The gunman suspected of storming a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and killing a police officer and two others used the phrase "no more baby parts" to explain his act, according to a law enforcement official, a comment sure to further inflame the heated rhetoric surrounding abortion.
Robert Lewis Dear's attack on the clinic was "definitely politically motivated," said the official.
NBC News, which first reported the comment, said Dear also mentioned US President Barack Obama in a range of statements to investigators that left his precise motivation unclear.
Yet even as authorities released few details about the shootings, the politics of the highly-charged abortion issue seemed to outstrip their efforts to be methodical. While anti-abortion activists denied any knowledge of Dear and said he is not affiliated with their movement, pro-choice activists said that comments by conservatives against Planned Parenthood had precipitated the violence. Vicki Cowart, president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, cited "eyewitness accounts" in asserting that Dear "was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion".
"We've seen an alarming increase in hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns against abortion providers and patients over the last few months," she said. "That environment breeds acts of violence."
Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions and other health-care services, has been at the centre of a political storm as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up. Republican candidates have denounced the organisation, especially after an anti-abortion group released a series of surreptitiously filmed videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discussed the techniques and financial aspects of harvesting fetal-tissue samples for scientific research.
Dear, 57, is accused of fatally shooting University of Colorado police officer Garrett Swasey and two as-yet unnamed civilians at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic. At least four other officers and five more civilians were also injured.
Dear was scheduled to appear in court tomorrow, to first face state charges and then federal charges, said the law enforcement official.
Authorities said Dear was armed with what they described as a long gun and had also brought into the clinic several unspecified items that could have been explosives.
Obama issued a refrain for more gun-control measures, which has become a depressingly familiar ritual after mass shootings. Regardless of the motive, he said, the frequency of mass killings in the United States is unacceptable. "This is not normal. We can't let it become normal. If we truly care about this ... 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. Period. Enough is enough."
Republican candidates who have been full-throated in their denunciations of Planned Parenthood for much of the year fell nearly silent. Only Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich referred to the shootings, but neither mentioned Planned Parenthood. All three leading Democratic candidates issued statements supporting Planned Parenthood.
Referring to anti-abortion groups, Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, an association for abortion providers, said: "They have ignited a firestorm of hate. They knew there could be these types of consequences ... It's not a huge surprise that somebody would take this type of action."
Anti-abortion groups were quick to denounce the shooting and distance themselves from Dear with numerous activists saying they have never interacted with or heard of him. Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, which tracks abortion clinics and posts information about abortion doctors, said he entered Dear's name into his membership database and came up empty. "The guy is a very dangerous, unstable individual who desired to kill people, and that is not in any way what the pro-life movement stands for," Newman said.
Neighbours recall strange encounters
To neighbours, it looked like a moonshine shack; a little, yellow, wooden hut, with overgrown weeds and no indoor plumbing, banged together by its owner, Robert Lewis Dear.
Whenever Dear came to stay in his shack in the woods, the neighbours in Anderson Acres, a community of about seven houses along a steep, gravel road at Black Mountain, North Carolina, kept their kids inside.
"He was the kind of person you had to watch out for," said one neighbour, who asked not to be identified, saying he feared retaliation. "He was a very weird individual. It's hard to explain, but he had a weird look in his eye most of the time."
Dear, 57, appears to have been a malcontent who drifted in the past couple of years. In addition to the shack, he lived in a mobile home in another town in North Carolina and a camper in Colorado, which he shared with Stephanie Bragg, who moved with him from the East Coast.
Some who knew him found him unremarkable, while others said he seemed delusional and aggressive.
He had a history of run-ins with neighbours and police, including arrests for cruelty to animals and being a "peeping Tom". He was not convicted.
"It's just too devastating, it's just something you can't fathom happening," Pamela Ross, who was married to Dear nearly 20 years ago, said. She declined to comment further.
Dear's problems with the law date to 1997, when his then-wife reported to police that Dear had assaulted her, according to the Sheriff's Office in Colleton County, South Carolina, where Dear lived at the time.
Colleton County police released reports of at least seven other incidents where Dear had altercations with other residents.
In Anderson Acres, the neighbour said: "He complained about everything. He said he worked with the government, and everybody was out to get him ... He said, 'Nobody touch me, because I've got enough information to put the whole US of A in danger.' It was very crazy."
Neighbour Dale Reeves said Dear's property is now for sale. Reeves said Dear "didn't mingle with anyone".
FBI agents arrived at the shack yesterday.
One neighbour said about five years ago, Dear fell off a motor scooter, broke his collar bone and didn't get medical help. The neighbour said he could see the bone was broken but Dear said, "No, no, I don't need anything."
Neighbours recalled that Dear had a motorcycle and an ATV that he would drive up the dirt road at high speeds, scaring the local kids.
"I'd get on him and say, 'Look man, you've got to slow down a little bit'," the first neighbour said. "And he'd speed even more, like we weren't even there. He'd just try to start confrontations all the time."
Neighbours on Anderson Acres said they never saw Dear with a gun, and they never heard him speak about politics or abortion rights.
"He was just always saying, 'I know the US is trying to kill everybody' and do this and do that ... Just craziness. Just pure, right-out craziness all the time," said one local resident. "I'm kind of glad he's put away now."
• It has been six years since anyone was killed in connection with the abortion debate.
• Over the past 20 years, there have been an average of 257 incidents a year directed at abortion clinics and staff, and an average of 139 over the last five years. The bulk of those incidents are vandalism and trespassing.
• In the United States and Canada, at least eight people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics and doctors who provide abortions since 1993.
• Since 2000, the National Abortion Federation has recorded an average of about two attacks annually, most of them arsons. That figure does not include death threats, burglaries, assaults or batteries.
• That figure also does not include the 554 letters to clinics sent by terrorist Clayton Waagner in 2000which claimed, falsely, to contain anthrax. Waagner was convicted of extortion, threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and other charges, and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
• Another tactic frequently used by abortion opponents is to vandalise clinics with butyric acid, a costly nuisance.