Doctor is slain by sniper in N.Y. Physician performed abortions in Buffalo

his clinic was warned

Attack continues pattern in area

October 25, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician with a practice in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., returned home from synagogue Friday night with his wife, Lynn, and greeted his four sons. Then he stepped into his kitchen, where a sniper's bullet crashed through a back window and struck him in the chest, police said.

He fell to the floor, calling for help, but he died within two hours.

Slepian was one of a handful of doctors who provide abortions in the Buffalo area.

Law enforcement officials said yesterday that his slaying was the most deadly example of what they described as an annual pattern of anti-abortion violence in Canada and western New York. Slepian had endured years of picketing and harassment; earlier on Friday he had received a warning about possible attacks against abortion providers.

Slepian, 51, is the third doctor who performed abortions to be killed in the United States since 1993. In the past four years, three Canadian doctors and a doctor in Rochester, N.Y., all of whom performed abortions, were wounded by snipers. Each of the shootings occurred within a few weeks of Nov. 11, Veterans Day, known as Remembrance Day in Canada.

President Clinton said yesterday that he was "outraged" by the killing of Slepian and that the Justice Department is working with local authorities to track down the killer.

New York Gov. George Pataki said the killer should face the death penalty.

"It's beyond a tragedy -- it's really an actof terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination," Pataki said in Buffalo.

Susan Ward, a spokeswoman for Buffalo GYN Women's Services, the private clinic where Slepian performed abortions, said the National Abortion Federation had faxed a warning to the clinic Friday morning reminding them about the pattern of attacks. Ward said the fax was sent to Slepian at his office in Amherst.

"He was aware of the threat," she said. "Around this time of year, there had been shootings."

Amherst police said the timing of the shootings was not the only similarity. In each case, police said a gunman, using a high-powered rifle, fired through a window into the home of the target. Last November, a doctor in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was shot in the shoulder by a bullet fired through a window.

Assistant Police Chief Frank Olesko said local investigators, FBI agents and Canadian authorities were looking at the possibility that the same gunman could be responsible for all of the shootings. A task force of several Canadian and U.S. law enforcement agencies has been investigating the attacks for more than a year.

National abortion rights advocates expressed concern that the killing signaled a renewed escalation of violence against abortion providers.

The gunman who shot Slepian apparently hid in a strip of woods behind the house, then fired a single shot from a high-powered rifle, Olesko said. Local police, FBI agents and Canadian investigators searched the woods yesterday, but the identity and whereabouts of the suspect remained unknown.

Shalom Press, another Amherst doctor who performs abortions and who had known Slepian for years, said, "He believed women had the right to have an abortion, and he followed his conscience."

The slaying comes more than six years after anti-abortion protesters descended on Buffalo. In April 1992, the city was the setting for a coordinated series of "Spring of Life" protests led by members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

Nearly 200 protesters were arrested during one demonstration, and abortion rights groups held counter protests. Police said Slepian was one of the doctors singled out by picketers.

In interviews with the Buffalo News, Slepian said he took the rhetoric of abortion opponents seriously.

In April 1993, one month after the shooting death of a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider, David Gunn, Slepian spoke about the vulnerability of doctors who provide abortions.

In 1995, he told the News: "When you're using words like 'kill' and 'murder,' that's where it can lead. If the rosary-holding churchgoers and the bishop don't think that's true, they're fooling themselves."

Slepian divided his practice between the clinic in Buffalo and his private office in Amherst.

Ward, the clinic spokeswoman, said he had worked at that and other clinics for 15 years.

"He has been harassed right in front of his house," she said. "His children have been harassed." She called him a courageous man who followed his principles.

A woman from Attica, N.Y., who identified herself only as Susan, stood outside his Amherst office Saturday, weeping.

She said that Slepian should not be portrayed solely as an "abortion doctor." She said that he had delivered her niece and her daughter and that he kept a photo album of the hundreds of babies that he had delivered.

"To me, he was about babies, not abortion," Susan said. She said she had gone to him every three months for the past four years for treatment of cervical cancer.

"I feel he saved my life. I feel he is like a member of my family."

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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