“His Weapon Is a Pen” 

Pro-life arrest raises debate over free speech and harassment

Soft-spoken and wearing casual clothes, Michael Ross looks meek enough to live in Rogers’ neighborhood. He opposes violence, he says, and is guilty of nothing more than exercising his First Amendment rights on behalf of those unable to speak for themselves.

Yet Ross served more than five years in state prison on a felony charge of intimidating a Bozeman doctor who owned a clinic that performed abortions. Now, out of prison and living in Billings for less than a year, he has been booked on new charges. Even if he goes back to jail, he says, he will have no regrets.

“I uphold God’s law over man’s law,” Ross said. “Now, man’s law should be obeyed except when it conflicts with God’s law.”

On Dec. 22, Ross was arrested in Billings on a charge that he violated an order protecting Intermountain Planned Parenthood. He denies that he did anything illegal, but the clinic’s executive director, Joan McCracken, said the clinic’s staff and patients feel intimidated and threatened by him.

“He served quite a long sentence in Deer Lodge ... so I guess I think he’s pretty dangerous, and he’s pretty intimidating,” she said.

A 1993 Missoula jury was following man’s law when it gave Ross a 10-year sentence for felony intimidation. According to news accounts of the trial, he wrote more than 60 threatening letters over a two-month period to Susan Wicklund, who owned the Mountain Country Women’s Clinic in Bozeman.

According to an Associated Press account, Ross wrote one letter that said, “Let’s tear your arms and legs off one by one. Only fitting. Only fitting.” The day Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic was destroyed by arson, Ross wrote, “Isn’t it just horrible how someone torched Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula? Isn’t that awful? Tsk, tsk. Do you think it could happen in Bozeman?” Similarly, when Dr. David Gunn was murdered in Florida, Ross wrote, “Too bad about Dr. Gunn in Florida. I wonder, could it happen in Bozeman? I wonder.”

Ross denies that he had anything to do with violence against any abortion clinics, but he acknowledges that his letters were “extremely graphic.”

“I was very angry,” he said, “and I think even now it was appropriate because I just hate abortions.”

Because of his insistence that he was innocent, Ross rejected a plea bargain that could have reduced much of his sentence to community service. His Missoula lawyer, Craig Shannon, argued in court, “This case is about freedom of speech—being able to talk, being able to speak, being able to write letters even if it causes fear in the receiver.”

But Dr. Wicklund testified that she had felt forced to hire a bodyguard and buy a bulletproof vest and gun to protect herself. Missoula County Deputy Attorney Betty Wing said at the trial, “His weapon is a pen. ... The pen is a weapon that can cause serious damage.”

Jeff Renz, a law professor at the University of Montana now running for the state Supreme Court, helped prepare briefs for Ross’ federal appeal. Renz said he believed that Ross’ letters were protected by the First Amendment, but he acknowledged that it was a close call.

“If I were the doctor, I would have been upset,” he said.

Ross served, by his count, five years, two months and three days, including a stretch in Tennessee when Montana was moving prisoners to cope with overcrowding.

Just after his release in March, District Judge Ed McLean in Missoula permanently ordered him to keep at least 1,500 feet away from four Missoula doctors and from Intermountain Planned Parenthood, Western Montana Clinic and Blue Mountain Clinic.

Ross, along with pro-life groups and 15 other people, had been barred in 1994 from trespassing or blocking the entrance to the Intermountain Planned Parenthood Clinic in Billings.

But five years in prison had not dampened Ross’ commitment to his occupation as “missionary to the preborn.” At age 56, he moved to Billings to care for his mother. He also began writing letters again, to County Attorney Dennis Paxinos, arguing that his office was “running interference for the Billings abortion industry,” and, according to Ms. McCracken, to Planned Parenthood and local law enforcement.

“I think that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.

Twice in November, Ross said, he walked around the clinic, getting into a “spirited argument” with a nurse and telling patients, “Please save your babies. The Lord loves your babies.”

“I have not threatened,” he said. “I have not intimidated. I have tried to be very firm about it without being threatening.”

On Dec. 22, he said, he walked around the Planned Parenthood building two or three times, wishing one woman “Merry Christmas” as she entered the clinic. Police stopped him in the parking lot and arrested him for violating the protective order. He was released on bond, and trial has been set for March 8.

At a hearing last week, Ross said, he rejected a plea bargain offer that would have sent him to jail for six months. Ross argues that the Missoula protective order does not apply to the Billings clinic; the order issued in Billings, he pointed out, leaves room for demonstrations and “sidewalk counseling” that do not interfere with operations of the clinic.

His court-appointed attorney, Nancy Wetherelt, could not be reached for comment late last week. Deputy City Attorney Craig Hensel, who is handling the case for the city of Billings, said he could not comment on the case, including any possible plea bargains.

The 1,500-foot protective order is “draconian and cruel,” Ross maintains.

“I am a convicted felon,” he said. “Does that mean my First Amendment right has been taken from me?”

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