This story is over 5 years old.


An Interview with a Convicted Abortion Clinic Arsonist

How does a violent anti-abortion extremist get radicalized? We spoke to Jennifer McCoy—dedicated mother of ten and convicted arsonist— to find out.
Photo via Flicker user JefferyTurner

I first met Jennifer McCoy on a frosty morning in January as she was holding up a placard of a mangled human fetus outside of a grade school in Washington D.C. McCoy, a mother of ten, is part of a small cadre of anti-abortion zealots who've been banned from a Planned Parenthood construction site, and as a result have taken their protest efforts across the street to Two Rivers Charter School. Over the course of six months, McCoy and other out-of-town activists, like Robert Weiler Jr., a Maryland resident who was once sentenced to five years in prison for a bomb plot against an abortion clinic, have shouted at parents and harangued school kids about the "murder factory" being built across the street.


Read more: Inside the Bizarre War Anti-Abortion Zealots Are Waging Against School Kids

"If a man with a gun was going to come into a little boy's classroom and start shooting, killing little kids, wouldn't you do anything in your power to stop them?" McCoy asked me on that frigid morning while toddlers were hurriedly rushed by McCoy's graphic sign. While McCoy was ardent in her stance against abortion, her friendly and chatty manner led me to assume that, while undoubtedly eccentric, McCoy was also harmless.

I was wrong.

After my article was published on Jan 31, Broadly learned that Weiler wasn't the only convict hanging out in front of Two Rivers school. In the mid 1990s, McCoy, then 24 years old, was convicted of unsuccessfully setting fire to two southeastern Virginia abortion clinics. According to the Department of Justice press release announcing her plea deal, McCoy tossed a flare inside the Peninsula Medical Center for Women in Newport News, V.A., on December 13, 1994. Then on March 6, 1995, she had also poured kerosene at the Tidewater Women's Health Center in Norfolk, V.A.. McCoy was forced to pay $1,335 in restitution and serve 30 months in prison.

"I didn't want anyone to get hurt, and I didn't want children to die,'' McCoy told the presiding judge. She had an ash cross smeared across her forehead in anticipation of Lent. "If the babies don't get justice, why should anyone else?"


Illustration by Brandon Bird

Jennifer McCoy was born Jennifer Patterson in Michigan. According to a blog post she published on an anti-abortion website in the 2000s, her activism was rooted in becoming pregnant at a young age by her teacher. At 16, McCoy's mother insisted she abort the pregnancy. McCoy refused and hid from her mother at neighbor's house, caring for the neighbor's four children. When McCoy's mother took to her to a woman's health clinic, McCoy believed she was going in for a pre-natal check up. "There was no one on the sidewalk—no pro-lifers praying outside—for in my heart," McCoy writes, "I know that had there been one person to alert me to the fact that this was an abortuary and not just an OB/Gyn's office, then I never would have gone inside."

If the babies don't get justice, why should anyone else?'

After an ultrasound, McCoy claims that, "a foreign man came into the room" and instead of an exam, he started to perform an abortion on her. "All of a sudden, I was in excruciating pain and I heard a noise like a vacuum. I tried to get up and he pushed me down. I was crying, and he said, 'It will be over in five minutes and you can go on with your life. If you move, you could die.' I was terrified and all I could do at that point was cry. I was afraid and alone in that room. I felt the very life of my soul being torn from inside me and there was nothing I could do."

After high school, McCoy joined the Navy and discovered a newfound commitment to Christianity. She married and worked intermittently as a hotel maid. After attending a retreat to deal with her depression from the abortion, hosted by Project Rachel, an organization that encourages women to give their aborted fetus a name and identity, McCoy started protesting in front of abortion clinics. "Since then," McCoy writes, "I have felt that God called me to be on the front lines where the girls need to be told that there is help—people who care—and that they don't have to have the abortions. It's nothing that you want to live with."


McCoy did not mention in the blog post if it was also God who called her to pour kerosene on a clinic.

I reached McCoy on the phone to have a more in-depth discussion about her anti-abortion radicalism from her home in Kansas. McCoy says she started going to clinics after she found out a close friend of hers was pregnant and had scheduled an abortion. "That evening I told her that you can't do that," McCoy recalls. "The next day, we went our separate ways to work and I just knew that she was going to try to go anyway. I figured out where the clinic was in Norfolk, [Virginia] so I told my boss that I had to go: 'It's a matter of life and death.'"

Photo of Jennifer McCoy by Amanda Rivkin.

McCoy didn't find her Navy friend at the clinic but she did find another true believer in the anti-abortion cause, Donald Spitz. "When I pulled into the driveway, he was there. He thought I was going to go to the clinic. I didn't know anything about the inner workings of pro-life work. He's truly the one who showed me. I have always felt called to be at the clinic, but he showed me how."

Spitz is the spokesman for the Army of God, a loose-knit domestic terrorist organization that believes they have God's permission to kill abortion providers.

The East Coast leader of the Army is Rev. Michael Bray. Bray and his small group of followers have all signed a "defensive action" declaration that supports the whole-sale murder of any abortion doctor. "If we are to affirm, as I do, that the children in the womb who are killed at abortion facilities are in fact children," Bray told Dan Rather in 1999, "if these are children, then action taken to defend them is justifiable and cannot be condemned."


Bray spent four years in prison on two counts of conspiracy and one count of possessing unregistered explosive devices that were intended to be detonated at ten different sites that perform abortions or advocate on behalf of women's reproductive rights.

I know that I would never want to be the one that sends them to Hell. At the same time, I have seen so much on the front lines that I can understand how it happens.

Spitz was also friends with Paul Jennings Hill before and after Hill murdered Dr. John Britton, an abortion provider, in 1994. Hill fired a 12 gauge shot gun at Britton and his bodyguard at close range. Both men died. Hill was executed by the state of Florida in 2003. During his time on death row, Spitz served as Hill's spiritual advisor.

"Oh, Don, he's quite the character," McCoy says.

When I ask McCoy if she supports the "defensive action" platform, she wavers. "I don't know. In my heart of hearts, I earnestly don't know what I think. I know what our church teaches, and I don't dare try to get away from that at all. But on a personal level, I earnestly don't know. I know that I would never want to be the final judge of someone. I know that I would never want to be the one that sends them to Hell. At the same time, I have seen so much on the front lines that I can understand how it happens. You can't even begin to know. Aside from my personal experience."

While McCoy may not want to be the final judge of someone's life, she will willingly give succor to those who take on the task. When Scott Roeder was on trial in 2010 for slaying of Dr. George Tillman, a Kansas abortion provider, McCoy visited Roeder more than anyone else while he was awaiting trial.


"My whole involvement with Scott was going to the judge and trying to get him a fair trial. In my mind, they never would have been having a trial for Scott Roeder if true justice would happen to Tiller. I have seen justice fail time and time and time again."

I ask McCoy how she feels about Roeder taking away "justice" by murdering Tiller.

"As a human being I accept him, the same as I would accept any other human being," she says. "He messed up what I was doing, but being mad? I guess. I could never be someone's judge and jury like that, but I would never judge Scott as well."

Before murdering Tillman, Roeder—like McCoy, like Wielder— frequently stationed himself outside of clinics to harass workers and clients.

Including the recent attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, which killed three and injured nine, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders due to anti-abortion violence.

When I ask McCoy if she would try to set fire to abortion clinic again, she deflects.

"What kind of question is that?"

I ask if she regrets trying to set fire to two clinics and spending 30 months away from her family in prison.

"Absolutely not."