Inside The Anti-Abortion Underground

The Rev. Matt Trewhella, co-founder of Missionaries to the Pre-Born, a Milwaukee anti-abortion group, was boasting to an audience last May about his 16-month-old son, Jeremiah. Trewhella said he already knew to raise his index finger when asked, "Which is your trigger finger?" The crowd at a Wisconsin state convention of the ultraconservative U.S. Taxpayers Party also heard this recommendation from Trewhella: "This Christmas, I want you to do the most loving thing. I want you to buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition."

Trewhella says he would never kill a physician who performs abortions. Moreover, he insists that anyone in his mission who advocated violence "would be asked to leave." But after last month's murder of Pensacola, Fla., doctor John Britton, federal authorities aren't taking the 34-year-old pastor at his word. According to a confidential FBI document, Trewhella is one of a half dozen anti-abortion activists now under investigation as possible conspirators in a campaign of violence against abortion clinics. Currently serving a monthlong county-jail sentence for disorderly conduct during a demonstration at a Milwaukee doctor's home last year, Trewhella told Newsweek that the government's investigation is "all a big joke." He claims that his gun comments, captured on a videotape and released last week by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, were "a lighthearted moment" snipped out of context.

Abortion-rights groups in Wisconsin aren't amused. Trewhella, a onetime Detroit street tough and convicted arsonist who says he experienced a religious awakening as a teenager, has helped turn Milwaukee into an abortion battleground. Over the last two years his followers, arrested by the hundreds, have strapped themselves to concrete blockades in front of clinics, trapped a doctor in his home and even picketed the soccer game of another's preteen son. One doctor, George Woodward, received an anonymous letter last year warning, "If you continue [to perform abortions] I will hunt you down like any other wild beast and kill you." Says Woodward: "I keep thinking, "Am I the next Dr. Britton?' "

When other Wisconsin anti-abortion groups issued statements condemning Britton's murder, Trewhella responded with a one-sentence communique calling on "pro-abortion leaders . . . to condemn the actions of abortionists everywhere." He also joined other activists last year in signing a statement declaring that Michael Griffin had committed "justifiable homicide" in the 1993 killing of David Gunn, another Pensacola abortion doctor. The author of the statement, Paul Hill, pleaded not guilty last week to charges of murdering Britton and a security escort. Trewhella said last week that he had removed his name from Hill's declaration when he sensed that Hill "had moved from a statement of belief to a position advocating violence."

But a Newsweek investigation suggests that Trewhella himself was a mentor for potentially violent anti-abortion extremists. "John" (who does not want his real name used) was a young army reservist from a staunchly Roman Catholic Midwestern family when he joined Missionaries to the Pre-Born in 1990. Family members say he was more than a sympathizer -- he lived in the basement of Trewhella's house for nearly five months. His reading material included writers a century apart who said their goals justified the use of violence: Abolitionist John Brown and convicted abortion-clinic bomber Michael Bray. He also accumulated nearly 70 arrests. Eventually, family members grew alarmed over what John's mother called his "robotic" behavior. They also saw his journal notes on apparent plans for a guerrilla campaign of clinic bombings and assassinations of doctors.

In January 1991 John's family hired cult "deprogrammer" Rick Ross, whose clients included followers of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. "Trewhella had brainwashed John so the young man could be wound up and sent out on autodestroy," says Ross. Despite John's resistance, the deprogramming was successful. John, who refuses to discuss Trewhella, is now enrolled in graduate school. Trewhella insists his former disciple was unstable to begin with. "Talk to him once and you'll see he's unbalanced," Trewhella said. John had no history of psychiatric problems.

Proving a nationwide conspiracy of violence among anti-abortion activists will be difficult. Such a case would require evidence of overt, coordinated acts by individuals working together -- proof that has been elusive so far. "There's no question like-minded people are doing similar things," says John Magaw, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "But that doesn't make a conspiracy." For pro-choice proponents in Wisconsin, however, Matt Trewhella has been a conspiracy of one.