A profile is emerging of the gunman in custody for a shootout yesterday in which three people were killed and nine injured at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.
Armed with a military assault weapon, Robert Lewis Dear, 57, allegedly held police at bay for hours during a snowy afternoon shootout that started without warning.
Bearded, tall, stocky and wild-eyed, Dear reportedly had a history of run-ins with the law, including for domestic violence and animal abuse. People who lived near Dear said he frequently handed out anti-Obama literature but his ideology was hard to fathom due to the incoherent nature of his ramblings.
The Daily Beast obtained records from the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina, where Dear was a longtime resident with a lengthy history of incident reports. Those included domestic battery, threatening and spying on neighbors, abusing animals and making unwanted advances toward a female neighbor.
Neighbors who lived beside Dear’s former South Carolina home in Walterboro told AP that he hid food in the woods as if he was a survivalist and said he lived off selling prints of his uncle’s paintings of Southern plantations and the Masters golf tournament.
John Hood said Saturday that when he moved to Walterboro, Dear was living in a doublewide mobile home next door. Hood said Dear seemed to be a loner and very strange but not dangerous. He pointed to a wooden fence separating their land and said he put it up because Dear liked to skinny dip.
Hood said that Dear rarely talked and, when he did, he tended to offer unsolicited advice such as recommending that Hood put a metal roof on his house so the U.S. government couldn’t spy on him.
“He was really strange and out there, but I never thought he would do any harm,” he said.
Dear also lived part-time in North Carolina, spending part of his time in a cabin in Black Mountain with no electricity or running water.
He tended to avoid eye contact, said James Russell, who lived a few hundred feet down the mountain from Dear’s cabin. “If you talked to him, nothing with him was very cognitive,” Russell said.
Other neighbors knew Dear too, but they didn’t want to give their names to AP because they said they were scared of him.
Russell and others said the only companion they saw with him was a mangy dog that looked to be in such bad shape they called animal control because they worried he was beating it.
Following the shootout, law enforcement officials closed off an address for Dear in what the Daily Beast called “the remote town” of Hartsel, Colorado, about 60 miles west of Colorado Springs.
There, about a dozen police vehicles and fire trucks were parked today outside a small white trailer belonging to Dear located on a sprawling swath of land, AP reported. Property records indicate Dear purchased the land about a year ago.
An official said authorities searched the trailer but found no explosives. The official, who has direct knowledge of the case, said authorities also talked with a woman who was living in the trailer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.
Jamie Heffelman, owner of the Highline Cafe in Hartsel, said residents would occasionally see the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound Dear at the post office to get his mail but he never said much.
“Nobody really knows him. He stays to himself,” she said.
Police have not disclosed a motive, but Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said people can make “inferences from where it took place,” referring to the clinic.
A Roman Catholic priest who has held weekly Mass in front of the clinic for 20 years, however, told The Associated Press that Dear wasn’t part of his group. Anti-choice groups picket PP clinics every day, carrying signs of bloody babies and dolls and accosting women entering the premises with dire warnings.
Planned Parenthood has been under increased attack since July — from Congress to state legislatures to the Republican campaign trail — over an undercover video made by virulent anti-choice activists and released to the press. The video appeared to show PP personnel negotiating the sale of fetal organs, but later it was determined that the piece had been misleadingly edited.
Investigations by states and Congress found no wrongdoing in connection with PP’s handling of fetal tissue. Instead, it was learned that PP and other abortion clinics allow pregnant women to donate their fetal tissue to researchers if they wish, and the researchers pay for the cost of maintaining and transporting the tissue.
Still, the National Abortion Federation, an association of service providers, has seen a rise in threats at clinics nationwide since the video’s release. Republican presidential candidates have made it a central issue in their campaigns.
Arsonists have attacked four PP clinics since September.
At a vigil Saturday at All Souls Unitarian Church, Rev. Nori Rost called the gunman a “domestic terrorist.” In the back of the room, someone held a sign that said: “Women’s bodies are not battlefields. Neither is our town.”
Vicki Cowart, the regional head of Planned Parenthood, drew a standing ovation when she walked to the pulpit. She promised to quickly reopen the clinic. “We will adapt. We will square our shoulders and we will go on,” she said.
Cowart told AP that the gunman “broke in” to the clinic Friday but didn’t get past a locked door leading to the main part of the facility. She said there was no armed security when the shooting began.
In the parking lot of the two-story building, one man said the gunman shot at him as he pulled his car out, blasting two holes in his windshield. Inside, one worker ducked under a table and called her brother to tell him to take care of her kids if she was killed.
At one point, an officer whispered reports into his radio as he crept through the building. Others relayed information from surveillance cameras and victims in hiding. “We’ve got a report of a victim texting from just east of the lobby,” someone said.
In the end, a six-year veteran University of Colorado police officer was killed. Two civilians also died, though their identities weren’t immediately released. Five other officers and four people were hospitalized.
Cowart said all 15 clinic employees survived and worked hard to make sure everyone else got into safe spaces and stayed quiet.
The attack marked the latest mass shooting to stun the nation, and drew the now-familiar questions about a gunman’s motives and whether anyone, from government to relatives, could have done anything to prevent an attack.
President Obama issued a statement today calling for gun control.
“If we truly care about this — if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them,” Obama said.
Colorado Springs is home to a very large population of born-again Christians. The anti-gay hate group Focus on the Family is headquartered there.