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Ala. man charged in Florida abortion clinic fire

Authorities say a homeless man charged Thursday with setting a New Year's Day fire that gutted a family planning clinic told investigators he acted out of a strong disbelief in abortion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities say a homeless man charged Thursday with setting a New Year's Day fire that gutted a family planning clinic told investigators he acted out of a strong disbelief in abortion and was also fueled by seeing a young woman enter the clinic while he looked on recently with protesters.

Bobby Joe Rogers, 41, was charged with one count of damaging a building by fire or explosive and was being held Thursday at the Escambia County Jail in the Florida Panhandle region. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

In an affidavit, prosecutors say Rogers told investigators he went to the Pensacola clinic of American Family Planning around midnight on New Year's eve with a fire bomb he had crafted from a 32-ounce beer bottle and gasoline with a wick made from an old shirt.

He told them he lit the bomb, threw it against the building and watched it burst in flames and ignite the building, the affidavit said. He then went across the street to an abandoned car wash until he was sure the fire was going, according to the document.

"He stayed at the car wash just long enough to make sure the fire was going and recalled hearing a lot of crackling and popping as the fire progressed," the affidavit stated. It added that he then went to a shed where he often would sleep behind a closed barbecue restaurant.

Rogers has a long criminal history that includes arrests in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Florida, authorities reported. The affidavit said he had felony convictions for burglary in Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee.

They said he was identified as a suspect following tips from the community.

Investigators initially said Rogers was from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and later said he was from Pensacola. They offered no reason for the discrepancy. Jail records listed no address.

The two-story Pensacola clinic that was gutted by flames has been attacked before. It was bombed on Christmas Day in 1984, and in 1994 a doctor and a volunteer who escorted patients to and from the clinic were shot to death as they arrived. The gunman, Paul Hill, was executed in 2003. Pensacola was the site of other abortion-related violence in 1993 when Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed at another clinic by an abortion protester.

Since the Hill murders, American Family Planning has been the site of near-daily protests with anti-abortion activists carrying Bibles, crosses and signs, but the violence that marked the clinic in the mid1990s had stopped before Sunday's blaze. No one was hurt in the fire.

Investigators from a federal joint terrorism task force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation headed by the state fire marshal.

Rogers had a brief preliminary hearing on Thursday. He waived his right to detention hearing and to a preliminary hearing and agreed to be represented by the federal public defender's office.

Records from Alachua County show he was arrested on Dec. 12, 2009, on charges of vehicle theft. Art Forgey, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's office said Rogers spent three months in the Alachua County Jail. Court records from the Alachua County case were not immediately available.

Rogers offered only "some kind of prison release ID card," when he and another man were pulled over driving the stolen car in 2009, the arresting officer wrote in his report.

The officer stopped the 1994 Mercury Sable because of a malfunctioning headlight. Rogers was the passenger.

"When I approached the vehicle the driver and the passenger appeared nervous. I could see open containers of beer in the car driver side and passenger side," the highway patrol officer wrote.

The driver had a suspended license and Rogers, who gave an address in Boca Raton, had no license. Both men were arrested on charges of grand theft auto. The arrest report indicated that Rogers had been drinking and that the officer was uncertain if Rogers had taken any drugs.

The 2009 arrest report spells Rogers last name "Rodgers," but his photo and his birthdate match.

The affidavit shows that Rogers has felony convictions in Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri for burglary and in Mississippi for grand larceny. Details were not immediately available.