John Salvi

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John C. Salvi III (March 2, 1972 – November 29, 1996) was a Catholic abortion opponent who carried out fatal shootings at two reproductive health clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, on December 30, 1994, killing two and wounding five. He later died in 1996 of an apparent suicide.

Brookline MA Clinic Shootings[edit]

In the mid-morning of December 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, carrying a black duffle bag. In the waiting room, he took a modified semiautomatic .22 rifle from the bag and wordlessly opened fire. A clinic assistant, Arjana Agrawal, was hit in the abdomen. Salvi then shot Shannon Lowney, the receptionist who had greeted him, in the neck, killing her instantly. Approximately forty people were in the room during the assault; of these, three were wounded.[1][2]

Salvi left Planned Parenthood, and drove west on Beacon Street to the Preterm Health Services office. He asked receptionist Leeann Nichols, "Is this Preterm?" When she said yes, witnesses report that Salvi responded,"This is what you get! You should pray the rosary!" before he shot her multiple times. As he had at Planned Parenthood, Salvi continued to fire. Among those injured was part-time security guard Richard J. Seron. Seron returned fire while protecting injured clinic worker Jane Sauer, who had been hit and was on the floor. Seron himself was shot four times in the arms, and once in the left hand. Salvi then dropped the black duffle bag, which contained a gun, receipts from a gun dealer in New Hampshire, and 700 rounds of ammunition. He fled in his Audi. Police were able to identify him from the gun shop receipt in the abandoned bag.[3][4][5]

John Salvi was captured in Norfolk, Virginia, after firing over a dozen bullets into the Hillcrest Clinic. The clinic was open at the time, however Salvi was captured before making his way up to the second floor where Hillcrest was located.

On March 19, 1996, he was found guilty of murdering receptionists Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney. After an unsuccessful defense strategy related to Salvi's mental state, he was convicted in both killings.

Examining the Causes in the Aftermath[edit]

Salvi had long shown signs of mental illness. Despite erratic outbursts, difficulty living alone, earlier threats of violence, and the possibility that he was involved in an arson in Florida, neither the anti-abortion protestors who saw Salvi become distraught at their vigils, nor his family who had witnessed glaring signs of his illness, took steps to prevent Salvi from hurting himself or others. Salvi's parents were concerned that he was troubled, but they did not seek professional psychiatric assistance with their son, as they thought that the stigma of mental illness could impair Salvi's ability to live on his own.[6]

Then-Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Massachusetts, Bernard Law, called for a moratorium on clinic protests following the shooting. Part of his reasoning was that other disturbed individuals could be inspired to commit violence during the protests. However, the moratorium was ignored by aggressive anti-abortionists in the archdiocese, including Catholic members of the local Operation Rescue group.[7]

Hillcrest Clinic, in Virginia, had been a target of pickets by Donald Spitz, a known supporter of anti-abortion violence, before Salvi attacked it. The Boston Globe reported that Salvi had Spitz's name and unlisted phone number on his person at the time of his arrest.[8][9] Spitz was never charged in connection with Salvi's activities. Spitz held a rally in support of Salvi outside of Norfolk City Jail.[10] The Massachusetts Citizens for Life requested that Spitz not attend Salvi's trial, because of his outspoken endorsement of anti-abortion violence.[11]


At Salvi's trial, the defense argued that Salvi suffered from schizophrenia. Several expert witnesses, including noted forensic psychiatrist Phillip J. Resnick, M.D., testified that Salvi exhibited schizophrenic behavior and was not competent to stand trial.[12] John's mother, Anne Marie Salvi, testified that her son had told her that he "was the thief on the cross with Jesus."[13] The defense argued that Salvi told his parents that "...the mafia and KKK are out to get me".[14]

The prosecution used the testimony of Bridgewater State Hospital psychologist Joel Haycock, who spent eleven days with Salvi out of his sixty days under observation. Haycock determined that during the time of his observation of Salvi in a hospital setting, Salvi had no hallucinations, could speak in a non-digressive linear way, and was capable of understanding guilt. Haycock observed no signs of psychotic disorder during his time with Salvi. Haycock also asserted that Salvi had no mental disease at the time of the crime and was competent to stand trial.[15]

On March 19, 1996, Salvi was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and five counts of armed assault with intent to murder.

John Salvi believed in a number of farfetched conspiracy theories. While considered by his defense as evidence of severe mental illness, many elements of his conspiracy beliefs reflected those of others on the extreme end of anti-abortion activism: "Shortly after his arrest he released a handwritten note alleging conspiracies of Freemasons, conspiracies to manipulate paper currency, and conspiracies against Catholics. ... He has talked about the Vatican printing its own currency and a specific conspiracy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob."[16]

Death and Vacation of conviction[edit]

Salvi was found dead in his prison cell at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole, Massachusetts with a garbage bag over his head tied around his neck on November 29, 1996. The official report states that Salvi's death was a suicide.[17]

Following Salvi's suicide, his conviction was overturned by the sentencing judge. Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara invoked the legal principle of abatement ab initio, which says that a conviction may not stand if the accused dies before his appeals are exhausted.[18]


  1. ^ McGrory, Brian; Cullen, Kevin (December 31, 1994). "Abortion Violence Hits Home Gunman Opens Fire in Brookline Clinics, Kills 2 and Wounds 5". Boston Globe. ProQuest.
  2. ^ Kifner, John (December 31, 1994). "ANTI-ABORTION KILLINGS: THE OVERVIEW; Gunman Kills 2 at Abortion Clinics in Boston Suburb". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2016-08-17. Retrieved 18 October 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  3. ^ "An Armed Fanatic Raises the Stakes". Time. January 9, 1995. Archived from the original on 2010-10-08. Retrieved 2010-09-03. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  5. ^ Daly, Christopher (March 19, 1996). "Salvi Convicted of Murder in Shootings". Archived from the original on 2016-08-11. Retrieved 18 October 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  6. ^ Zaritsky, John; Storring, Virginia. "FRONTLINE: Murder on Abortion Row". WGBH Boston. Archived from the original on 2016-10-25. Retrieved 18 October 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  7. ^ Ibid. "FRONTLINE: Murder on Abortion Row". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 18 October 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  8. ^ Wrath of Angels, James Risen, p.368, ISBN 978-0465092734, 1999, Basic Books
  9. ^ *Christopher B. Daly (March 19, 1996). "Salvi Convicted of Murder in Shootings". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2017-09-02. Retrieved 2017-09-01. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  10. ^ Extremist groups: information for students, Volume 1 - Thomson/Gale, 2006
  11. ^ "Don Spitz unwelcomed in Massachusetts". Archived from the original on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2016-06-15. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  12. ^ PBS Frontline. (1995). Salvi's Hearing Transcripts Archived 2017-09-25 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 7, 2007.
  13. ^ PBS Frontline. (1996). Murder on "Abortion Row" - Transcript Archived 2017-09-25 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 7, 2007.
  14. ^ "Salvi's Hearing Transcripts | Murder On Abortion Row | FRONTLINE". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2016-06-15. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  15. ^ PBS Frontline. (1995). Salvi's Hearing Transcripts Archived 2017-09-04 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  16. ^ "The Website of Political Research Associates". Archived from the original on 2016-05-11. Retrieved 2016-06-15. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  17. ^ "Abortion clinic gunman dies John Salvi, who killed two at Mass. facilities, commits suicide in cell". Baltimore Sun. 30 November 1996. Archived from the original on 2015-07-25. Retrieved 25 July 2015. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  18. ^ The New York Times. (1997). Conviction in Killings at Clinics Is Overturned. Retrieved February 7, 2007.

External links[edit]

  • The John Salvi papers, 1994-1996 are located in the Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA.