KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A 42-year-old Columbia, Missouri, man has been charged with trying to burn down a local Planned Parenthood clinic last month, federal prosecutors said Monday.
Wesley Brian Kaster was arrested Saturday after investigators searched his vehicle and found evidence linking him to the fire at the Planned Parenthood-Columbia Health Center. No one was hurt in the attack, which happened in the pre-dawn hours when the building was empty.
Kaster faces a preliminary charge of using fire or an explosive to maliciously damage a building that receives federal funding, but that could change. The FBI had said it was investigating the attack as a possible hate crime.
“All I can say at this point is that it is an ongoing investigation and we are early in the process,” Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said Monday. “A complaint is a temporary charge; this case will be presented to a federal grand jury in the near future, which could return an indictment with different or additional charges.”
Kaster’s public defender, Troy Stabenow, said Monday that he had just been assigned to the case and couldn’t immediately comment. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
In an affidavit included with the charging documents, FBI agent Curtis Bryant said surveillance video showed a distinctive minivan park in the clinic’s lot at around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 10 and a suspect, believed to be Kaster, break the clinic’s framed glass door, place what appeared to be two stacked 5-gallon buckets inside the building and then throw a Molotov cocktail through the door. After watching from the sidewalk for a few minutes, Kaster then went back inside the building, as no fire or smoke could be seen in the videos. Kaster then fled as two unidentified pedestrians approached but returned at around 4 a.m. holding an “undiscernible” item and approached the broken door. Smoke began billowing out about a minute later and Kaster fled, Bryant wrote.
The clinic’s sprinkler system extinguished the blaze before firefighters arrived. Only the front room with the broken door was damaged, Bryant wrote.
Firefighters found the remains of the Molotov cocktail and two 5-gallon buckets near spilled gasoline inside the clinic.
Bryant wrote that investigators used surveillance video to connect the minivan and items left at the scene Kaster, who was working at a light manufacturing business in Jefferson City.
Online court records don’t show any past criminal charges against Kaster.
Dr. Brandon Hill, who heads Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said in a statement Monday that the organization was grateful for law enforcement’s swift response to the fire.
“Let this send a clear message: Blocking access to essential health care is against the law, whether it takes the form of violence and vandalism or threats against our patients, our providers, or our supporters” Hill said. “With sexual and reproductive health care under attack in Missouri, our mission is more important than ever before.”
The Columbia clinic, which reopened Feb. 18, does not currently provide abortions. U.S. Western District Court Judge Brian Wimes ruled Feb. 22 that state restrictions on abortion were not “undue” burdens on women seeking abortions in Missouri. Regulations that took effect last year require doctors that perform abortions to have admitting physician privileges at nearby hospitals. The Columbia clinic has not been able to finding a doctor with such privileges since the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia stopped offering the privileges in 2015.
By MARGARET STAFFORD
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