(NEW YORK) — An Illinois man has been arrested and charged for allegedly setting fire to a Planned Parenthood clinic, federal authorities said Wednesday.
Tyler W. Massengill, 32, of Chillicoth, Illinois, is facing charges of malicious use of fire and an explosive to damage as well as attempt to damage, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois.
The charges stem from a fire that was reported late in the night on Jan. 15 at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Peoria, about 160 miles southwest of Chicago. After interviewing witnesses and reviewing surveillance footage in the area, investigators learned that a white pickup truck with red doors had parked adjacent to the building shortly before the blaze began and drove away just moments after, according to the complaint.
At approximately 11:20 p.m. CT that night, a man wearing a coat with a hood pulled up and possibly a face mask was seen walking up to the Planned Parenthood clinic “with a laundry detergent-sized bottle,” according to the complaint. The man “lit a rag on fire on one end of the bottle, smashed a window with an object, then placed the container inside of the … building” before “quickly” fleeing the scene “on foot,” the complaint stated.
According to the Peoria Police Department, no patients or staff were inside the Planned Parenthood clinic at the time of blaze. A firefighter sustained non-life-threatening injuries while attempting to extinguish the flames. Investigators quickly determined that the preliminary cause of the fire was arson, police said.
On Jan. 17, after receiving several tips, the Peoria Police Department linked the truck to Massengill. Police also obtained a booking photo of Massengill and found a Facebook account in his name, and the images from both “bear a likeness” to the man captured on surveillance video outside the Planned Parenthood clinic, according to the complaint.
On Jan. 23, a woman contacted local police to tell them that she had Massengill’s truck in her garage in Sparland, about 30 miles northeast of Peoria. She told police that, on Jan. 16, Massengill had requested to keep his white pickup truck in her garage and to paint its red doors white for $300, according to the complaint.
The woman said she last spoke with Massengill via Facebook on Jan. 18, when she asked him to come get his truck. She said he indicated that he had seen his truck on the news but told her: “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” according to the complaint.
The FBI seized Massengill’s truck on Jan. 23, by which time the doors had been painted white. FBI agents also “recovered a paint grinder from the scene with red paint residue,” the complaint stated.
The following day, Massengill contacted the Peoria Police Department and said he wanted to speak about the Jan. 15 fire at the Planned Parenthood clinic. While meeting with investigators, Massengill initially denied responsibility for the blaze but ultimately admitted to breaking a window and placing a burning container inside the building. He also confirmed that he had asked someone to paint his truck white after the incident, according to the complaint.
Massengill told investigators that, approximately three years ago, he had a girlfriend in the Peoria area who became pregnant and had an abortion. He said she first told him about the abortion via telephone while he was working in Alaska, which upset him. On or around Jan. 15, Massengill said he heard or saw something that reminded him of the abortion, which upset him again, according to the complaint.
Massengill also told investigators that if his actions on the night of Jan. 15 caused “a little delay” in someone receiving abortion services at the Planned Parenthood clinic, it may have been “all worth it,” according to the complaint.
The Planned Parenthood location in Peoria, which had to be closed due to damage from the fire, offers medication abortion but is not a site for in-clinic procedures, according to Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
Massengill was taken into custody on Jan. 24. If convicted on all charges, he faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of at least five years and could be sentenced to as many as 40 years behind bars. The charges also carry up to three years of supervised release and a possible fine of up to $250,000, according to a press release issued Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It was unknown whether Massengill had retained legal representation.
The incident at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Peoria happened just two days after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed comprehensive reproductive health care legislation into law that protects out-of-state abortion seekers and allows them to get an abortion. Illinois is among a number of U.S. states that have managed to enact legal reinforcements around abortions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
Last week, the FBI announced that it is offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the wake of a spate of attacks against reproductive health facilities across the country.
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