Abortion on Trial
Understandably, Pendergraft was baffled and concerned. Up until then, he hadn't worried about much besides the usual--hiring staff and drawing patients--when it came to setting up in Ocala. But the notion that the FBI wouldn't investigate what appeared to be a bomb threat was troubling, and he began to have second thoughts. If everyone in Ocala, including the FBI, was against him, maybe it was a bad idea to go there. Perhaps he should follow Spielvogel's advice and sell the clinic after all.
So Pendergraft sent Cretul a letter in February 1998 suggesting that if an offer was going to be made to purchase the building, it be made then, and that all communication on the matter be addressed to Spielvogel. No deal was struck, and Pendergraft opened his clinic to a firestorm of protest in July.
Since opening day, protesters have stood along the perimeter of its parking lot the two days a week abortions are performed, waving signs at passing traffic (Abortion Kills: God Calls It Murder) and shouting at patients and workers. Around fifteen protesters comprise what they call a "mass unit," offering prayer and "sidewalk counseling" to women entering the clinic. Two months after the clinic opened, the Alpha Center for Women set up shop next door, a "Christian pregnancy center" that offers free pregnancy tests and recommends adoption.
Not long after opening, Pendergraft asked Marion County and Ocala law enforcement for off-duty police officers to protect his patients and staff. Both departments denied his request. Frustrated, Pendergraft then filed a lawsuit against the county, city and various individuals in December 1998. On the advice of his attorney at the time, Roy Lucas, Pendergraft later added to the charges a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) law based on Cretul's alleged threat to Spielvogel. In February 1999, after Pendergraft and Spielvogel filed affidavits attesting to that threat, Marion County attorney Virgil Wright set up a settlement conference between himself, Pendergraft, Spielvogel and Lucas, which was surreptitiously taped by the FBI.
Lucas had proposed a wild settlement sum of $6 million to Wright before the conference. But during the meeting, Wright said that any settlement over $100,000 was out of the question. Lucas knew that figure would not even cover Pendergraft's initial investment in the clinic building, let alone compensate him for lost work, and held up a newspaper headlining a $107 million settlement for a clinic in Oregon. The characteristically brazen Pendergraft added that he'd be happy to take the case to trial: "Let the jury decide; the facts are the facts. We will bankrupt the county." Although Pendergraft insists this was the bombastic language of deal-making, not a threat, the prosecution cited it again and again during the trial as evidence of extortion.
A grand jury indicted Pendergraft on charges of conspiracy (with Michael Spielvogel), extortion and mail fraud on June 13 of last year. After the defense petitioned unsuccessfully to relocate out of Ocala, the trial began this past January at a courthouse less than two blocks from Pendergraft's clinic. Tracie Stern, an activist with Refuse & Resist!, attended the proceedings from start to finish. "The prosecution portrayed Pendergraft the way they like to portray abortion providers--as this money-grubbing doctor who doesn't care about women," says Stern, who led an ad hoc Pendergraft defense committee. "The judge didn't play fair with the defense attorneys, and [US prosecuting attorney Mark] Devereaux was consistently belittling and belligerent. They were counting on conservative Ocala to bring them the verdict they wanted."