Anti-Abortion Extremists Found Guilty of Conspiring and Blockading Tennessee Clinic

Updated Thursday, April 25, to reflect guilty verdicts for the four remaining defendants.

 A federal jury convicted six defendants of federal civil rights offenses arising out of their blockade of a reproductive healthcare clinic in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., on March 5, 2021. Dennis Green of Life and Liberty Ministries live-streamed the invasion on Facebook. (Dennis Green / Facebook)

On Jan. 30, a federal jury in Nashville found six defendants guilty of conspiring to violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act for blockading a Nashville-area clinic and intimidating patients and clinic employees. In just two hours, a jury selected from Tennessee—the heart of the Bible Belt—returned a verdict against a group of extremists associated with Operation Save America (OSA), a national anti-abortion group, for obstructing the employee and patient entrances of carafem abortion clinic for almost three hours on March 5, 2021.

Chester Gallagher of Lebanon, Tenn.; Paul Vaughn of Centerville, Tenn.; Heather Idoni and Calvin Zastrow of Michigan; Coleman Boyd of Bolton, Miss.; and Dennis Green of Cumberland, Va., face up to 11 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, according to the Department of Justice. Their sentencing is scheduled for July 2.

On April 2, a bench trial found the remaining four defendants—Eva Edl, Eva Zastrow, James Zastrow and Paul Place—guilty of violating the FACE Act. They face up to six months in prison, five years of supervised release and fines of up to $10,000, to be determined in their sentencing in late July.

“The safety and security of carafem clients and staff remain our utmost priority,” said Melissa Grant, chief operating officer of carafem, who called the blockade “a premeditated act of trespass, aimed at obstructing our clients from accessing and our staff from providing essential healthcare services” and “an unfortunate illustration of leveraging personal agendas to justify impeding our small business from operating.”

“This verdict is a crucial step in delineating boundaries to safeguard small businesses from unwarranted intrusion by those driven by politically motivated grievances against us,” Grant continued. “We are gratified to witness justice being served.”

The Tennessee case follows the successful prosecution and conviction last fall by the U.S. Department of Justice of 10 extremists involved in the violent invasion of Washington Surgi-Clinic. Heather Idoni, who participated in the carafem clinic blockade, was also convicted in the D.C. case; Idoni remains in federal custody awaiting sentencing in the D.C. case. Another major FACE obstruction case is scheduled to go to federal trial in Detroit this April. The Michigan case involves two separate clinic obstructions and several of the same defendants.

Abortion clinic blockades, violence and intimidation violate the federal FACE Act, which “prohibits violent, threatening, damaging and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services.”

These three federal obstruction cases are unique, as most of the defendants are charged with engaging in a criminal conspiracy to violate the right to access and provide reproductive healthcare guaranteed under the federal FACE Act, in addition to violating the FACE Act itself. The conspiracy charges carry more substantial prison sentences and penalties.

During the carafem blockade, OSA extremists harassed patients and employees for almost three hours. Patients inside were physically intimidated and verbally assaulted by the blockaders who, according to court documents, yelled such things as, “See, what you got here is a mom who’s coming to kill her baby.” Patients with appointments tried unsuccessfully to access the clinic, while those who made it inside were ultimately pressured to leave. One employee who had come out to help patients could not get back inside. Anti-abortion extremists also directed their minor children to join the blockade.

Extremists also used a strategy called “blowfishing,” wherein certain protestors occupy an area inside the clinic—indistinguishable from committed blockaders—and appear willing to get arrested, but leave before arrests are made. Blowfishing is designed to discourage, stall, and delay law enforcement action, prolonging clinic obstruction and barring patient access to critical health care.

Witnesses testifying at the trial included an employee of the clinic, cooperating defendant Caroline Davis, a patient and their partner, two police officers, and an FBI analyst.

Caroline Davis, who participated in several blockades in Michigan and Washington DC as well as the carafem incident, turned government witness. Davis testified extensively in the DC case and was a key witness for the prosecution in the Tennessee case.

The defense sought to limit Davis’ testimony. In sworn statements, Davis had referred to defendant Cal Zastrow as a “cult leader” who “groomed” her to participate in anti-abortion actions. Davis also described defendant Coleman Boyd as living in a “commune” in Mississippi where “women can only speak when allowed to” and spoke of how Boyd disapproved of her as he perceived her as “not submissive enough.”

The defendants objected to these terms prior to trial, and the judge ordered Davis to avoid using the expressions “culty,” “cult leader,” “grooming,” and “commune,” or state that Boyd expected women to be “submissive” while testifying in the Tennessee case.

Anti-abortion extremists have protested the recent cases filed by the DOJ and have lobbied right-wing members of Congress in an attempt to repeal FACE. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the FACE Act in Congress in fall of last year.

Since 2017, there have been more than 60 clinic invasions and blockades by multiple extremist assailants in states across the country. OSA leaders and adherents, in particular, are responsible for at least seven high-profile clinic blockades.

Jason Storms, the current OSA director, participated in the Jan. 6 demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol and has repeatedly called for potentially violent means to defy federal law. In a Rumble video from 2023 that actively promoted the formation of militias across the U.S., Storms declared, “We are talking about the very real possible reality that we have to take up arms against our own tyrannical government, and are we prepared to do it and win.”

OSA organized anti-abortion demonstrations in Nashville when the trial was originally supposed to start. At a rally on Jan. 15, Rusty Thomas, the prior director of OSA who has advocated for charging women who have abortions with murder, stood by the actions of the defendants in Tennessee: “These are not the brothers who are committing the crime. …These brothers [the defendants] are the law keepers, while our government that promotes child sacrifice, the shedding of innocent blood, they are the lawbreakers.”

The DOJ sees it differently. “These defendants knowingly chose to violate laws they disagreed with,” said U.S. Attorney Henry C. Leventis for the Middle District of Tennessee. “The jury’s verdict today is a victory for the rule of law in this country and a reminder that we cannot pick and choose which laws we follow.”

“These defendants are being held accountable for unlawfully obstructing access to reproductive health services,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to enforce the FACE Act to protect the rights of those who provide and those who seek access to such services.”

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Emilia Dominguez is an intern for Ms. and the National Clinic Access Project. She completed her undergraduate studies at McGill University in 2023, majoring in Political Science and Latin American Studies. Her interests include abortion rights and queer, Indigenous and feminist social movements.