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Like a convention of salesmen, they gather each year in a hotel outside Washington, D.C., to honor their heroes and celebrate their profession.

It's called the "White Rose Banquet," but it's not your typical convention.

This one brings together dozens of militant pro-life leaders, many of them advocating murder as a way to stop abortion.

They call it "justifiable homicide," and about 30 of them signed a petition in 1993 defending Michael Griffin, the man later convicted of killing an abortion provider in Florida.

"His use of lethal force was justifiable," said the petition, "provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children."

The banquet and petition are evidence of a shadowy network of anti-abortion extremists who, at least in words, defend the use of violence against doctors and clinics. Investigators believe members of this radical fringe may have been involved in last month's slaying of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian in Amherst.

The petition and banquet also provide proof, pro-choice leaders claim, of a growing national conspiracy behind the murders and bombings.

With that in mind, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno this month created a special task force to investigate the conspiracy theory.

"There certainly are connections among the violent fringe," said Judy Thomas, co-author of "Wrath of Angels," a book on the abortion war. "But proving there's an actual conspiracy, that's where it gets tricky."

Pro-life leaders, even those who defend murder, dismiss the notion of a large, orchestrated campaign of violence.

"It's just a witch hunt," said Michael Bray, who sponsors the White Rose Banquet and has signed the homicide petition. "If I say Saddam (Hussein) is a terrible ruler and someone goes out and assassinates him, is that my fault?"

Bray, who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb abortion clinics, is one of the few high-profile figures in a coast-to-coast network that operates largely underground.

Experts say it's a wing of the anti-abortion movement that travels together, gets arrested together but rarely is found guilty of conspiring together.

"It's more and more modeled after the militia movement -- the leaderless resistance," said Dallas A. Blanchard, a sociology professor at West Florida University and the author of "Religious Violence and Abortion."

No one knows how many people belong to this loosely organized network of activists and sympathizers. The estimates range from a few dozen to hundreds.

Just as wide-ranging are the theories about who was behind the killing of Slepian and whether his murder is tied to other violent incidents.

And, of course, that leads to the ultimate, unanswered question: Was it a lone gunman or a conspiracy?

As with any high-profile assassination, whether John F. Kennedy or William McKinley, the question of a conspiracy almost always emerges.

In the case of Slepian's murder, many experts suspect the killer had help either planning the murder or finding protecting afterward.

"Is there a support network? Of course there is," said Frederick Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostility," a book on anti-abortion violence.

The shooter probably acted alone but had help from a small group of militants in planning the murder, Clarkson said. He also thinks the killer may now be benefiting from a large, national network of safe houses.

Thursday, investigators reported that James C. Kopp, the Vermont man wanted for questioning in the Slepian shooting, may have secretly fled to Mexico with the help of a "female associate."

Blanchard, the Florida professor, agrees that the killer probably acted alone and is now under the protection of sympathizers.

"In this case, I think you have a loner," he said. "But he's probably been so active in the movement, he has a lot of safe houses where he can hide."

Investigators are tight-lipped when asked about a conspiracy but acknowledge the similarities of the Slepian shooting and four others in the United States and Canada.

Nationally, investigators have been unable to prove a large-scale conspiracy linking the hundreds of bombings, arsons, shootings and other violent acts plaguing abortion clinics.

Still, some strongly suspect there is one.

"It stands to reason that many of these incidents are the work of one group of people, people united for one common cause," said Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark.

"We're not saying this group of people has a name, or that they even meet formally as an organization, but there certainly appears to be a radical group of fringe people tied to the cause."

No one denies the presence of a national network of anti-abortion militants who endorse the use of violence.

For proof, take a trip to the White Rose Banquet. It takes place in January, around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and usually attracts about 100 guests.

Sponsored by Michael Bray, the event is designed to honor people imprisoned because of violent crimes against clinics and providers.

"These are folks we love," Bray said.

For the record, Bray said Kopp never attended a banquet or signed a justifiable-homicide petition. He declined to comment when asked if he knew Kopp or had recently seen him.

Not surprisingly, pro-choice leaders view the banquet as a huge slap in the face, a very high-profile gathering of people who advocate killing doctors.

"The general purpose of it is to celebrate violence," said Susan Dudley of the National Abortion Federation.

More than any other pro-life militant, Bray has emerged as a favorite target of abortion-rights advocates. He added to his reputation in 1995 by writing a column advocating the advantages of sniper attacks. The column appeared just a year after a sniper shot an abortion doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I am short on shelf space," Bray wrote at the time, "so I traded my copy of the Army of God Manual for the (U.S.) Army's Sniper Training and Employment. And it is uplifting!"

In doing so, did Bray encourage future attacks?

"Absolutely," said Ann Glazier, clinic defense director for Planned Parenthood Federation. "He tries to be cute and then surprised when people hold him accountable."

Bray downplays his role, describing himself as a defender, not an advocate, of violence. He said the sniper column was intended as satire.

"These people have no sense of humor," he said of his critics. "I was trying to mock Christians who supposedly oppose abortion but are pacifists."

The notion of a conspiracy is nothing new. The question is: How big is it? Is it just a handful of people involved in individual crimes, or are there ties to a larger, national network.

Pro-choice leaders are quick to note that extremists often meet, protest and spend time in jail together. They claim those relationships are based on more than just a shared ideology.

The problem, of course, is proving those alliances lead to violent activity.

Many suspect that, when there is a conspiracy, it's small in scope. It may be a handful of people, or cells as they're known in the militia movement, who meet secretly to plan a bombing, killing or arson attack.

Pro-choice leaders claim some militants are full-time protesters, traveling coast to coast with no job and little money.

"How can these people travel with no means of support?" said Glazier. "Somebody is providing that support."

More and more, pro-choice leaders see evidence of a conspiracy as they outline a large network of people who provide food, shelter and money for extremists but may be unwilling to commit violence themselves.

Ann Baker, head of the National Center for the Pro-Choice Majority, isn't convinced that this underground of supporters or events like the White Rose Banquet are evidence of a large national conspiracy.

"What you're seeing is less a conspiracy and more of a collaboration," she said.

For Ms. Baker, the evidence of a grand conspiracy is piecemeal, like what police found in the John C. Salvi III case.

In 1994, Salvi murdered two women and wounded five others at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., and then drove to Norfolk, Va. and shot up a clinic there. He was later found with the name and unlisted phone number of Donald Spitz, a prominent militant and head of Pro-Life Virginia.

"He never struck me as the type of person who could do this on his own," Ms. Baker said of Salvi. "And how did he choose Norfolk of all places?"

Spitz, who signed the justifiable-homicide petition, has denied knowing Salvi. Just two years after he was convicted, Salvi killed himself in jail.

Ask almost any pro-life leader about conspiracies, and they'll probably remind you of Alexandria, Va.

There, under the secrecy of a grand jury, federal investigators tried to make a case for a national conspiracy to commit violence.

In 1996, two years after it first convened, the grand jury abruptly ended its work. And without a single indictment.

John Burt, a militant leader from Pensacola, Fla., was one of the 40 to 50 anti-abortion activists ordered to testify. He later gave a copy of his Army of God manual to federal agents.

Burt, who worked with and protested alongside convicted killers Paul Hill and Michael Griffin, dismisses the notion of a large, national conspiracy. He said events like the White Rose Banquet are not part a grand plan for killing doctors.

"We have a lot of talkers, not many doers," he said. "There's no clandestine thing going on. If there was, Michael Bray would be in the mountains by now."

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