Illinois man sentenced to 5 years in prison for trying to burn down Danville abortion clinic

An Illinois man was sentenced to five years in prison on Monday for trying to prevent the opening of an abortion clinic in Danville by crashing his car into the building and attempting to set it on fire, an act that reproductive health care advocates say has been part of a spike in violence and harassment against such facilities since the end of Roe v. Wade.

Philip Buyno, 73, of Prophetstown was also ordered to pay more than $300,000 restitution, the Justice Department said in a statement. Authorities said Buyno intended to destroy the building before the clinic could open, citing his long history of abortion opposition.

On Tuesday, several Illinois abortion providers held a roundtable event in Springfield with lawmakers, urging their help to curb the surge in violence, vandalism and intimidation that has recently plagued reproductive health care statewide and across the nation.

“The tactics of obstructing clinic entrances and threatening violence not only create a climate of fear but also have systemically marginalized abortion care from the broader spectrum of health care services,” said Yamelsie Rodríguez, president and CEO of Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, during the roundtable.

Rodríguez, whose agency also covers southern Illinois, added that “this orchestrated campaign of intimidation has had a profound effect on community perceptions and access to abortion care.” She pressed legislators to “partner with us providers to take whatever measures are available” to ensure reproductive services are free from violence and intimidation.

Several abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood of Illinois, took part in Tuesday’s discussion, as well as clinic escorts and volunteers. State Sen. Adriane Johnson, D-Buffalo Grove, and state Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, also attended.

Michele Landeau, chief operating officer at Hope Clinic in Granite City, said last year two people who were opposed to abortion got through the clinic’s security barriers and entered the health care facility; she said the clinic — which is just across the border from Missouri, where abortion has been nearly banned after the end of Roe — has also historically experienced fire bombings and blockades.

“It’s really important to note that throughout all these incidents we did not stop caring for our patients,” she said. “I think that really speaks to the resilience of abortion providers.”

Illinois clinics and other pro-reproductive rights groups have faced several high-profile acts of violence and vandalism since the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe, which had established the right to terminate a pregnancy nationwide since 1973.

While dozens of states moved to all but ban or severely restrict abortion after Roe’s demise, Illinois has strengthened reproductive rights laws, drawing a spike in patients traveling from other states to have abortions here.

The year Roe fell, nearly 17,000 patients traveled to Illinois from other states for abortion care, a 49% increase over the 11,000 patients who came from out of state in 2021, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data.

“Because Illinois is a critical access point for abortion care in the Midwest, abortion providers are targets for violence and aggressive harassment from anti-abortion extremists,” the abortion providers at the roundtable said in a joint statement Tuesday. “Several abortion providers throughout the state have experienced violent attacks, and almost all providers have seen a historic increase in aggressive individuals trying to prevent patients from accessing care.”

As for the violence in Danville, police in May had responded to an alarm at a the site of a proposed abortion clinic and found that Buyno had rammed his car into the front of the building and was still stuck inside.

The vehicle was full of explosive materials — cans of gasoline, flares, matches, old tires and firewood — which Buyno had intended to set on fire once inside the building, according to the Justice Department.

Buyno pleaded guilty to attempting to use fire to damage a building used in interstate commerce in September, according to the Justice Department.

The crash occurred a few weeks after the Danville City Council approved a controversial ordinance to ban the mailing and shipping of abortion pills; the measure was the subject of heated debate at a highly publicized city council meeting that drew hundreds of protesters from both sides of the abortion issue.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and civil liberties experts have said the ordinance is illegal and unenforceable in Illinois, which has strong reproductive rights protections.

The planned abortion clinic was invoked throughout the night the abortion pill ordinance was debated, with community members speaking for and against its opening in this east central Illinois city of about 30,000 people.

Authorities said Buyno had been arrested many times for anti-abortion activities, including trespassing at an abortion clinic in Peoria in 2019.

“If I could sneak in with a gas can and a match, I would go in there again,” Buyno told federal investigators, according to the complaint.

Buyno also told authorities that if he were released from jail, he planned to “finish the job,” the complaint said.

The Justice Department said Buyno has remained in federal custody since his May 20 arrest following the Danville crash.

“Our office strongly condemns the defendant’s attempt to prevent women in our community from accessing important reproductive health services,” said U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois Gregory Harris in a statement. “We are committed to prosecuting such crimes and thank our federal and local law enforcement officers for their critical work in pursuing this case.”

In August, another Illinois man was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.45 million in restitution for an arson at a Planned Parenthood in Peoria, which severely damaged the clinic, according to the Justice Department.

Tyler Massengill, 33, of Chillicothe “maliciously set fire” to that abortion clinic in January 2023 because he believed his ex-girlfriend had an abortion there, “and he was angry about it,” a Justice Department statement said.

“Massengill believed that, if his actions caused a little delay in a person receiving services at the Peoria Health Center, his conduct may have been worth it,” the statement added.

Across the country, abortion providers have faced a rise in arsons, burglaries and death threats after the fall of Roe, according to the National Abortion Federation’s 2022 Violence and Disruption Report, which was released in May. The report also cited a sharp increase in violence and disruption at clinics in states where abortion rights are protected.

“The data is proof of what we have known to be true: anti-abortion extremists have been emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the cascade of abortion bans that followed,” said Melissa Fowler, National Abortion Federation chief program officer, in a statement. “As clinics closed in states with bans, extremists have simply shifted their focus to the states where abortion remains legal and protected, where our members have reported major increases in assaults, stalking, and burglaries.”

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers and organizations nationwide had also experienced a major spike in violence and vandalism around the time Roe was overturned.

The FBI last year offered $25,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for a string of attacks on reproductive services organizations across the country, which were set on fire, vandalized or defaced, most of which were anti-abortion groups.

Many of the buildings were spray painted with messages such as “bans off our bodies” and “if abortions aren’t safe neither are you,” FBI photos showed.

“There are just some elements of this society that don’t think choosing life for an unborn child is acceptable,” Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, told the Tribune at the time. “And they’re doing everything they can to shut down the places that provide free help to a woman who needs it. And wants it.”