Salvi, John C., III

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Salvi, John C., III

(b. 2 March 1972 in Salem, Massachusetts; d. 29 November 1996 in Walpole, Massachusetts), religious fanatic and aspiring hairdresser who murdered two women and wounded five other people in attacks on two abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts. Considered mentally ill by his family and his attorneys, he was convicted of murder and sent to a maximum security prison where he took his own life.

Salvi was the only child of John C. Salvi, Jr., a dental technician, and Anne Marie Salvi, a choir director and piano teacher. He grew up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where his family was active in the French Canadian parish of Saint Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church. Salvi attended parochial schools and served as an altar boy at Saint Stanislaus until he was thirteen years old, when his father moved the family to Naples, Florida, and Salvi switched to public high school.

While in Florida, Salvi began showing signs of emotional instability. By many accounts his family life was turbulent and fraught with arguments between the teenager and his parents. Far from typical family disagreements, these arguments were bitter and troubling, punctuated by several serious incidents. In 1991 Salvi was the prime arson suspect in a fire that destroyed a storage-space business owned by his father, but the senior Salvi refused to pursue the investigation of his son. Salvi’s high school years were further marked by car accidents and at least two brushes with the law over suspicious fires. His father later conceded that even he considered the boy to be a troubled person.

After high school Salvi spent a short time at Edison Community College in Florida, then bounced from job to job, eventually drifting back to New England in 1992. He lived with relatives in Ipswich until finding an apartment of his own in Everett, Massachusetts. Later, Salvi moved to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, where he found a condominium with low off-season rental rates. During his years in Hampton Beach, Salvi attended hairdressing school and worked part-time sweeping floors at a salon. His coworkers described him as quiet and extremely religious, refusing to work on Sundays and prone to quoting scripture.

When his parents visited him at Christmas in 1994, Salvi and his father fell into an argument revolving around the elder Salvi’s disapproval of his son’s decision to pursue a career as a hairdresser. Still angry at Christmas mass on 24 December, Salvi created a scene by stepping in front of the congregation at Saint Elizabeth’s Church in Seabrook, Massachusetts, and ranting about the problems of the Catholic Church and its failures to see the true meaning of Christ.

Earlier in 1994 Salvi had purchased a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition from a gun shop in Salisbury, Massachusetts. On 30 December 1994, armed with this rifle, he opened fire in two Brookline abortion clinics, killing two women and wounding five other people. At the time the shooting was considered the worst attack on abortion providers in the nation’s history. He struck first around 10:00 A.M. at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Beacon Street, killing the receptionist and wounding three other people. Ten minutes later he walked into the Preterm Health Services clinic two miles away on the same street, killing the receptionist there as well and wounding two other people. At the Preterm clinic, while trading gunfire with a security guard, Salvi dropped a black duffel bag in which police later found a receipt containing his name and address.

After the attacks Salvi returned briefly to his apartment in Hampton Beach, then headed south to Norfolk, Virginia, where he shot through the rear door of the Hillcrest abortion clinic. There police arrested him. He was arraigned at the Norfolk District Court on one felony count of shooting a weapon into an occupied building. While in jail in Virginia, Salvi rebuffed opportunities to confess to the Brookline abortion clinic slayings but repeatedly asked for newspapers and seemed obsessed with the publicity surrounding the shootings. The Virginia felony charge was eventually deferred so that he could be returned to Massachusetts, where he was charged with two counts of transporting a firearm across state lines with intent to commit a felony and unlawful flight from Massachusetts to avoid state prosecution in the Brookline clinic shootings. Finally, Salvi was charged with two counts of armed assault with attempt to murder for the attacks at the Brookline abortion clinics.

Although he was not affiliated with any antiabortion organization, Salvi was known to have met with leaders of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and he took part in at least one prayer vigil in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline. He also had some contact with the Reverend Donald Spitz, head of the Pro-Life Virginia antiabortion group that rallied in support of Salvi outside the Norfolk jail in which he was held. While living in Everett, Salvi sometimes stood in front of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church and handed out antiabortion pamphlets and photographs of fetuses. The bumper of his pickup truck sported a picture of an aborted fetus and antiabortion slogans.

However, Salvi’s attorneys turned attention away from abortion as the central issue and convinced him to answer the murder charges with a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. During his first night in the Massachusetts jail, Salvi wrote a rambling, sometimes incoherent, statement that was immediately released to the press. In this statement he railed against the persecution of Catholics by the Free-masons and other groups and accused Norfolk City Jail officials of tampering with his food. “If convicted of the charges I am accused of I wish to receive the death penalty,” he wrote. “If I am not proven guilty upon release I will become a catholic priest.”

His attorneys attempted to have Salvi declared incompetent to stand trial, saying he was unable to help with his own defense and portraying him as schizophrenic, irrational, and possessed of a single-minded obsession to publicly make known his views on the persecution of Catholics. Dr. Phillip Resnick, a psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland, and two other psychiatrists called by the defense testified that they believed Salvi was delusional and incompetent. In opposition, Joel Haycock, a psychiatrist from Bridgewater State Hospital, where Salvi was held during the trial, stated in court that the accused was manipulative and intelligent and was duping his defense team. On 24 August 1995 Salvi was found competent to stand trial by Norfolk Superior Court Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara.

Although Salvi displayed evidence of mental illness, the prosecution successfully demonstrated that he understood the criminality of his actions in Brookline, especially considering that he seemed to have carefully planned for the attacks, acquiring weapons and practicing with them at a local firing range. He also fled the scene of the crime, an act that experts testified is rarely done by psychotic murderers. On 18 March 1996 Salvi was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. He was first imprisoned at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, then later moved to the state’s maximum security prison in Walpole.

Salvi’s uncle, Gerard Trudel, with whom Salvi had once lived, visited with Salvi on Thanksgiving Day, 28 November 1996, and found him to be unkempt, distant, and confused. Salvi’s family had pleaded to have him placed in a hospital instead of prison and feared for his well-being. However, he was not considered mentally ill by Walpole prison officials and received no mental health treatment there. Early on 29 November, the morning following his uncle’s visit, Salvi was found dead under his bed, his hands and feet tied with shoelaces and a plastic bag over his head, tied at the neck. His death was declared a suicide.

Salvi’s suicide prompted several Massachusetts lawmakers, including State Representative Kay Khan, a Democrat from Newton, to introduce legislation that would increase funding for mental health services for inmates. In addition, State Senator James P. Jajuga, a Democrat from Methuen, filed legislation that he had been pushing for years to allow defendants the option of pleading “guilty but insane” to crimes they are charged with.

Psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defense agreed that Salvi was mentally ill. However, juries are often loath to turn in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity in murder cases because defendants can eventually be released if they are considered cured of mental illness. Legislation for the “guilty but insane” verdict would call for sentencing that includes original placement in a mental health facility, then transfer to prison if the patient is cured of mental illness.

Salvi came into the public eye as a symbol of the violence surrounding abortion and its foes. By the end of his trial and his life, he brought to the fore the forgotten issue of mentally ill criminals and the treatment many feel they need but do not receive.

Numerous articles from the Boston Globe (30 Dec. 1994–1 Dec. 1996) cover the crimes, the trial, and Salvi’s death from beginning to end. The PBS documentary “Frontline: Murder on ‘Abortion Row’” (6 Feb. 1996) includes transcripts of Salvi’s psychiatric interview with Dr. Resnick and the competency hearing, along with information about the trial and the insanity defense.

Nan Pollot

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Salvi, John C., III

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