Crossing the Line
updated 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Almost immediately, news of the brutal double murder spread across the time zones. Even more shocking than the shooting, however, was the fact that to those who encountered the alleged gunman, Paul Hill, 40, during his brief reign as Pensacola's most radical right-to-lifer, the killing of an abortion doctor and his volunteer escort was hardly a surprise. As Susan Hill, the president of a chain of abortion clinics who claims she has herself been threatened by Hill, puts it: "He really telegraphed this. Only no one would listen."
This was not the first time the issue of abortion had caused a zealot to cross the line into homicide in this Florida panhandle town of 58,000. In March 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot by chemical plant worker Michael Griffin outside another Pensacola abortion clinic just a few miles away. In fact, according to friends of Paul Hill's, it was Gunn's murder that had set him on the course that would stun even his fellow antiabortionists—many of whom tried to distance themselves from the violence after the murders. "If I could talk to him, I'd ask him, 'Why, Paul, why?' " says Vicki Conroy, cofounder of the antiabortion group Legal Action for Women, who was herself arrested last week for criminal mischief outside another Pensacola clinic. " 'Why did you do it?' "
Hill's twisted reasoning was well known to those on the abortion front lines. After the murder of Dr. Gunn, observers say, the clean-cut Hill, a onetime Presbyterian minister who repaired dented cars and lived in a white brick house in a middle-class Pensacola suburb, turned from ardent antiabortion cleric to fringe fanatic. A few days after the Gunn murder, Hill actually called up the Donahue show and volunteered to appear on the air to explain his belief—in front of Gunn's son David—that the murder of abortionists is justifiable homicide. Spots on Sonya Live and Nightline quickly followed. According to Vicki Conroy, Hill appeared to thrive on the media attention and the controversy he stirred. "You could tell he was gloating in the knowledge that all eyes were on him," she says. Then last March, he attended Michael Griffin's trial, where his threats became even more pointed. "He would come up behind us and whisper things like, 'You're next,' with that sort of smile he had," says Susan Hill. "I heard him say, 'Other doctors will die.' "
Hill, according to the Rev. Michael Schneider of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, who has known him for at least 10 years, has always been "a very intense personality." The son of O.Jennings Hill, who worked for National Airlines, and Louise, a housewife, Hill grew up in the wealthy Miami suburb of Coral Gables. After a troubled youth—he was arrested as a teenager for marijuana possession and for assaulting his father—Hill seemed to find religion when he was about 17. He graduated from the conservative Christian Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., in 1977, and then got his Master of Divinity degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. In 1984 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and for the next several years served as the pastor of churches throughout the South. He and his wife, Karen, and their son and two daughters moved to Pensacola in the early '90s, in part so Hill could be near Reverend Schneider and the Trinity Presbyterian Church, about an hour outside Pensacola. But even Schneider, who shares Hill's antiabortion beliefs, grew distressed by the turn toward violence that his faithful follower had taken, and in June 1993 Trinity elders voted to excommunicate Hill. "We had to draw the line," he says. "He was going off on a crusade of his own."
The church's censure did not stop Hill. In June he was arrested outside the Ladies Center for violating the city noise ordinance, but police did not have sufficient cause to detain him. "He was standing outside the first-floor windows shouting, 'Mommy, don't kill me!' in a high, childlike voice, and 'Death to the abortionists,' " says Linda Fussell, who coordinated the clinic's volunteer escort program. "I think he was definitely off the wall and dangerous."
Still, others were not so sure. In the weeks before the murders, according to Conroy, Hill appeared to settle down. "He was just handing out literature, like a lot of other people do outside the clinics," she says. "I thought that maybe he was starting to realize his views weren't winning him any friends. What was going through his mind?"
To Hill's alleged victims, this was no mystery. Bayard Britton was wearing a homemade bulletproof vest when he was shot in the head, and both he and Jim Barrett had taken to carrying guns in their cars—though neither was armed that day. But Britton—who began performing abortions in Pensacola after Dr. Gunn was murdered—refused to be daunted by the danger and had earlier turned down an offer of police protection. "He knew the risk he was taking," explains Vanita McKinney, 48, his medical assistant and live-in companion of 10 years. "You can take all the precautions you want. But if they really want to get you, they're going to get you."
The Boston-born, Virginia-raised Britton was always something of an iconoclast. A family practitioner with four children and a stepchild (Britton's wife of 31 years, Faith, died of cancer in 1983), he had been disciplined over the years by his hospital and Florida medical authorities for such conduct as improper prescription of painkillers, having an affair with a junior staffer and allowing nurse-midwives too much medical latitude. In spite of these problems, many of his patients describe Britton as a compassionate man who made house calls and would treat poor patients for free.
And early on, Britton, who loved children, believed in the need for abortions "because he could not stand the thought of children growing up to be unwanted," says McKinney. Once his medical practice declined in the early '80s, Britton began performing abortions around Florida—by the end at a reported $50 apiece—in part due to economic necessity, in part out of conviction. "I made a living doing abortions. I did them because I thought they should have been done; I wouldn't have done them otherwise," Britton explained to a writer from GQ magazine last winter. "But I will say I had no money to feed my family."
Jim and June Barrett, for their part, believed firmly in a woman's right to choose. Both were retired from the military—he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, she a captain in the Navy—and both were widowed when they married four years ago. June's son had died of AIDS, and they had become active in support of gay rights. After Dr. Gunn's murder, the Barretts, along with other members of their Unitarian church, had begun volunteering as clinic escorts. Once a month it was their turn to pick up Britton at the airport on Fridays when he flew in from his home in Fernandina Beach, 300 miles away, and drive him to work at the Ladies Center. Jim Barrett, like Dr. Britton, knew the risk involved. "Jim said that he had served his time in the armed forces and defended the Constitution, and that he believed abortion was a constitutional right for women," says Linda Fussell. "He used to call the protesters peckerheads, and said he wasn't going to let the peckerheads get him. I'm afraid they did."
Hill, who has been charged with two counts of murder and one of attempted murder, awaits arraignment on Aug. 19 in Escambia County jail. Since the killings, protection outside abortion clinics around the country has been increased, but clinic workers are all too aware that a gun-wielding fanatic can always find a way to evade the federal marshals. Even so, members of the pro-choice community seem determined to carry on. "My husband died for the cause of a woman's right to choose," June Barrett said last week, insisting that she would continue her work as a volunteer escort. "I'm not going to sit back in a corner and not do anything. Somebody's got to stand."
CINDY DAMPIER in Pensacola and DON SIDER in Palm Beach