By JESSE BEDAYN
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — An abortion opponent pleaded guilty to a federal arson charge Thursday after telling investigators that anxiety and nightmares about Wyoming’s first full-service abortion clinic in years led her to break into and burn the planned facility.
U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson accepted Lorna Roxanne Green’s agreement with prosecutors at a change-of-plea hearing. Green, 22, was taken into custody and faces up to 20 years in prison at sentencing, which the judge scheduled for Oct. 6.
“While I deeply regret my actions, I accept full responsibility for what I have done,” Green told the judge. When asked whether she knew at the time that burning the clinic wasn’t right, Green hesitated and said: “I knew right after.”
The fire happened at the Wellspring Health Access clinic in Casper in May 2022, weeks before it was to open. The damage kept the clinic from opening for almost a year.
Green admitted to breaking in, pouring gasoline around the inside of the building and lighting it on fire, according to court documents.
The clinic, which opened in April, provides surgical and pill abortions, making it the first of the kind in the state in at least a decade. Only one other clinic in Wyoming — in Jackson, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) away — provides abortions, and only by pill.
Wellspring President Julie Burkhart said Thursday that she was “heartened” Green took responsibility.
“It saddens me that someone so young could commit such a heinous act that was so reckless and and could have killed people,” said Burkhart, a longtime abortion-rights advocate and former associate of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who was assassinated in Kansas in 2009.
The attack on the Casper clinic caused almost $300,000 in damages. The delayed opening potentially left people seeking an abortion or contraception without options, Burkhart said.
Violence and threats against abortion providers and patients increased in 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned a nationwide right to abortion, according to an annual survey by the National Abortion Federation.
Abortion has remained legal in Wyoming amid a lawsuit challenging new bans, including what would be the nation’s first explicit ban on abortion pills. A judge blocked the laws while the lawsuit proceeds.
Though Green told investigators she opposed abortion, the Casper College mechanical engineering student showed no sign of anti-abortion views on social media. Green is from Casper and was living in Laramie when the fire happened.
She told a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent she bought gas cans and aluminum pans the day before the fire, drove to Casper, and carried the cans and pans to the clinic in a bag, matching security video and a witness’ account, according to a court filing.
She admitted to using a rock to break glass in a door to enter and pouring gasoline into the pans in several rooms and on the floor before lighting it, according to the document.
Investigators said they made little progress finding who started the fire until a reward was increased to $15,000 in March, leading several tipsters to identify Green.
Ryan Semerad, Green’s attorney, described her as a good person who “did something that was very wrong.”
Green acknowledged that she was in treatment for a mental illness, but said she wasn’t taking prescription drugs and did not provide additional details. At one point, she smiled at her family, who were in the audience.
While Green has remained publicly quiet about her views, many other clinic opponents have not. Protesters gather outside the facility regularly, and in May, Casper Mayor Bruce Knell apologized for a Facebook post about the clinic some interpreted as sympathizing with the fire attack.
The fire and plans for Wellspring Health Access occurred amid a contentious backdrop for abortion in Wyoming. Women in the rural state often go to nearby states, including Colorado, for abortions.
Last summer, Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens suspended an abortion ban that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Since then, Owens has suspended a new ban written to try to overcome the first one’s legal shortcomings, as well as Wyoming’s ban on abortion pills.
Owens has expressed sympathy with arguments that a 2012 state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Wyoming residents’ right to make their own health care decisions conflicted with the bans.
___ Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.