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Colorado Springs Searches For Answers, Healing After Planned Parenthood Shooting

While questions remain about the alleged gunman’s motives, local leaders detailed the response they said saved lives.

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David Zalubowski / AP

Vicki Cowart, center, executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, joins community members Saturday at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado Springs.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — As investigators began the long process of seeking answers in the hours-long shooting and standoff that left three people dead, Planned Parenthood officials on Saturday said they believed the tragedy was motivated by opposition to abortion.

Friday started as a normal day at the health center in Colorado Springs — but a normal day at Planned Parenthood also includes a fair amount of attention to security, regional president and CEO Vicki Cowart told BuzzFeed News.

Beyond the near-daily protests at the public sidewalk adjacent to the medical complex, no city or Planned Parenthood official was aware of any previous threat of violence directed at the Colorado Springs clinic. Cowart on Saturday said based on witness accounts, the organization now believes the shooting was "motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion."

It was close to noon when a staff member in the lobby heard the first gunshot, which Planned Parenthood officials believe took place outside the clinic. The staff's active shooter training kicked in, Cowart said. The health center manager dialed 911, and everyone else silenced their cell phones. The young woman in the lobby ushered waiting patients to the back of the building's exam rooms and offices.

"That probably saved many lives," Cowart said.

Mayor John Suthers was in communication with Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey early in the five-hour standoff and joined the numerous members of law enforcement agencies at the command post.

Among the police and sheriff's deputies who came to the scene were security staff from Planned Parenthood, who gave officers access to interior security cameras and images of the building's layout.

The diagrams were emailed to officers inside the clinic, Suthers said, offering crucial intel.

Through the security cameras, officers in the command post watched the movements of the suspect, later identified as Robert L. Dear. Command post staff passed on the suspect's locations to the officers inside, allowing them to extract the nine patients and 15 Planned Parenthood staff members hiding in other parts of the building.

"It was pretty amazing to watch," Suthers said.

Suthers was also there for the chilling radio call that an officer was down. Other officers remained calm in spite of the tense situation, he said.

He described the suspect's movements as calm and deliberate.

El Paso County Sheriff's Office via AP

Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear of North Carolina is seen in undated photos provided by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

At first, the alleged gunman sat in a chair, wearing a trench coat and holding what appeared to be an assault weapon, Suthers said. He then moved to a hallway where he had a better vantage point of officers' arrival.

As part of the SWAT response, police drove a bearcat — an armored vehicle — into the lobby of the clinic. They were preparing for a final assault, driving into the area where the suspect was cornered, when he called out to officers, Suthers said.

"Just as those final preparations were taking place, he yelled to people that he was willing to give up," Suther said. "So we watched on the security cameras as he gave himself up."

One police officer and two civilians were killed in the shooting. Nine others were taken to hospitals with injuries, five of whom are police officers.

A day after the tragedy, some normalcy slowly began to return to Colorado Springs. The King Sooper grocery store where many of the 300 bystanders hid allowed them to return for left-behind belongings Saturday morning. By midday, its doors reopened to shoppers.

But the medical plaza where the Planned Parenthood clinic has been for about six years remained cordoned off, the lights of squad cars flashing bright against the new snow, as crime scene investigators went to work. The investigation — being assisted by federal law enforcement — is only at its beginning, Carey told reporters Saturday afternoon.

"It was a tough night, and there is much to be done today and in the coming weeks," Carey said.

The quick response of officers from multiple agencies, including the University of Colorado Colorado Springs police, helped save lives, Carey added.

The mayor met Saturday morning with the four injured officers who remained at Penrose Hospital. They were surrounded by colleagues and relatives, and Suthers said they were in good spirits.

"A couple of them are very lucky in terms of where bullets hit," he said.

Suthers added they were all looking forward to healing and getting back to their jobs.

"They felt it was a privilege to be doing their jobs and want to get back at it," he said.

Officer Garrett Swasey was among the three people killed in the shooting. The names of two others, identified only as civilians, have not been released pending autopsies scheduled for Monday and notification of family.

The police chief said he could not yet say whether they had been shot inside or outside the clinic. Police are waiting on forensic evidence and statements from the officers who were victims of the shooting.

"That's going to be at least a few more days," Carey said.

He added it's also too early to say why the alleged shooter was at the clinic. In response to a question about the suspect and his motives, Carey all he knew was the man's name and age.

Unnamed sources told multiple media outlets Dear allegedly talked about "no more baby parts" and President Obama during police interviews.

NBC News described the comments as "rants" that touched on politics and abortion. However, it was still unknown Saturday how the comments might have played into a motive, NBC News also reported.

A court hearing for Dear is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Though questions remain about the shooter, Rev. Nori Rost described his actions as one thing: domestic terrorism.

Rost and All Souls Unitarian Church in downtown Colorado Springs held a vigil Saturday to mourn the victims, show solidarity within the community, and to stand with Planned Parenthood.

About 150 people prayed for the families of everyone involved, including the shooter. They sang "Amazing Grace" and wrote letters of support for Planned Parenthood staff, the Swasey family, and loved ones of the two unnamed victims.

"I don't know if I knew any of the victims," Rost said. "But I don't need to know because we are all one."

Rev. Amanda Henderson of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado added that no act of violence should happen, but the location of the standoff had significance.

"We know that women's health and women's bodies have been under a constant threat of attack, and we are here to stand with Planned Parenthood," she said.

One woman stood up from the pews unexpectedly to say that while she supported Planned Parenthood, she disagreed with the tone of the vigil.

"I thought we were here to grieve for the people who died, not make political statements," she said.

As the woman walked out, Rost said the day was for mourning, but it was also a day to talk about the continuing issue of gun violence.

"If we do not in our time of grief realize that something must be done about this, then we are falling short of honoring the lives that were lost," she said.

At a later press conference, Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed his profound grief at learning of another mass shooting in Colorado.

"There aren't words to describe the feeling when you hear something like this is happening," he said.

He said state officials would look at potential reforms in the wake of the shooting — but not on Saturday, as families were grieving and the police investigation remained in early stages.

"Our entire country is trying to figure out how to address issues of violence in our communities," he said. "I don't think this is the right time to have that conversation."

As one point of action, however, he noted at the millions of dollars the state has poured into mental health services over the last four years, since the shooting massacre at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

"We're going to reevaluate how that money is being spent," Hickenlooper said.

Planned Parenthood officials are also looking toward the future and the eventual reopening of the Colorado Springs clinic.

"We'll be rebuilding it as soon as we can, but I don't know what that means yet," Cowart told BuzzFeed News.

Until then, the other Planned Parenthood facilities in the state remain open. The organization and its staff are joining the Colorado Springs community in grieving for the lives lost and in thanking the officers who responded, Cowart added.

For now, the clinic's staff members are home with their families, but Cowart expects they'll return.

"Everyone is resolute," she said. "Everyone does this work because they believe really deeply all people should have access to reproductive healthcare."

Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Claudia Koerner at claudia.koerner@buzzfeed.com.

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