PENSACOLA, Fla. — An abortion clinic that burned here New Year's Day has been in the crosshairs of the anti-abortion movement for decades: the scene of bombings, shootings and other violence.
Things calmed down in the past 15 years, save for the near-daily protesters who carried anti-abortion signs, Bibles and white crosses as they marched outside of the unassuming, two-story grey building. Yet once again, the clinic is encircled by yellow police tape.
Authorities said the fire was suspicious and they are investigating whether it was intentionally set. So far, they have said only that the blaze started in some bushes near the back of the American Family Planning building. No one was injured.
The clinic had been undergoing renovations. Paint and other flammable materials were on site. The chemicals have hampered the investigation.
Speculation about what happened started almost as soon as the fire began.
"The thing about that clinic that is remarkable to me is that there are the repeated violent acts going back 30 years," said Thomas Blomberg, dean of Florida State University's college of criminology. "There is apparently some fringe group in Pensacola that takes great exception to the clinic. I cannot think of another place that has had repeated acts of violence like this."
In June 1984, the clinic, then known as the Ladies Center, was bombed, then blasted again Christmas Day after it moved to its present location. Two other abortion local abortion clinic were bombed that same day. No one was hurt.
Two young local couples were convicted of the Christmas bombings, saying it was "a gift to Jesus on his birthday."
Two years later, six protesters barged into the clinic, damaging equipment and injuring two workers. In 1993, abortion protester Michael Griffin, who was also from the area, killed abortion Dr. David Gunn at another Pensacola clinic. Griffin is in prison, serving a life sentence.
In 1994, at the site of American Family Planning, a former Presbyterian minister gunned down Dr. John Britton and retired Air Force officer James Barrett, who had volunteered to escort the physician to the building. The shooter, Paul Hill, was the first American to be executed for anti-abortion violence. Some considered him a martyr whose actions were justified by the Bible.
It would be another four years before a doctor was shot to death in Buffalo, N.Y., and fugitive Eric Rudolph was captured and charged with a bombing that killed an off-duty police officer at an Alabama abortion clinic.
Although the violence has subsided in Pensacola since the mid-1990s, the protests have not. The major thoroughfares often have groups of demonstrators and there are nearly always protesters at the abortion clinic, which sits just off a busy street on a wooded lot, tucked between a shuttered fast-food restaurant and an auto parts store.
Clinic officials did not return phone messages left by The Associated Press.
On busy weekends, the abortion protesters sometimes compete for attention with students in shorts and swimsuits offering free car washes for various fundraisers at a parking lot across the street from the clinic.
Pensacola, known for its Naval Air Station and white-sand beaches, is cosmopolitan and religiously conservative. Churches sit on the same streets as strip clubs.
The city has about 56,000 people. It's part of Escambia County, which has a population of nearly 300,000. Young sailors and Marines mingle at the mall with students from the ultra-conservative Pensacola Christian College.
One stalwart abortion protester often carries a heavy cross along the bridge that crosses Pensacola Bay.
Deana Rohlinger, who has written books about abortion, said Pensacola and American Family Planning have become a real and symbolic flashpoint for fringe elements of the abortion debate.
Although moving the clinic seems like an obvious solution, that isn't always easy, she said.
"There are not a lot of places you can put clinics in some cities. Because of zoning laws they have to be in particular places," she said.
Rohlinger said the clinic owners might be making a statement by refusing to shut down or leave.
"It could be symbolic on both sides," she said.