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FBI team cancels visit to aid probe into arson at Amherst anti-abortion center, CEO says

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CompassCare Firebombing Investigation FBI

A wall is marked with graffiti and broken glass covers the sidewalk after a suspected firebombing at CompassCare, a crisis pregnancy center in Eggertsville on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Center officials and their anti-abortion allies have decried the lack of information from investigators looking into the arson.

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A team of investigators from the FBI's training and research center has canceled a visit to Buffalo intended to provide specialized assistance to the probe into a suspected firebombing at an anti-abortion center in Eggertsville, according to CompassCare's chief executive.

CEO James Harden said the team was scheduled to come here next week from the FBI facility at Quantico, Va., to help local agents and Amherst police investigate the June 7 arson at the CompassCare crisis pregnancy center, 1230 Eggert Road in Amherst.

However, he said, the bureau on Monday with little explanation informed senior CompassCare officials the visit was canceled.

"Essentially, 'something else has come up,' " Harden said in an interview. "And what that tells us is they have other priorities." A Buffalo-area spokeswoman for the FBI declined comment.

It's only the latest frustration for CompassCare leaders stemming from the arson investigation.

The group on Monday asked a state Supreme Court justice to force Amherst police to turn over copies of the surveillance video footage recorded the night of the suspected firebombing.

Harden hasn't seen the recording yet, but, he revealed Wednesday, Amherst police did invite CompassCare officials in July to examine still images taken from this video. Harden said the photos provide clear evidence pointing to those responsible.

"They know who these people are. They're choosing not to make arrests," Harden said. Amherst police also declined comment.

The CompassCare center opened in 2019. Crisis pregnancy centers like this one provide free basic services and counseling to pregnant women to encourage them to seek other options beside abortion.

Critics say the anti-abortion centers share misinformation about the risks of the procedure and use advertising that tricks women into thinking they provide abortions, accusations their operators deny.

CompassCare officials previously said the culprit or culprits smashed windows and set fires in two different locations in the building at around 2:30 a.m. June 7.

Someone wrote the words "Jane was here" on one side of the center. Jane's Revenge, branded an "abortion terrorist group” by CompassCare, later took credit for setting the fire, as it has for at least one other fire elsewhere.

CompassCare found another, undisclosed site from which to operate while the organization poured an estimated $400,000 into repairs to the structure, equipment and furnishings, as well as improved security. The group also is planning a $265,000 expansion at the site, Harden said previously.

By August, CompassCare announced that it was ready to reopen the center.

While repairs moved quickly, the investigation has moved slowly, Harden complained.

He said, for example, local FBI agents didn't formally ask CompassCare to sign a release allowing them to review the surveillance video footage until mid-July.

More recently, the FBI contacted CompassCare to say a team of agents would come in Sept. 30 to help with video analysis.

"The plan was for the FBI to send a team from Quantico to assess the video surveillance system and give them more information about essentially how to, perhaps, better identify characteristics of the perpetrators – like height, for example," Harden said.

On Monday, though, a bureau representative said the visit would not happen, Harden said, and no attempt to reschedule the trip was made.

"This is clearly downgrading the firebombing, and then they're clearly not allocating law enforcement resources toward this," he said.

Jeannie McBride, an FBI spokeswoman in Buffalo, issued a statement emphasizing the bureau's work in probing similar acts of arson and vandalism nationwide without directly addressing the canceled visit here.

"The FBI takes all violence and threats of violence very seriously and we are working closely with our law enforcement partners at the national, state, and local levels to investigate these incidents," she emailed.

Amherst police haven't provided a substantial comment on the incident since their initial statement on June 7.

CompassCare Damage Repaired Eggertsville

This set of windows and this door at CompassCare, 1230 Eggert Road, were damaged by vandals in an apparent arson attack on June 7.

CompassCare officials weren't able to look at the surveillance video footage, or copy it, before passing it to Amherst police that day because of damage and lost power to the center. They provided the recordings and haven't seen them since.

However, on July 14, Amherst police invited CompassCare officials to the department's headquarters to look at four or five screenshots taken from the surveillance video, Harden said.

The photos showed more than one possible perpetrator and a vehicle with a legible license plate number, he said. And, he added, Amherst police have data showing whose cellphones were in use at the building site around the time of the apparent firebombing.

Amherst Police Capt. Christopher Meyer said the department does not have an update on the "active and ongoing" investigation and he would not address Harden's comments.

In frustration, CompassCare on Monday sued Amherst police to force them to provide access to the surveillance video.

Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa earlier this week told The Buffalo News sharing the video with CompassCare would jeopardize the investigation. Harden said this simply isn't true.

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News Staff Reporter

I report on development, government, crime and schools in the northern Erie County suburbs. I grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and worked at the Post-Standard in Syracuse before joining The News in 2001. Email: swatson@buffnews.com

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