"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As a romantic outlaw, fugitive Clayton Lee Waagner is no John Dillinger. But if he and his friends in the Army of God are successful, the 44-year-old career criminal could become a folk hero, even a martyr, to the violent antiabortion movement.
Waagner, who escaped from the DeWitt County Jail in Clinton, Ill., in February and has eluded capture since, says he’s been driving across the country stalking abortion clinics, assembling a cache of weapons and compiling dossiers on clinic staff in order “to kill as many of them as I can.” Clayton made his threats on the “Clayton Waagner Message Board,” hosted by the antiabortion Army of God.
“Pray,” he asks his supporters, “that every one I kill causes a hundred to quit.”
Waagner’s threat has galvanized abortion providers, clinic defenders and law enforcement officials into a state of high alert, while Army of God leaders are cheering Waagner on and calling on pro-lifers to give him shelter.
“Go Waagner, go!” cheered Army of God “chaplain” Rev. Michael Bray on the message board (which has now been shut down without explanation). Bray hails the fugitive as a “fellow who goes for the gusto,” and urges antiabortion activists to help Waagner continue “giving the slip to federal agents” by hiding him in their homes.
“If someone doesn’t catch him soon, he’s going to kill someone,” says an alarmed Ann Glazier, director of clinic security for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “He meets all the criteria,” she continued. “He has weapons; he has money; he is clear about what he wants to do; and he has a means of getting from one location to another.”
“It’s a tough case,” says senior inspector Geoff Shank of the U.S. Marshals Service, the division of the Justice Department responsible for, among other things, keeping track of federal prisoners. “We arrest people all over the world,” Shank observed, “so there is nowhere he can hide. Waagner is a convicted felon who has escaped from prison. And we will pursue him till we get him, no matter how long it takes. Pro-life or pro-choice has nothing to do with it.”
Waagner is currently on the U.S. Marshals’ Most Wanted List.
At the time of his escape, Waagner, of Kennerdell, Pa., was awaiting sentencing — 15 years to life — after his conviction on federal weapons and stolen vehicle charges. Since then, the crafty criminal has repeatedly slipped though the police dragnet, leading cops on a chase while stealing cars and robbing at least one bank. He has apparently recruited accomplices, including an unidentified man who drove the getaway car for the bank stickup last week outside Harrisburg, Pa.
“Thanks to some very generous bank financing” — an apparent reference to the Harrisburg heist (and, the FBI believes, possibly others), Waagner says he is ensconced in a “very secure safe house” and has assembled “the tools I would need to wage war.”
Waagner is far from a populist antihero, merrily thumbing his nose at the cops. His beliefs and plans are more comparable to those of the grimly methodical Timothy McVeigh, the Aryan Republican Army and other violent far-right revolutionaries of the past decade, including, of course, the Army of God, a shadowy, loosely affiliated band of antiabortion terrorists who’ve taken responsibility for assorted clinic violence. Waagner envisions himself pitted against “the most powerful country in the world” — a country that views him as a terrorist.
“They’re right,” he declares. “I am a terrorist. And that’s the reason I’m posting this letter.”
Waagner likes to taunt the feds. In his message, he describes how he fled unseen across open fields in the winter, “dressed as a pumpkin” — an apparent reference to his prison-issue orange jumpsuit. He also ridicules the marshals’ national manhunt. “Where is all this manpower going? he wonders. “Sure they’re watching my house. I’ve driven by there.” But Waagner claims “they haven’t been watching the clinics very close. I know this because [I've] been watching them close and I saw no U.S. marshals, nor did any see me.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” senior inspector Shank says of the taunts. “You get this stuff all the time.”
The only confirmed Waagner sighting since his escape was at a Tennessee truck stop. But staffers at several abortion clinics, including one in Harrisburg, believe they have seen him. Shank, while not out ruling out the possibility, says that there are no confirmed sightings of Waagner at clinics. But at his trial last year, Waagner testified that he had stalked over 100 clinics in 19 states.
Waagner and the Army of God know that to create terror you don’t have to be everywhere; people just need to feel that you might be anywhere. So without firing a shot, Waagner has met at least part of his goal, frightening clinic staff nationwide, and contributing to their feeling of being under constant siege.
And it’s the possibility that Waagner will act on his stated threat that drives broad interest in the case, even as Shank and the marshals try to stay focused on capturing the fugitive. Unlike James Kopp, who was captured in France and awaits extradition to the U.S. to face charges in the assassination of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, Waagner boasts that he will stay in the U.S. to “envoke [sic] terror,” and perhaps find martyrdom.
God rescued him from jail, he says, so that “I might lay down my life for His will. He freed me to make war on His enemy … And a war it shall be.” “I do not believe I will live long enough to see this war end,” he declares, “but I do believe I will see it become changed.”
“Time will tell if Clayton will obey the voice of God in this matter,” writes the Army of God webmaster, Rev. Don Spitz, in an introduction to Waagner’s message. “Many anti-abortionists believe God opened the door of escape for Clayton to give Clayton a second chance to do God’s will.”
The arrest that set in motion Waagner’s imprisonment, escape and “crime spree with a mission” occurred on Sept. 12, 1999, when a state trooper stopped to assist a broken-down Winnebago. It turned out that the Winnebago was stolen and that stolen handguns were stashed under the seat. Waagner told everyone who would listen that he wanted to kill abortion doctors, but that he hadn’t been able to do it yet. He also told a federal agent that if his wife and eight children hadn’t been with him, he would have killed the arresting officer. During his trial, he said his only regret was that he hadn’t shot an abortion provider.
Since then, Waagner has concluded that doctors are too well protected to be targets of violence, and says he will be “going after everyone else. Anyone who works at an abortion location or Planned Parenthood (I don’t care if their location actually performs abortions or not. ALL Planned Parenthood locations are targets.). It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a nurse, receptionist, bookkeeper, or janitor, if you work for the murderous abortionist I’m going to kill you.”
According to research by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, Spitz and other Army of God figures such as Neal Horsley and David Leach corresponded with Waagner while he was in prison, in what may have been a recruitment campaign. Horsley is best known for posting on his Nuremberg Files Web site photos of doctors, accompanied by personal information that might assist a would-be killer in locating the doctors or their families. Critics called it a “hit list,” in part because the names of murdered doctors were subsequently crossed out.
In a letter to Leach, Waagner called for the formation of a “Combat Information Center,” a Web site that would include “data on every abortion mill in the country: address, phone number, hours of operation, names of staff and photos. The type of intelligence that would be useful to a field warrior,” he wrote. While some people feel that the Nuremberg Files site already serves that purpose, Waagner thinks more comprehensive information is needed.
Waagner’s relationships to Army of God figures alarm Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, but they don’t surprise her. She has watched with horror as the rhetoric from this sector has mushroomed from protest to justification for violence and murder to justification for violence against “accessories” to language that suggests that anyone in a “war zone” is fair game. “There is clearly a network that is encouraging, and aiding and abetting Waagner and others,” Smeal says.
Waagner’s threat to kill clinic staff is also worrisome because it recalls the attack of the young, deranged John Salvi, who shot up two clinics in Brookline, Mass., in 1995, killing two receptionists and wounding three others. Waagner’s connections to Spitz have clinic security officials concerned as well.
Salvi eluded capture for several days after the Brookline massacre, driving down the East Coast to Norfolk, Va., where he was apprehended by police shortly after spraying the outside of a clinic with bullets from a semiautomatic weapon. Spitz, who lives nearby, said he did not know Salvi and didn’t know how he got his number. But he did demonstrate in support of Salvi outside the local jail.
“I think it was divine intervention [that Salvi came here],” Spitz said. “Maybe because there is support for him here.” Salvi was found guilty of the two murders, but his conviction was later vacated when he committed suicide in Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts before he could complete an appeal.
Waagner’s criminal record dates back to the theft of a motorcycle in Lynchburg, Va., in the mid-1970s, according to Dennis Roddy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who has followed the case closely. Waagner served 52 months in federal prison in the early 1990s on charges stemming from the theft of a $83,000 coin collection, as well as on firearms charges. The FBI lists five aliases he has used in his criminal career.
The catalyst that turned Waagner’s growing antiabortion militancy into a terrorist crusade seems to have been the funeral service his minister held following his daughter’s miscarriage in January 1999. “It did something to me that is just hard to express,” Waagner said, and God then called him to “be [his] warrior” and to kill abortion doctors. In September 1999, according to TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” — which has profiled Waagner four times — he escaped into Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest after police stopped him in yet another stolen vehicle.
“Inside the vehicle,” intoned host John Walsh, “there were stolen license plates, fraudulent licenses, three gas cans, two stun guns, laptop computer, photo equipment, scanner, a Solider of Fortune magazine [and] a handwritten list of abortion clinics in Tennessee and Georgia.”
Waagner tried to plead insanity at his trial, claiming that he was receiving messages from God. But in his Army of God communiqués, he no longer embraces insanity, but affects more of the smirking esprit de corps that marks the public posture of the Army of God. And while he may be less glamorous than Hollywood’s version of the legendary on-the-lam gangster, Waagner is now combining Internet-age savvy with his known skills as a bank robber, car thief and survivalist.
Waagner’s posting to the Army of God site is consistent with the group’s recent efforts to use the Internet as a tool of intimidation and psychological warfare, and to augment the physical violence perpetrated against providers. The intersection of the two strategies is epitomized by the recent posting of the photos of patients, escorts and staff coming and going at abortion clinics on the Nuremberg Files Web site. The stated purpose is to intimidate women from seeking abortion. Hundreds of photos have been posted so far, and more are added almost daily. (This week, some portions of the site were blocked by its server, Webfever.net, which posted this message: “We are neither for nor against the content provided by this website, however due to the graphic nature of this website, we have decided the content falls in violation of the Acceptable Use Policy on our servers.”)
ArmyofGod.com, whose short list of links includes the Nuremberg Files, hosts the “authorized home pages” of Army of God “martyrs” Paul Hill, convicted in the double murder of an abortion provider and his escort, and Rachelle “Shelly” Shannon, convicted of the attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller and of firebombing clinics all over the West. The site also posts a notorious handbook of terror tactics that have been used against abortion providers, which was originally unearthed from Shannon’s backyard by federal agents.
Two days after Waagner’s communiqué Spitz posted a note “for Clayton” expressing the wish that “God continue to keep you safe!” — purportedly from Shannon, who remains in federal custody.
During its existence, the Waagner message board also became a place for “me too” threats. Someone using the handle “Sparky” wrote on June 21, “ABORTION MILLS IN THE HAMPTON ROADS VIRGINIA AREA. I HOPE YOU TAKE CLAYTONS THREATS SERIOUSELY.”
Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agencies are aggressively using the Internet in support of their efforts to track Waagner. Besides the U.S. Marshals Service, Waagner is also being pursued by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, each of which has a “wanted” poster on its Web site.
Citizen groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation are also playing a pivotal role in using the Internet to track terrorists. The FMF, which provides security and political support for clinics, issued an “urgent security alert” on the Waagner threats with links to the Web pages of law enforcement agencies.
Even as the hunt for Waagner heats up, the fugitive is plunging deeper into the otherworldliness of the zealot. The cops don’t seem to understand his escape from prison, he says. “But I do. My God has called me to a task,” he asserts. “He freed me and He protected me … I am anointed and called to be God’s Warrior. And in that call I am protected by THE MOST HIGH GOD.”
Frederick Clarkson has reported on the religious right for 15 years. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press, 1997).More Frederick Clarkson.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)