is parted on the side. A goatee and wire-rim glasses give him a pensive look. He is of average height with a husky build. A short-sleeved shirt reveals a tattoo of a large cross on his forearm bracketed by the words Tempus Fugit Memento Mori.
“It means ‘time flies, remember death,’ ” Weiler says. “It’s a reminder that we’re all going to die sometime, so we should always be prepared because you never know when that day is coming.”
Weiler describes himself as “mostly liberal” or libertarian. He doesn’t approve of homosexuality, but he doesn’t think “it is any of the government’s damn business.”
One of his favorite television shows is “Big Bang Theory.”
“If you’re into cerebral humor, you’ll love it,” he says.
He’s a fan of heavy metal, but also of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He singles out Cohen’s “My Secret Life.”
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.
Outside of the Starbucks, Weiler lights up a Marlboro 100 cigarette. “One of my very few vices,” he says, smiling.
It was during his high school years at the now-closed Rica-Southern Maryland High School that Weiler became interested in the abortion issue. He saw pictures of aborted fetuses and found them deeply disturbing.
“Before that, I was fairly liberal on the subject,” he says. “I’m still liberal on most social issues.”
For Weiler, there is nothing complex about his opposition to abortion.
“If you actually believe abortion is the taking of innocent life,” he says, “then logically you should believe that the means to defend it are the same means that are used to defend any other human life. When you look at it through that prism, isn’t it okay to destroy a building to save someone else’s life, if you know they’re going to use that building to kill people? Would it be okay to bomb a Nazi gas chamber? It’s a building that’s being used for the express purpose of killing other people. If that’s justified, then why isn’t blowing up an abortion clinic?”
It was that thinking that led to the plot that got Weiler arrested. Following directions gleaned from the Internet, he constructed a pipe bomb that he intended to plant at the clinic, the Metropolitan Family Planning Institute in Greenbelt, Md., in June 2006.
“My goal was basically to destroy the building and, if nothing else, slow down the number of abortions going on there,” Weiler says. But he shared his plan with a friend and, that is when it fell apart. The friend alerted Weiler’s parents, Robert F. Weiler Sr. and his wife, Catherine, and they contacted Prince George’s police.
“It’s just something that he believed in very fervently, and in my opinion he went way over the top,” his father told The Washington Post at the time.
Weiler Jr. surrendered to police, who found a loaded Smith & Wesson .40-caliber pistol in his car. Weiler admitted to investigators that he intended to use the pipe bomb to destroy the clinic and the gun to shoot doctors who performed abortions.
The owner of the clinic declined to be interviewed for this story.
At his first court hearing, Weiler was unrepentant, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Help Cure Abortion” on the front and “ABORTION: The leading cause of death in America” on the back.
The lesson Weiler took away from his arrest and subsequent conviction was that if you’re going to blow up an abortion clinic, be quiet about it.
“Someone told me recently that they thought what I did was a good thing,” he says. “And I told them, ‘Well if you’re ever thinking about doing something like that, make sure you keep it to yourself. Don’t tell anybody. Anybody you tell is somebody who can tell on you.’ ”
Still, Weiler says he understands why his parents turned him in, and they remain close. Weiler and his wife, whom he met on a Mormon singles Web site and married in 2011, are living with his parents at their Forestville home. His parents and his wife declined to be interviewed for this article.
Weiler wants to start a family and expand the moving business he has started. Although he wants to remain involved with the anti-abortion movement, he had planned to spend less time on it. The Two Rivers case has changed that.
The lawsuit filed by Two Rivers against Weiler and his co-defendants — Jonathan Darnel, Lauren Handy, Ruby Nicdao and Larry Cirigano — set off alarms for pro- and anti-abortion groups, free-speech advocates and educators.
“The protesters here have used tactics that we consider shameful,” says Laura Meyers, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. “We condemn tactics that seek to involve children in an adult conversation. I certainly hope that the school community gets the relief it seeks.”
But national conservative groups that have offered pro-bono legal support to the protesters, including the Liberty Counsel and the Thomas More Society view the lawsuit as an attack on the First Amendment.
“It is a public sidewalk, and public sidewalks are open for expressive activity,” says Mathew Staver, the chairman of the Liberty Counsel, which is representing Cirigano and also represents Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. “The First Amendment has to protect robust speech, even if we vigorously disagree with it.”
At the March for Life earlier this year, thousands of pro-life demonstrators marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. It was a cold day, and flurries signaled an oncoming blizzard. Near the corner of the Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, the marchers were greeted by a small group of counterprotesters. But they were not pro-choice advocates. This group was criticizing the marchers for not being committed enough.
Two men held up a large banner that asked, “Is this the only pro-life thing you’ll do all year?”
One of the men was Jonathan Darnel, a 34-year-old tutor and anti-abortion activist who is also named in the Two Rivers lawsuit. The other man holding the banner was Weiler.
The two met three years ago and have built a relationship around anti-abortion activities. Weiler’s past initially gave Darnel concern.
“You don’t want to be involved too closely with somebody who has done something dangerous, something you wouldn’t do,” Darnel says. “But he’s very open about it. It’s not like he hid it or anything. At the events where I’ve met him, he has never done anything violent or shown any kind of erratic tendency towards anybody. So, I have to take his past in concert with what I see with him in the present.”
Weiler, too, is trying to reconcile his past and his present. He still believes violence against abortion providers is justified. But he doesn’t want to go back to prison.
He’s asked the question that he says he’s pondered before. Could the abortion battle in the United States reach a point where he felt he needed to take action again?
“I don’t know,” Weiler says. “I have no idea.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.