"They lured [Pastor Dorman Owens] to the jail in hopes he would incriminate himself. But Dorman never did incriminate himself in the conspiracy, and they eventually had to drop that charge."
(Cheryl Sullenger, a thirty-two-year-old Santee housewife and member of the Bible Missionary Fellowship, was recently sentenced to three years in prison for conspiring to bomb the Family Planning Associates abortion clinic in July of 1987. Alone of the seven defendants who pled guilty, she consented to an interview — with the publishers of good news, etc., a local evangelical monthly, on July 5, just before she was to report to federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Excerpts follow. — Editor)
How did it happen that you planned to bomb an abortion clinic?
Well, we were sidewalk counseling at Family Planning from 6 in the morning to noon, three days a week. There would be times when no one would come in — and then they would come in spurts — and then there would be long times when there was nothing to do but stand there and talk and walk around in the parking lot. It was like a mental exercise, because we would stand there, and we would hate the place.
We would see these women go in — 150 to 200 abortions a week — and we could stop only between 3 and 6. You would see them go in and one, I remember, was six months pregnant, her belly really sticking out. “Yeah, I can feel my baby moving, so what,” she said. “I don’t care if they tear his arms and legs out.” They were just so callous, many of them.
Well, the reason we decided to do it was to one, drive up their insurance rates. We knew their insurance was high and we knew if something like that happened — there had already been some incident in the past — so if it happened again, nobody would be able to afford the insurance. And they can’t operate without insurance.
How else are you going to get someone like [Dr. Edward] Allred. He has so much money and so many abortion clinics. We knew we would not take away all his business. We knew we couldn’t do that. He didn’t even mind letting us have [save] the three or four a week. It didn’t faze his business at all. We weren’t impacting him. Then we found out he was moving and we thought, boy, this is the time.
This is what we were thinking. That if something like a bombing happened, who in their right mind would rent to them? Their insurance rates would go up and they couldn’t find a place to lease. They’d have to close down their San Diego operation and go back up the coast somewhere — out of our hair. And then it would be a little more difficult for women here to get abortions. It would give them a little more time to think about their situation. And that’s all some of them need, a little more time to think and get through their panic or whatever. We knew if he wasn’t operating that wholesale abortion business — run them in and run them out — that the rate of abortion in San Diego would slow. It would be easier for us, too, because then there would be only one major clinic to cover.
That was our idea. It wasn’t only half-baked. We thought about it. We thought that those two things would probably drive him out of San Diego.
We were doing this [counseling] for a long time, and we hadn’t had a break. Six hours a day, three days a week, and we were all busy with other things on top of it. We were all just tired. We had legal problems at Womancare in being able to picket. It was OK until I got the restraining order [forbidding picketing at Womancare in Hillcrest]. We were more effective at Family Planning because we could stand right at the door.
There were over 20 citizens’ arrests in a three-month period at Womancare, so we fought it legally with a lawsuit. We claimed emotional distress, and so they had us go to this psychiatrist who probes into your sex life and how many times a day you go to the bathroom and things like that. It was just disgusting to go through that — and we were the ones suing them. It was awful.
We won the case, but we may never get the money. It’s on appeal right now, and they have a real weak case for appeal, so we should win, but there are other things they can do to keep from paying us.
Was there a ‘ ‘ringleader ’' in planning the bombing, or was it more of a group thing?
It was more of a group thing. Randy [her husband] was really lesser involved, but the people who were originally talking about it at the abortion clinic were all in it together. We had all these ideas; it was totally screwball. We were like F Troop. We absolutely didn’t have a clue about what we were doing, but each one of us were self-motivated. It was like if you want it done, you do it yourself. That’s kind of the way we thought, except none of us wanted to plant the bomb. No one wanted to do that. We’d ask, “Who’s going to do it?” and everyone would say, “No, I don’t want to do it; you do it — I’ll blow myself up.”
We didn’t have anyone to do it until Eric [Svelmoe] came along — and Eric had always wanted to do it. That’s when it really became more than just a mental exercise. Before then we weren’t that serious. We talked about it and planned in our mind how it could be done, but there was no one really willing to do it. So we thought, if he wants to do it, all right. Far be it from me to stand in his way. If Eric hadn’t come along, I don’t think we would have done it.
Did you ever think about backing out?
No. Never did. They’d never catch us — that’s what I thought at the time.
You have to remember, we just did not have a break. We were distraught. That’s really the frame of mind we were in. It was like, “I just can’t take another Saturday morning at that place.”
I just couldn’t take getting out of bed at 5 in the morning to go down there and be spit at all the time. And then they started having escorts for the girls, and we thought the sooner [the bombing] the better.
We felt we had to do the sidewalk counseling — if we didn’t, more babies were going to die.
The escorts were really bad. At first they were really blatant. They would punch us. They would try to occupy the same space as you, if you know what I mean. They would shove you out of the way and stuff — antagonizing you to fight back. You can only take so much of that. The cops didn’t care. They were upset they had to come out — it was a hassle to them.
Also during this time we had just received copies of a video showing two actual abortions. We would show it to women considering an abortion, and we would make copies of it. We copied a lot of them, and when you copy it, you have to sit there and watch it — and the more you watch the thing, the less hard of a time you have dealing with blowing up a building.
If you were all so distraught, why didn’t you just decide to take a break?
Because we thought we couldn’t because there was no one else to go out there. We just thought there was too much at stake. We just couldn’t leave that place with no one there.
It ended up that that’s what happened in the end. If we had known it was going to turn out like this, we wouldn’t have done it, because we’ve really been taken out of the action. We could have been doing other things. There are more efficient uses of our time than this — so I think it was a waste, myself. We had wanted it to solve our problems and it didn’t. It made more problems for us.
That’s why we’re sorry about it, because we weren’t thinking clearly. We felt we couldn’t take a break. We felt that if we didn’t come, we just couldn’t have that on our conscience. Then when we went, it was fights all the time with the escorts. So it was a really hard situation, but we felt there was no one else to do it....
It wasn’t until just before your trial was scheduled that you pleaded guilty. What can you tell us about that decision?
My trial was scheduled for March 1. That’s the day we actually entered our guilty plea, and it went right down to the last minute.
I had first thought it would be better to go to trial, but then I wanted to plea bargain. The thing was, I couldn’t do that by myself. The deal that the prosecutors offered was a package deal. Everyone had to take it or no one got it. So I was begging people to take the deal, because the only other way I could avoid a trial was to plead guilty to all six felonies — and I didn’t do all six felonies I was initially charged with.
At that point I was determined to avoid a trial, because I knew it would be real bad and I wasn’t going to go and be the first one thrown to the wolves. That’s what it amounted to. The prosecutors would have put on their best case against me in order to scare the others and get them to plead. I knew I was going to have the whole weight of the U.S. government on my shoulders, and I didn’t have the defense. Forget it! That’s suicide and I’m not going to trial.
I faced losing my whole family. I wouldn’t see my kids until they were fully grown, and my husband was going to jail, too.
Eric [Svelmoe] didn’t face that pressure. His wife wasn’t involved. That’s why it’s hard to understand why he let them tape Dorman. Why did he do that? Dorman was not involved in the conspiracy. The reason they did it was because they didn’t have enough information to have an indictment against Dorman, and they needed more information.
So they lured him to the jail in hopes he would incriminate himself. But Dorman never did incriminate himself in the conspiracy, and they eventually had to drop that charge. Dorman asked Eric to please leave out the people who were not directly involved. People who knew about it, maybe, peripheral people.
He was trying to protect his flock, and he never did say not to say anything about himself. He never said anything incriminating in the four hours of tapes because he wasn’t involved. Eric willfully did that. Why? I don’t understand it. They say he was under pressure, but we all were.
At any time we could have walked in and said, “Yeah, Dorman Owens was involved,” and we probably wouldn’t be facing jail terms. But you can’t do that. How can you live with yourself? My freedom isn’t worth that.
So it went right down to the wire before going to trial, but I knew God was going to be faithful.
How about Cheryl Sullenger? Do you think you ’ll return to sidewalk counseling?
Legal efforts only. No, I’m not done. I’ll be gone a couple of years or whatever and then I'll be back. My opinions and beliefs haven’t changed.