CASPER — Hours after a fire burned the inside of a Casper abortion clinic set to open next month, clinic founder Julie Burkhart sat on the tailgate of a red truck parked across the street.
“I have a lot of emotions,” she said. “Anger is probably at the top of the list. I’m sad. This world seems to be encased in violence.”
Police believe the fire was intentional, as does Burkhart.
According to a statement, police got a call at 3:52 a.m. Wednesday, reporting a possible burglary at the clinic site on Second Street, right next to a Sinclair gas station. The caller said they’d seen someone running away from the building with a “gas can and black bag,” police said.
When officers arrived, they saw smoke. They called the fire department.
No one was at the clinic at the time, and no injuries were reported.
Burkhart said she was told there was “extensive smoke damage” inside and fire damage affecting one area of the building.
The clinic planned to open in mid-June, offering services including abortion, OB/GYN, family planning and gender-affirming care.
“This was intentional,” Burkhart said, looking at the beige building from a barber shop parking lot across the way. “This was not random.”
It’s unclear how the fire may affect the clinic’s planned opening.
Burkhart said in a statement Wednesday that the clinic will “continue to do everything (it) can to accomplish” its mission of providing reproductive health care in Casper.
Burkhart said she wasn’t necessarily surprised when she got the call around 6 a.m. She’s been concerned about vandalism at the clinic, but said she’s also wary of rising violence around the country.
Having worked at clinics in rural areas of Washington, Oklahoma and Kansas, Burkhart said she’s no stranger to opposition or violence. Her former boss, nationally known abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, was murdered in 2009 at his Wichita church.
A group of anti-abortion protesters has demonstrated outside the clinic every Thursday since its arrival was announced in mid-April.
At the first demonstration, anti-abortion activists signed a statement of peace stating they would not damage private property or “threaten, physically contact or verbally abuse” clinic employees, volunteers or patients.
Bob Brechtel, a former state lawmaker who coordinates a prayer group that attends those demonstrations, said Wednesday that the fire, if intentional, was a “senseless act” that “doesn’t help anybody.”
“I was absolutely surprised,” Brechtel said. “I don’t know why anybody thinks something like this can actually fix any problems.”
Mike Pyatt, a leader of far-right anti-abortion group Liberty’s Place 4 U, said he found Burkhart condemning the suspected arson hypocritical since he sees abortion as violence against the unborn.
“Her colleagues will rip babies out of the womb, and what is that?” he said in a text Wednesday. “What of the old bromide, ‘violence begets violence.’”
Burkhart lives in Colorado, but she was already in Casper when she got the call, preparing to give informal tours of the clinic to press later that day. She came right over, she said, and kept watch over the site all morning.
Police told her she probably wouldn’t be able to go inside until the afternoon, after it’s been cleared by investigators.
Leslie Kee, a local Unitarian Universalist reverend and a member of the clinic’s advisory board, came to keep Burkhart company. Others on the board, Kee said, were “outraged and shocked” when they heard the news.
“If it is intentional, it’s an act of violence. That doesn’t solve anything. That does not solve anything,” Kee said.
Kee said she plans to reexamine security at her own church in the aftermath of the fire.
Chelsea’s Fund, a Lander-based abortion access nonprofit and the primary funder for the clinic, plans to do the same, according to board member Cristina González.
Pro-Choice Wyoming Executive Director Sharon Breitweiser said she was “heartbroken and stunned” at the news of the fire.
“This type of thing happens, you know, but I guess it always shakes you up to know it’s so close to home,” Breitweiser said.
Casper police spokesperson Rebekah Ladd said investigators are reviewing footage from the clinic — which has at least three cameras on the exterior and more inside — to try to identify the suspect. If they find an image that appears to show one, she said, the department plans to release it to the public to ask for help.
Burkhart and Kee said they hope the police call a press conference to discuss the fire.
In addition to several police and fire vehicles, an officer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was also on scene Wednesday morning.
Uniformed officers milled in and out of the building, which had several windows with glass missing or cracked showing a blackened interior.
Detective Andrew Lincowski said there was “lots of damage” inside, but could not elaborate.
Casper Fire Deputy Chief Devin Garvin said the fire remained “pretty small.”
Burkhart said her team was in the process of putting the “finishing touches” on the clinic and planned to start training staff next week. While there was some equipment inside, she said she was glad there wasn’t more.
“I have no clue what this is going to do for staffing. Are people going to be scared and not want to work at the clinic?” Burkhart said. “I just don’t know what the temperature is going to be.”