It’s been more than 25 years since Oregon native Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon set fire to abortion clinics in Oregon, Nevada, and California using homemade napalm and fireworks—and then attempted to murder an abortion doctor in Kansas. Shannon, who was called a “terrorist” by a federal judge before he sentenced her to 20 years in prison, has yet to show any remorse for her attacks.
And now, she’s coming home.
On May 21, Shannon was released from a federal prison in Minnesota and en route to the Pacific Northwest. According to information provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Shannon is currently in a Seattle halfway house (or “reentry facility”) until her November 7 release date. Moving to a heavily-monitored halfway house is often the final step in an inmate’s prison sentence—a chance to reintegrate into society. It’s unknown if Shannon will be allowed to leave the facility for job interviews or family events before her official release date.
Regardless, the news of Shannon’s return is making Oregon abortion providers brace themselves for the homecoming of an unapologetic, violent perpetrator—and leaves abortion advocates frustrated by her lenient treatment at the hands of the feds.
“My initial feelings were incredible fear,” says Grayson Dempsey, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon.
Shannon, a member of an anti-abortion group called the “Army of God,” was convicted in 1994 by a Kansas court for attempted murder after she had shot Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller in both arms outside of his clinic. A year later, federal investigators successfully linked her to a string of 1992 attacks on abortion clinics in the Northwest, including Portland’s Lovejoy SurgiCenter, a still-active medical center, and clinics in Eugene and Ashland. After her November release, Shannon is expected to return to her hometown of Grants Pass, Oregon.
Dempsey is primarily concerned that Shannon’s release could threaten the safety of those who access and work at abortion clinics across the Northwest. But she’s also worried about the message Shannon’s freedom sends to anti-abortion extremists in the US.
“It speaks to how our society treats these kind of people... like they are rational people defending beliefs, not domestic terrorists,” says Dempsey. “We’ve normalized threats to physicians who provide safe and legal health care. We’re saying we’re not going to treat this kind of violence the way that it should be treated.”
Many believe Shannon’s decades behind bars did little to rehabilitate her. While in prison, Shannon continued to advise other Army of God extremists on how to carry out future attacks—like the 2009 murder of Tiller by Scott Roeder. Roeder visited Shannon in prison at least 25 times before fatally shooting Tiller, later telling prosecutors he had admired Shannon’s work.
And after Robert Dear opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015—killing three and injuring nine—he told investigators that he’d long admired members of the Army of God. The Army of God’s website features tributes to Dear and Shannon, along with others who have been charged with orchestrating attacks at abortion clinics.
“I’m disappointed in the justice system for allowing people to continue terrorism from prison,” says Dempsey, who worked closely with Tiller before his death.
Stephen Peifer, the former assistant US attorney who prosecuted Shannon in 1995, said he never expected prison to change her. He still believes she’s dangerous.
“Prison can’t change people’s minds,” Peifer, who’s now retired, told the Mercury. “I believe she is completely unreformed and unrepentant. I’ve never seen someone so incorrigible.”
In recent weeks, Dempsey has spoken with clinics across the state to make sure they’re aware of the news and are taking appropriate safety precautions. Most are already prepared, thanks to the growing drumbeat of anti-abortion politics and attacks in the US.
“Yes, it’s concerning that [Shannon] has been released, but we’re always aware of threats to safety at our clinics,” said Lisa Gardner, president of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon.
A May report from the National Abortion Federation found that death threats to abortion providers nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017. Incidents of people trespassing into clinics and the number of people obstructing clinics have nearly tripled.
Oregon’s often seen as the progressive leader in the pro-choice movement and a safe haven for women accessing abortion. But, Dempsey says, Shannon’s release should come as a wake-up call for Oregonians.
“Many people think this matter is largely settled in this state. It is not. Abortion is still an issue that people are attacked over here and everywhere,” Dempsey says. “I hope this is a reminder we can never be complacent in Oregon.”