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Yvonne Abraham

Remembering the horror of the Brookline clinic shootings, 25 years later

Shannon Lowney (left) and Leanne Nichols were killed in the shootings.
Shannon Lowney (left) and Leanne Nichols were killed in the shootings. Associated Press/file

Monday will mark 25 years since the bitterly cold morning when antiabortion zealot John Salvi III went on a shooting rampage at two Brookline clinics.

Two women died that day: Shannon Lowney, 25, a receptionist and Spanish translator at Planned Parenthood, and Leanne Nichols, 38, who worked at Preterm Health Services, another clinic less than 2 miles west on Beacon Street. Five others were injured.

This was 1994, before cellphones and easy Web searches and instant news, when families gathered, desperately waiting for word that took forever to come. Mass shootings were still rare enough in this country to bring us to a standstill. Violence at abortion clinics happened elsewhere, not in reasonable Brookline.

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In the years since, the pathology, and the loss, has become sickeningly familiar: the lone terrorist, isolated, unhinged, and radicalized; the recollections of relatives and co-workers who knew enough to fear him; the easy access to weapons and ammunition designed for maximum carnage; the scores of lives ripped apart by unimaginable loss.

Women consoled each other after a shooting at the Brookline clinic.
Women consoled each other after a shooting at the Brookline clinic. The Boston Globe

Salvi, captured just after he fired shots at another clinic in Virginia, hailed as a hero by his fellow zealots, was found guilty of the murders in 1996. He killed himself at MCI-Walpole later that year.

So much time has passed since then, and so much changed, that the Brookline shootings seem almost like a historical event — distant, abstract, behind us.

Unless you lived through the horror of that day, and its aftermath. For those people, the past is vivid and indelible; it’s not even the past.

Here are the recollections of six.

Ed McDonough, fiance of Leanne Nichols

I try to remember what her voice was like. I don’t want to forget her. It never goes away over the years, the loss.

We met at a Red Sox game. I asked her out, and she gave me a white daisy on our first date, and since then we were together. She taught me a lot about life. She taught me how to love a person. She was outgoing, with a nice smile and a soft voice. She was just the sweetest person in the world that I knew.

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We bought a house together, a fixer-upper in Salem, N.H. I think if we were still together, we’d still be in the same house, and maybe hopefully have a child.

The way the harassment was, when she got out of her car, they immediately went right up to her and started yelling at her and all that. If you yelled back at them, they just yelled more, so she just let it go. But she felt safe in the clinic. If she didn’t, I don’t think she would have stayed. There was an armed guard.

I was driving on the upper deck on 93 when I heard it on the radio. I rushed over there, and when I got to the side of the building her co-workers told me to go to the hospital.

People say, “Oh, closure,” but it’s never closure. You’re never the same. Now I have just a few pictures of her. I treasure them.

Liam Lowney, brother of Shannon Lowney

Liam Lowney held a photograph he keeps on his cellphone of his sister, Shannon Lowney.
Liam Lowney held a photograph he keeps on his cellphone of his sister, Shannon Lowney.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Shannon was the quintessential middle child, the peacemaker in the family. Then to go through this without our peacemaker . . .

We didn’t know anything for three hours. We were watching the news, calling all over the place. A local police officer showed up at the house to tell us.

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We were trying to deal with the shock that she had been in the living room a week ago and she was never going to be there again. It was not lost on us, the national attention, and the onslaught that was about to happen.

It was really offensive to me, and it still is, that one of our first actions had to be coming up with a statement. If we didn’t try to control her message and tell people who she was, that that would be decided for us. I’ve tried to be on that message for 25 years. We wanted the world to know who she was and what they’d lost: She was a loving sister, friend, daughter. She really wanted to make sure women and children had access to affordable health care. We wanted to make it really clear that, because of the issue that surrounded Shannon’s murder, she was going to get a lot of attention, but that violence happens every day in communities cross America. And it’s only gotten worse, not better.

The people we met along the way were extraordinary. We met with the prosecution team on New Year’s Eve. It always struck me: Those people could have been anywhere else — with their families, raising a glass of champagne, looking at ice sculptures. But they were with me and my family, and Leanne’s fiance, to explain what had happened, and what was going to happen.

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Nicole Jellinek, clinic assistant at Planned Parenthood

Nicole Jellinek was working in the Planned Parenthood office on Beacon Street in Brookline when the shooting occurred.
Nicole Jellinek was working in the Planned Parenthood office on Beacon Street in Brookline when the shooting occurred.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s funny the things you remember. It was exceedingly cold. I was between patients, and I was standing in an office across from the reception area with two friends, drinking hot chocolate and chatting. We heard what we didn’t realize in the moment were gunshots, but we knew something terrible was happening. One of our colleagues who had been shot tumbled into the room and we shut the door and called 911, and chaos set in.

I remember going to the window, there was a huge crowd out front, and I saw my mother standing there, looking desperate. We were supposed to be staying inside, but I remember running out and hugging her.

We knew there had been attacks on other clinics, but we lived in this bubble, that the things that were happening in the South, or the Midwest, would never happen to us. I wish I felt the attacks changed things. I can’t believe we’re still having to fight for reproductive freedom in 2019.

And the world lost a bright light that day — more than one, but one I knew, and no good comes from that. At the time, I was not thinking about becoming a social worker, but Shannon was. She was a remarkable person, with a strong sense of justice and commitment to folks who are underserved, and we need more of that in the world.

Souci Rollins, counselor at Planned Parenthood

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Souci Rollins.
Souci Rollins. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

I wasn’t supposed to be working that day. I was filling in for somebody else. It was chaotic, and surreal. There were no cellphones then, no immediate news flashes, so it took a while for everything to get out into the world. In this day and age, we might have prevented him from going down the street to Preterm.

Shannon was a fantastically wonderful, happy, smiling face of the clinic: bright, enthusiastic, kind-hearted, the person you would want welcoming you into any space.

I did attend the trial. I felt like I just needed to see him and try to understand a little bit. His family was very tragic all around. I remember talking to his parents, small talk during lunch or something, and just seeing the pain they were experiencing.

Detective Lieutenant John McDonough, state trooper who assisted the families after the shooting

John McDonough.
John McDonough. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

I did a lot of homicide investigations, but I never had the feelings for any other family that I had for the Lowneys. This family has meant so much to me over the years. And Ed McDonough was so shattered at the time, he was very fragile. He was having problems with the media trying to interview him, he was climbing through backyards to avoid them, and I tried to help him with that.

I sat with Ed and the Lowneys for the whole trial, for moral support, I guess. It was hard for them to sit through. I’ve had other trials where the family wanted to almost kill the person that was on trial, but the Lowneys were so calm. It was clear that Salvi was mentally ill, and there was almost this empathy they had for him.

Teresa Roberts, staff nurse at Planned Parenthood

Teresa Roberts.
Teresa Roberts. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

I was working in a refugee camp with Guatemalans when it happened. Shannon knew about the situation there, and we’d talked a lot about it. We were both in our mid-20s. Here was this young woman, getting ready to go to grad school and become a social worker, and she never got the chance.

Some people didn’t want to come back to work after, understandably. I felt like it was absolutely imperative that I do so. It was partly from feeling righteous anger: “How dare you, I am not going to let you scare us. I am not going to let you shut us down.”

At the time, you felt like it was unusual to have a work environment that is a target of violence. In 2019, it feels like every school, and every hospital, and restaurants and post offices, any place, someone can come and shoot it up. It was on the news for so long. Now nothing stays in the news cycle more than 36 hours because of some other scary, upsetting, horrible thing that happened.

One thing that was truly remarkable was the immense amount of mail that came in from all over the country, and internationally — presents and letters and heartfelt condolence cards. It was incredibly heartening that we were going through this incredible trauma, but we felt the solidarity across the country, and even internationally, of women and others who appreciated our work, who were crying for Shannon and Leanne, and knew we needed support.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.