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Gunshot stays with her always


Inside her tapestry cigarette case, Claudia Gilmore carries mementos from the two biggest days of her life: Her wedding ring and a lead ball.

The ring no longer fits, but the 27-year marriage it symbolizes is going strong. The lead ball came from a shotgun blast that paralyzed her from the chest down.

"Some people thought I should make a paperweight with it or frame it, but I like to have it with me," she said. "I don't know why. But it did change my life."

Gilmore, 44, had been a counselor at the Central Health Center For Women in Springfield.

On good work days, she talked a woman out of an abortion or held another woman's hand during the hardest decision of her life. Bad days would end in tears, crying over the sad parade of lives that passed through the clinic.

The worst day was Dec. 28, 1991. That day Gilmore became a victim of the first abortion clinic shooting in the country.

Because it was the first, police didn't investigate it as anti-abortion terrorism and it wasn't national news.

"Up to that time, bombing and arson was the big thing," Gilmore said. "People didn't go one-on-one with doctors or workers."

Later, when doctors started getting shot, police investigating Gilmore's case sent their findings to the FBI, said Lt. Steve Hamilton, of the Springfield Police Department, but their leads have run cold and the case may never be solved.

Gilmore is troubled by that conclusion.

"The attitude around here, even with the police, was like, "This is terrible, but hey, if it was going to happen to somebody, let it be her,' " she said. Because she worked at an abortion clinic, "nobody really cared."

No help

The man entered the clinic wearing a black ski mask and carrying a sawed-off shotgun with a blue balloon tied to it. It was probably the balloon, whose purpose has never been explained, that made the scene unreal. But when the gun boomed, showering ceiling plaster down on Gilmore's head, she felt the danger.

Her first thought was to get this man out of the clinic, away from patients. Her second thought was to hold him until police arrived.

She pushed him up the stairs toward the exit. Hearing the ruckus, the clinic landlord, Don Catron, tried to help her. During the struggle, Gilmore pulled off the ski mask.

"The hatred in his eyes, oh boy," she said in a recent interview. "That's something I'll always remember. There was so much hatred."

Outside in the frozen rain, the attacker shoved Catron away then shot him in the stomach.

Gilmore stopped struggling and ran to help Catron. She never made it. The man reloaded and pulled the trigger again, hitting Gilmore in the upper back with lead shot.

"There was a thud and I went dead from the waist down and it was like slow motion as I crumpled to the ground," she said. "I knew at that moment, I would never walk again. That part of my life was over."

As she lay on the sidewalk, she watched helplessly as the man picked up a brief case and walked away.

"No one ran after him. No one tried to stop him."

Gilmore got a good look at her assailant: a man she estimated to be in his 50s, gray and black hair, a mustache and "the most perfect nose I ever saw."

But she said she was never asked to help with a composite drawing of the suspect, and the one she saw looked little like her attacker.

An anti-abortion protest was going on that day, and when the first shot was fired, the pickets took cover. They stayed hidden until the gunman was gone, then several hovered over her and began praying for her soul.

"I told them to get the hell away from me," she said. "I told them, "I'm all right with my God, you better be all right with yours.'

"How hypocritical, all this time they've been damning me to hell and then all of a sudden they're trying to save my soul. They've got some nerve."

Gilmore remembers how the protests had grown more aggressive.

"At first we had sincere protesters who'd come out and pray the rosary. We respected them," she said. "Then the fanatics started showing up with their trash cans of baby dolls and red paint and jars of what they called fetuses.

"They were so hate-filled, it was scary. And most of them were out-of-towners," she said. "You know it had gotten bad when the respected protesters wouldn't come out anymore. They were as scared of the fanatics as anyone else."

Gilmore thinks the gunman was hired. "He started screaming that he was going to have to shoot someone and did I want it to be me." The clinic was scheduled to close for good the day she was shot. She believes someone didn't want it to close without event.

Catron recovered but doesn't want to discuss it because the gunman hasn't been arrested.

Gilmore says she isn't bitter, but she does hold one grudge. She blames the local newspaper, the News-Leader, which wrote critical stories about the clinic's doctor, Scott Barrett, and editorially called him a "butcher."

An abortion patient had died after suffering complications and her family won a $25-million wrongful death suit against Barrett. Several negligence complaints were filed against him to the Missouri Board of Healing Arts, which pulled his license to practice medicine in 1992.

"I had a hard time trying to reconcile "Barrett the butcher' with the caring man I worked with," she said. "The paper incited these people and basically gave them permission to do this."

Trying to heal

At the hospital, a psychiatrist offered to help Gilmore deal with the "unexpectedness of being a paraplegic."

It wasn't unexpected, she told the doctor.

"I've expected a bomb to come through the door for years. You live every day knowing there was a possibility of not coming home."

Now, she wears high-top leather sports shoes to keep her feet weighted down. "I'm a spastic paraplegic -- I have spasms we call earthquakes -- and if I'm not wearing high tops, I'm liable to kick you."

Rehab was to take months, but she got out in six weeks after learning how to sit up again. She returned to the two-bedroom bungalow she's lived in for 20 years.

Her two children are grown children and she has a 7-year-old grandson. Her husband, Jerry, is the "strong, silent type."

"When I got shot, the first thing he said was "I love you,' and I said, "Don't worry, I'm not dying.' "

Jerry remodeled the house so she could wheel through doorways and get to the van. He removed the cabinet doors beneath the sink so she could wash dishes. "It looks like hell, but it works, and it didn't cost of anything," she said.

"I'm back to being a housewife -- something I did for 18 years before I went to work -- and I hate it worse than anything in the world."

She took a drag on her cigarette, apologizing, "it's one of the few pleasures I have left." She fills her days writing romance novels and crocheting.

There are more things she misses. Like when her husband does something that makes her want to walk over and hug him. "And I miss being able to sneak up on my grandson and tickle him."

After the shooting, abortion rights activists invited Gilmore to a big demonstration. She declined.

"If I'd been shot and could still walk, I'd probably be out on the front lines, protecting clinics or something," she said. "But as it is, it's too difficult."

There's also more to it.

"Where were the (abortion rights supporters) before this happened, when we needed help?" she said. "They wanted nothing to do with this doctor with the bad rap, even though it was a bum rap.

"They had a big fund raiser that my family went to, they thought it was supposed to be for me, but they raised money for the cause and I think I got $28."

Gilmore thinks anti-abortion violence will only get more violent, so she wants people to see what that violence has wrought.

"Abortion doesn't have to be illegal. If they kill doctors, there's not going to be anyone willing to do it," she said. "Some of the footage of these people really shows the fanatics for what they are and it should scare normal American people.

"Where do these people get off thinking they've got the direct line to God, that they can be so judgmental and shove their religion down everyone's throats?

"I hate to tell the protesters this, but God was on my side."