PENSACOLA, Fla. — Federal prosecutors say a homeless man charged on Thursday with the New Year's Day firebombing of a family planning clinic targeted by near-daily protests had acted out of "strong disbelief" in abortion and stood by just long enough to see crackling, popping flames spread.
Bobby Joe Rogers, 41, has been charged with one count of damaging a building by fire or explosive and was being held at a Florida Panhandle jail after the blaze early Sunday gutted the American Family Planning clinic in Pensacola. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Rogers, who has an arrest record spanning nine states from the Southeast to the Midwest, told investigators he intentionally set the fire around New Year's Eve using a firebomb fashioned from a gasoline-filled beer bottle that used an old shirt as a wick. No one was hurt in the fire.
According to the affidavit, Roger's told investigators he had an aversion to abortion and said he had recently witnessed an anti-abortion protest near the clinic that further prompted his actions.
"Rogers admitted to intentionally setting fire to the clinic due to his strong disbelief in abortion," the affidavit stated, and "he stated (he) was further fueled when he recently witnessed a young female entering the clinic while he was sitting amongst anti-abortion protesters."
The two-story clinic had been attacked before.
It was bombed on Christmas Day in 1984, and in 1994 a doctor and a volunteer who escorted patients to and from the clinic were shot to death as they arrived. The gunman, Paul Hill, was executed in 2003. Pensacola was the site of other abortion-related violence in 1993 when Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed at another clinic by an abortion protester.
In the years since, American Family Planning has been the site of frequent protests by abortion opponents carrying Bibles, crosses and signs, but those while vocal were absent the violence that had marked the 90s.
A nearby business owner told The Associated Press he recognized Rogers from his arrest photo as one of a group of homeless men who had been hanging out in the commercial area across a busy intersection from the clinic. James Tarabay, who owns an upscale food market, said those men sometimes asked for money in the parking lot.
"I told them it was better to go somewhere else. But they didn't cause any problems," he said.
Rogers had a preliminary hearing Thursday. He waived his right to detention hearing and to a preliminary hearing and agreed to be represented by the federal public defender's office.
In the affidavit, prosecutors say Rogers told investigators he went to the clinic around midnight on New Year's eve and intentionally set the fire at the back of the building.
According to the document, he told investigators he stood behind a large tree, lit the wick of the homemade device and threw it against a wall of the building, watching as it burst in flames. He then went across the street to an abandoned car wash to watch as flames spread, it added.
"He stayed at the car wash just long enough to make sure the fire was going and recalled hearing a lot of crackling and popping as the fire progressed," the affidavit stated. It added he then went to a shed where he often would sleep behind a closed barbecue restaurant.
Rogers has an extensive record of arrests in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Florida, authorities reported. The affidavit shows that Rogers has felony convictions in Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri for burglary and in Mississippi for grand larceny. Details were not immediately available.
Records from Alachua County also show he was arrested on Dec. 12, 2009, on charges of vehicle theft. Art Forgey, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's office said Rogers spent three months in the Alachua County Jail. Court records from the Alachua County case were not immediately available.
Rogers offered only "some kind of prison release ID card," when he and another man were pulled over driving the stolen car in 2009, the arresting officer wrote in his report.
The officer stopped the 1994 Mercury Sable because of a malfunctioning headlight. Rogers was the passenger.
"When I approached the vehicle the driver and the passenger appeared nervous. I could see open containers of beer in the car driver side and passenger side," the highway patrol officer wrote.
The driver had a suspended license and Rogers, who gave an address in Boca Raton, had no license. Both men were arrested on charges of grand theft auto. The arrest report indicated that Rogers had been drinking.
The 2009 arrest report spells Rogers last name "Rodgers," but his photo and his birthdate match.