Planned Parenthood shooting suspect left trail of conflict

Published November 28 2015
Updated November 29 2015

HARTSEL, Colo. — Robert Lewis Dear was a man who lived off the grid.

On this lonely, snow-covered patch of land in a hamlet ringed by the Rocky Mountains, his home was a white trailer, with a forest-green four-wheeler by the front door and a modest black cross painted on one end.

As police officers surrounded it Saturday, looking for clues to what they said had sent its owner on a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood center that left three dead and nine wounded, neighbors said they barely knew him, beyond one man's memory of his handing out anti-Obama political pamphlets.

Van Wands, 58, whose wife owns a local saloon, said there were two types of people in the area: the old-timers who put effort into getting to know their neighbors, and newcomers who wished for solitude. Dear, he said, fell solidly into the second category.

"That'd be one that preferred to be left alone," he said.

A day after the shooting, a portrait emerged of a man with a sporadic record of brushes with the law and neighbors and relatives. In 1997, his wife at the time reported to police that he had locked her out of her home and pushed her out of a window when she tried to climb back in. In 2002, Dear was arrested after a neighbor complained he had hidden in bushes and tried to peer into her house. An online personal ad believed to be posted by Dear sought partners for sadomasochistic sex.

With Colorado Springs residents telling chilling tales of hours spent hiding in stores near the shootout Friday, authorities shed no light publicly on whether they believed Dear, 57, had deliberately targeted Planned Parenthood. But one senior law enforcement official, who would only speak about an ongoing investigation anonymously, said that after Dear was arrested, he had said "no more baby parts" in a rambling interview with authorities.

The official said that Dear said a lot of things during his interview, making it difficult for authorities to pinpoint a specific motivation.

In Washington, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement that the shooting was "not only a crime against the Colorado Springs community, but a crime against women receiving health care services at Planned Parenthood, law enforcement seeking to protect and serve, and other innocent people. It was also an assault on the rule of law, and an attack on all Americans' right to safety and security."

Senior Justice Department officials were looking into whether to move forward with a federal case. Along with examining whether Dear could be charged with a hate crime, officials were exploring whether he might have violated federal laws that are designed to protect abortion clinics. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it a crime to use physical force against patients and clinic employees.

President Barack Obama on Saturday again called on America to tackle gun violence.

"This is not normal," he said in a statement. "We can't let it become normal. If we truly care about this — if we're going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them."

Dear, who surrendered to police Friday evening, remained in custody without bond at the El Paso County criminal justice center. Law enforcement records and interviews began to paint a portrait of an itinerant loner who left behind a trail of disputes and occasionally violent acts toward neighbors and women he knew.

His former wife, Pamela Ross, 54, who was with him for 16 years or so and once called police to accuse him of domestic violence, recalled that Dear could be angry at times, sometimes with her. But he was the kind who usually followed a flash of anger with an apology, although he was not much for chitchat.

He was an independent art dealer with a degree in public administration from a Midwestern college, she said, who struck deals with artists, mostly Southern ones, who painted Charleston, S.C., street scenes, Old South plantations, magnolias and the Citadel campus. He tended to buy the rights to paintings, commission 1,000 or so prints, and then market the prints and keep the proceeds.

He was born in Charleston and grew up in Louisville, Ky., but he had strong ties to South Carolina. His father was a graduate of the Citadel, Charleston's famous public military college. Robert Lewis Dear Sr., the father, died in 2004. He was a Navy veteran who served in World War II and worked 40 years for Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co.

The younger Dear was raised as a Baptist, Ross said in an interview in Goose Creek, S.C., where she now lives. He was religious but not a regular churchgoer, a believer but not one to harp on religion.

"He believed wholeheartedly in the Bible," she said. "That's what he always said, he read it cover to cover to cover."

But he was not fixated on it, she added.

He was generally conservative but not obsessed with politics. He kept guns around the house for protection and hunting, and he taught their son to hunt doves, as many Southern fathers do. He believed that abortion was wrong, but it was not something that he spoke about obsessively.

"It was never really a topic of discussion," she said.

"It never, ever, ever, ever crossed my mind," she said, that he'd be capable of such a thing. "My heart just fell to my stomach."

Ross divorced Dear in 2000. She has since remarried and has seen him only once or twice in 15 years. Their divorce was amicable, and he moved shortly thereafter to the Asheville, N.C., region. After the divorce, Dear had asked her to stay. He eventually took custody of their son, who was 12 at the time. Dear raised him in North Carolina. Ross said she had been confident that he would be a good parent and role model.

She acknowledged that she had once called police about him but declined to talk about it.

A police incident report shows that, in 1997, she told police that he had locked her out of her home and had "hit her and pushed her out the window" when she tried to climb in. He also shoved her to the ground. The report said she did not want to file charges but simply "wanted something on record of this incident occurring."

In decades of living in North Carolina and South Carolina, Dear appeared to stir resentments among neighbors and lash out at people around him, according to police reports. Some former neighbors said they were not surprised by the violence in Colorado Springs.

In Swannanoa, N.C. — where Dear had lived for a time in a single-wide trailer — a novelist, Leland Davis, said he had repeatedly been followed by Dear in a late-model Toyota Tacoma. Davis believed Dear had followed him because he suspected that Davis had complained to the authorities about how Dear had treated a dog. The men never spoke, Davis said in an interview in his home Saturday night, but Dear had mounted something of a scare campaign.

"He followed me all the way into downtown Asheville," Davis said. "He followed me three or four times."

So Davis said he was unsurprised to see Dear, whom he described as "a pretty poorly adjusted guy," emerge as the suspect in the Colorado shootings.

"I think I would have thought he was a guy who would go on a rampage," he said. "We were very wary."

In Black Mountain, N.C., Dear had sometimes lived in a small yellow house reachable only after miles of driving on mountain roads. Two sticks, forming a cross, were attached to a padlocked shed that was filled with bedding, gas canisters and worn boxes of beer. He bought the house without running water.

Scott Rupp, who sold it to him, worried about whether Dear would fit in the community, which was populated by "environmental types," he said.

"He was like a mountain culture person," Rupp said, "and he was really excited to get a place where he could hunt."

In 2002, in Walterboro, S.C., Dear was arrested on charges of breaking the state's "Peeping Tom" law after a neighbor told police that he had hidden in the bushes in an attempt to peer into her house. For months, the neighbor, Lynn Roberts, said, Dear was "making unwanted advancements" and "leering" at her on a regular basis, putting her "in fear of her safety," according to an incident report.

The charge was later dismissed, but a restraining order was issued.

He also repeatedly had other run-ins with neighbors. One, Douglas Moore, said Dear had called him to threaten "bodily harm" because Dear believed Moore had pushed over his motorcycle, according to a police report in 2004. Two years earlier, after Moore had called police to report his dog's being shot with a pellet gun, Dear told investigators, "Douglas was lucky that it was only a pellet that hit the dog and not a bigger round."

Dear himself called police several times to complain of people making a nuisance or breaking a water pipe from his well to his home. In 2007, he accused tenants who were renting his home of stealing a pickup truck, refrigerator and microwave.

He seemed to have a separate life online. An online personals ad seeking women in North Carolina interested in bondage and sadomasochistic sex showed a picture that appeared to be Dear and used an online pseudonym associated with him. The same user also appeared to have turned to online message boards to seek companions in the Asheville area with whom he could smoke marijuana.

On the Cannabis.com site, the writer in December 2005 said: "AIDS, hurricanes, we are in the end times. Accept the LORD JESUS while you can."

In his new home in the Rocky Mountains, where he had been registered to vote for only a year, neighbors said they did not know him well. Zigmond Post, who lives about a half-mile from Dear, said that he had met him only a few times but that his dogs had once gotten loose on Dear's property. When he went to fetch them, Dear handed him a few political pamphlets strongly critical of Obama. Post said the pamphlets were strictly political and did not have any anti-abortion messages or racist overtones.

"He gave us these pamphlets and said, 'Hey, if you ever want to talk about this stuff, look this over,'" Post said in a telephone interview. "I think we threw them into the campfire that night."

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