Workers watched as the man went through the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, methodically writing down the license plate numbers of the vehicles.
Within a few weeks the intruder was joined by others, all believed to belong to an antiabortion group in that area. And then, Planned Parenthood officials say, the anonymous letters came. They were similar to the typewritten note with a drawing of an angel delivered to the home of the parents of one clinic volunteer, a student at Texas A&M:
"You must be really proud of yourself, Nicole," it reads. "You attend the best university in the state, dress in the finest clothes, drive a great looking BMW, and from all reports do well in school. Then every Tuesday you go down to the local abortion clinic to assist in the killing."
The letter ended by urging her to remember a prayer as "you pass through that iron gate at the clinic of death next Tuesday morning."
Another note, with almost identical wording, was sent to a clinic intern -- as well as her parents. Her boyfriend, who escorts her to work, also got one. So did his parents.
The families of some others who go into the clinic get a "Dear Parent" letter notifying them that one of their family members visited the clinic. It suggests that "someone very dear to you may be facing the most serious personal crisis in her young life." It goes on to say: "And while the willful death of an innocent child is always tragic, the death or serious injury of a young woman resulting from an abortion gone bad is a tragedy beyond description."
This form letter advises the parents to demand full disclosure from the clinic. "It's now the law in Texas," the note says. "And it's called PARENTS' RIGHT TO KNOW."
Planned Parenthood is hardly a stranger to controversy or protest. But workers say this very personal harassment through the mail is the latest and most chilling turn in the shadow war against them. They are increasingly alarmed by the breaches in their fundamental tenets: safety and privacy for staff and clients.
Bryan police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been cooperative and supportive during the eight months of harassing letters, Planned Parenthood officials say. But there's one big problem: The antiabortion campaign, however harassing and intrusive into private lives, is not illegal under current laws.
The Bryan clinic's staffers think they know who is behind this latest twist in the battles waged by antiabortionists. Because of the potential for lawsuits, they declined to name the first man openly recording license plate numbers. However, they believe the letters were generated by the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life, with assistance from Life Dynamics Incorporated, an antiabortion organization based in Denton, near Dallas.
The names of clinic staff and visitors can be obtained by tracing the owners of the vehicle licenses, although what is most troubling to the staff is that those in this campaign have in some cases gone to the trouble of learning other details about their private lives, even the names of neighbors.
The campaign's link to Life Dynamics is obvious. Many of the letters encourage the recipient to contact that organization. They even provide the toll-free number.
Life Dynamics president Mark Crutcher did not return phone calls from the Houston Press. Life Dynamics made national headlines earlier this month after allegedly paying a pathologist $10,000 to fabricate claims about illegal fetal tissue harvesting, claims that generated congressional hearings on the subject.
While clinic officials do not think Life Dynamics is directly behind the letters, they do believe the organization has provided the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life and other groups like it with boilerplate information about how to conduct such a campaign. The telephone number for the coalition in Bryan is not in service. However, a coalition spokesperson told the Bryan Eagle newspaper that the group was not responsible for the mailings.
On its Web site, Life Dynamics highlights a motto of "No compromise, no exception, no apology," and touts "cutting edge innovation." A section is devoted to "a very innovative direct mail campaign designed to reinforce the stigma attached with abortion."
The Web site says the group's goal is to send out about 100,000 pieces of direct mail to the medical community at least four times a year. "We have seen tremendous results of this in the past," it says, "and we keep a steady stream of new direct mail products in the pipeline for the future."
The fear campaign against the Bryan clinic has been felt in unlikely places. Compiling mailing lists made from license numbers of arriving vehicles means that many of the letters miss the mark. A clinic worker's friend stopped by to visit, and days later the friend's husband got an anonymous letter asking him if he knew where his wife had been.
With Texas A&M nearby, many visitors are students driving in cars still owned by their parents. That means the letters go to the addresses of the mothers and fathers.
"So we then got the calls from these frantic parents thinking that their child may have had an abortion," says clinic communications director Debbie McCall. She points out that many targets of the postal harassment were at the facility for reasons other than to obtain an abortion, such as family planning or contraception.
McCall is the prime example of the escalating stages of the campaign against the clinic, which make the earlier letters seem almost mild in comparison. She commutes to the clinic from her house in Crockett, 65 miles to the northeast, and the harassment has reached there.
The president of the Crockett Chamber of Commerce received seemingly official correspondence from a group that calls itself the Bryan/ College Station Citizen's Chamber of Commerce. One letter lumped her work in with that of adult bookstores and strip joints, and asked the Crockett chamber to do what it could to halt the "Migration of Poor-White-Trash from east Texas into Brazos County." Another letter with a similar sarcastic tone used large type to identify McCall as an abortionist. With derisive words, it sought to have her nominated "outstanding citizen." The return address was listed only as "somewhere on 29th Street."
McCall says the Crockett chamber president is a good friend and next-door neighbor who dismissed the letter as the work of a crackpot. However, more disturbing, says McCall, is the fact that other neighbors, her in-laws and even her ex-husband also received the letter.
"We all know who's doing it," says a frustrated McCall, "but we can't prove it." Nor can they prove that any laws have been broken.
"There's no question the letters are harassing and intimidating," says Planned Parenthood security director Steve Blumenthal. "But they understand the line between what constitutes a threat legally and what does not."
An anonymous writer can reveal a person's name, address and phone number, the names of family members, their parents' address and even their route to work. "It is repugnant, and it is clearly meant to intimidate," Blumenthal says, "although there is no direct statement threatening the safety of the person." A defense attorney could have an easy time in court arguing that nowhere in the letter does it say, "I'm gonna get you" or "You could be killed" or anything like that, Blumenthal says.
There are civil laws against invasion of privacy and defamation, although there are related legal problems in pursuing such lawsuits and proving intent, he says.
The letters reflect an especially hard battle to keep the Bryan facility open for clients. It now has more daily protesters than does Planned Parenthood's regional headquarters on Fannin Street in Houston, Bryan clinic director Dyann Santos says. And while Planned Parenthood facilities throughout the region have been the target of postal harassment, not one of those other campaigns has been sustained as long as the one in Bryan, she says.
For security reasons, Blumenthal refused to say what extra precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of the staff and clients of the Bryan office, but he says the letters have created an "atmosphere of terror." Santos agrees.
"It's scary, and it's crazy," says Santos. "I got into this knowing this could happen, so I deal with it. But sometimes somebody gets hurt before anything can be done about this type of situation."
E-mail Steve McVicker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.