Sue Hadland of Baxter had just returned home from a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser at Sherwood Forest near Lake Shore when she received a phone call no Planned Parenthood employee ever wants to hear.
A Brainerd police officer called the nurse practitioner in the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 1994, with a chilling message: "Your clinic's on fire."
Nearly 10 years later, she remembers the initial shock at the size of the flames at Brainerd's Planned Parenthood downtown Brainerd office and the devastation the still-raging fire was causing to her office and to adjoining businesses near the corner of Sixth and Oak streets. She said she didn't remember being afraid but did recall fearing that Planned Parenthood might not be able to re-establish its presence in the community.
Although the office provides a variety of health services to men and women, it's the information and referrals it provides people regarding abortions that have made it, at times, a magnet for controversy. Pro-life rallies routinely mark the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision by marching from the corner of Sixth and Oak streets to the Crow Wing County Courthouse.
Abortions are not performed at the Brainerd clinic.
Clinic manager/nurse practitioner Lori Gutierrez said occasionally a family will pray the rosary near the office but, for the most part, staff members go about their business without any distractions.
The August 1994 fire that gutted Planned Parenthood and destroyed three other businesses was an exception to that routine. Another disruption took place July 4, 2002, when five shots were fired into the office, breaking windows, damaging a door and leaving bullet holes in walls and ceilings inside the office.
No one was injured in either incident.
Businesses that also were gutted by the arsonist's blaze were Giovanni's Pizza, Bresnan Communications and the office of Bruce A. Johnson, C.P.A.
Hadland said patient records, all of them partly damaged by water and soot, were about the only items of value that were retrieved from the charred ruins of the clinic.
Deb Thiesse, a dispatcher with Bresnan Communications (which is now Charter Communications), remembers the destruction that fire and water caused in her office.
"It was devastating," she said. "Pretty much everything was destroyed."
Jerry DeChaine, a manager of Northland Frozen Pizza, doing business as Giovanni's Frozen Pizza, was a manager at the restaurant that was destroyed. A friend woke him up with news that the fire was raging and he drove down to see for himself.
"It was helplessness," he said. "It was awe. You're watching something burn to the ground. ... I just remember standing there with Thor (Giovanni's then-owner Thor Thorson) and wondering what he was thinking."
Damage also was suffered by an adjoining law office. Attorneys William O'Hara, Jim Fossum and Dennis Lothspeich said their office received water and smoke damage but nothing to compare with the businesses that were destroyed.
"It was a big inconvenience but it wasn't the end of the world," Lothspeich said.
Brainerd Police Department Investigator Bruce London said the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked hard on the case and continue to make periodic follow-up calls.
"When the (July 4, 2002) shooting occurred, that did shake the tree a little bit," he said, but again no arrest was ever made.
London said investigators pinpointed a suspect, but they were unable to uncover enough evidence to make an arrest.
"We did have a suspect," London said. "The case was presented. We met with an assistant U.S. attorney. There were some things ... we just didn't get the right break. He's (the suspect) still being monitored."
Deputy State Fire Marshal Mark Germain, who has been investigating fire origins since 1989, said the Planned Parenthood arson case probably drew more statewide and national media attention than any other in his career.
Cooperation among the investigative agencies was excellent, he said. The investigation was able to determine that it was arson but did not provide enough evidence to warrant an arrest.
"Arson is a hard crime to prove. ... It's a crime where the evidence of the crime is consumed in the fire itself," he said. "We have to eliminate all accidental causes."
Germain credited the Brainerd Fire Department for extinguishing the fire.
"They got a pretty quick handle on it," he said. "It was well on its way."
He also credited then-Police Chief Frank Ball and then-Fire Chief Ron Johnson with coordinating investigation efforts and keeping communication open between the different agencies.
"Each (agency) was doing what we were best qualified to do," Germain said.
Even though Planned Parenthood continued to provide health services to the community it was nearly 10 months after the fire until officials were able to reopen their doors at the Oak Street location.
Hadland credited the nonprofit organization's landlord and the neighboring businesses for never balking at the idea of Planned Parenthood relocating at the same place.
She said the abortion controversy obscures many of Planned Parenthood's contributions to community health. Hadland said, nation-wide, Planned Parenthood is the largest screener for cervical cancer. It tests for sexually transmitted diseases for both men and women. She said people would be reassured if they realized how the agency stresses communication between parents and children and advocates good health practices. Hadland also said the information Planned Parenthood provides is the same information the majority of health-care providers in the Brainerd area provide.
When Potlatch closed its doors in Brainerd there was an increase in business because many women had lost their health insurance and needed to avail themselves of the agency's sliding fee scale (based on income).
Still, she noted, many people view Planned Parenthood only through the stands it takes on reproductive rights.
"I think there will always be fringe element in society that latches on to controversy," she said.
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached email@example.com or 855-5860.
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