The day after a gunman stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, investigators were working to determine what prompted the shooting that resulted in the death of three people, including a police officer.
Police identified the shooting suspect as 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear but released no other information about him. He is accused of killing two civilians in addition to University of Colorado police officer Garrett Swasey, as well as injuring at least four other officers and five more civilians. He is being held without bond and is scheduled to make his first appearance in court on Monday, according to the Gazette.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs said Swasey, 44, had been with the campus police department for six years and responded to the initial reports of an active shooter.
Authorities say Dear was armed with a long gun and also brought into the building several “items” that could have been explosive devices.
“We don’t have any information on this individual’s mentality, or his ideas or ideology,” Colorado Springs Police Lt. Catherine Buckley told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
State investigators and federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI are also involved in the investigation.
President Obama was briefed on the situation Friday, a White House official said. On Saturday, the president released a statement noting that the gunman’s motive remains unknown but urging the public not to let such incidents “become normal.”
“The last thing Americans should have to do, over the holidays or any day, is comfort the families of people killed by gun violence — people who woke up in the morning and bid their loved ones goodbye with no idea it would be for the last time,” the statement said.
“And yet, two days after Thanksgiving,” the statement continued, “that’s what we are forced to do again.”
While acknowledging that investigators have more to uncover, one Planned Parenthood official suggested the incident may be rooted in the “poisonous environment” that feeds domestic terrorism.
“We don’t yet know the full circumstances and motives behind this criminal action, and we don’t yet know if Planned Parenthood was in fact the target of this attack,” Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said in a written statement. “We share the concerns of many Americans that extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country. We will never back away from providing care in a safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust.”
The shooting arrives during a period of heightened scrutiny for Planned Parenthood. In July, an antiabortion group released a series of secretly filmed videos from a clinic in Denver that showed staffers discussing the extraction of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses before that tissue is sent to research facilities. The videos, which Planned Parenthood officials have noted were heavily edited to bolster critics’ false claims, provoked a series of nationwide protests in August aimed at cutting off federal funding for the healthcare organization. Planned Parenthood officials said the protests were designed to intimidate and harass patients.
Health centers associated with Planned Parenthood have been the target of threats and violence because of the organization’s role in providing abortions and lobbying for reproductive rights. Abortion rights groups say threats against abortion providers rose sharply this summer in the wake of the undercover “sting” operation that produced the controversial videos.
At least four Planned Parenthood clinics have been targeted with arson since the videos were released. The increase in threats has led abortion rights groups to increase cooperation with local police and the FBI.
In a Twitter message released Friday by Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain, a clinic spokesman said 28 other regional health centers will remain open “no matter what.”
“We maintain strong security measures and always work closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure our very strong safety record,” the statement said.
In New York, Detective Brian Sessa said the police department had deployed response vehicles to Planned Parenthood locations throughout the city out of “an abundance of caution.” He added that there were no specific threats.
“Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the brave law enforcement officers who put themselves in harm’s way in Colorado Springs,” Cecile Richards, president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “We are profoundly grateful for their heroism in helping to protect all women, men and young people as they access basic health care in this country.”
The incident in Colorado began on a traditionally quiet day of post-Thanksgiving relaxation about 11:30 a.m. Mountain time when police responded to a call for help from the clinic, which sits in a bustling area near a shopping center, a medical building, a grocery store and restaurants.
A burst of gunfire early on gave way to relative calm in the afternoon, but witnesses said gunfire started again in the evening.
Police warned media not to set up too close to the scene because it was not secure. Many workers and shoppers in the area were told to hunker down in place, whether it be in the kitchen of their restaurant or the back seat of their car. Some remained there for hours as snow accumulated and the sky darkened.
As of 4 p.m., police had not identified or made voice contact with the shooter. Buckley said officers then managed to get into the building and shout at the suspect to give himself up, after which he emerged from the building with his hands raised.
Before that, police had evacuated a number of people from the building, and they were taken to a hospital for evaluation. Footage from television stations showed people in medical jackets and scrubs being ushered through the snow into waiting vehicles.
Sydney Downey, 20, who works at Sally Beauty Supply nearby, said people inside the store heard gunshots about 11:45 a.m.
“A lot of gunshots,” Downey said, “like, too many to even count.”
She said police and firefighters swarmed Centennial Boulevard, where the clinic is located, and crowded around a nearby bank.
An officer came by the beauty supply store to make sure that the doors were locked and that those inside were safe, she said.
“He said, ‘Get back away from the windows,’ and left, and that was it,” Downey said.
After that, Downey said, she remained huddled in a back room with the store manager and a customer.
Brigitte Wolfe, who works at a Japanese restaurant across the street from the clinic, said she first learned something was amiss when police SWAT and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives vehicles pulled up out front.
She heard no gunshots. “We just thought it was some random whatever happening, and then we turned on the news and started seeing what was going on,’’ she said.
Suddenly, about 3 p.m., police and ATF agents banged on the restaurant’s door “and told us to hide where there was no windows because the shooter was active,’’ Wolfe said.
She and several employees and customers hid in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Wolfe said the police and agents commandeered the restaurant’s dining room.
Gunshots were audible as police used an armored vehicle to evacuate people from the Planned Parenthood clinic.
Wolfe said that the medical facility had been the scene of protests most weekends but that there had never been any violence until Friday.
Ozy Licano told the AP that he was in the clinic’s parking lot when Dear spotted him and turned his weapon on the confused civilian, who escaped in his car.
“He came out, and we looked each other in the eye, and he started aiming, and then he started shooting,” Licano said. “I saw two holes go right through my windshield as I was trying to quickly back up and he just kept shooting and I started bleeding.”
“He was aiming for my head,” he added. “It’s just weird to stare in the face of someone like that. And he didn’t win.”
Alice Crites, Jennifer Jenkins, Julie Tate, Niraj Chokshi and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.