OWOSSO, Mich. In what may be the first killing of a person protesting abortion, a retired autoworker in Michigan was gunned down Sept. 11 as he held a pro-life placard outside a high school in Owosso, Mich., near Flint.
Over the course of two decades, James Pouillon, 63, stood in public areas holding signs protesting abortion. The particular one he held that day outside the school pictured a chubby-cheeked baby with the word "Life" on one side and an image of an aborted fetus with the word "Abortion" on the other.
President Obama, in a two-sentence statement Sept. 13, called the shooting "deplorable." "Whichever side of a public debate you're on, violence is never the right answer," Obama said.
Harlan Drake, 33, an Owosso truck driver, is in custody for shooting Pouillon and a local gravel company owner the same day. A third man, a real estate agent, also allegedly was on his hit list. Investigators believe Drake held grudges against all three men.
According to a report by NBC25, a Michigan television station, the director of public safety for the Owosso police department said detectives believe Drake killed Pouillon because of his demonstrations against abortion.
"I don't think he knew him personally," Michael Compeau told the TV station. "Drake was aware of him and was offended by the material that Mr. Pouillon carried with him."
The New York Times characterized Pouillon as a man known for standing for hours in the small, rural town, "waving graphic signs and breaking the idyllic quiet with loud anti-abortion rants." The newspaper said residents referred to Pouillon as "the Sign Man," and quoted one person who said he was "just too in-your-face."
Pouillon had been arrested before for his activities, though not in recent years, and he stood outside the high school, where his granddaughter was a student, because he "liked to be where he thought he could influence young people," The Times said. Pouillon's nephew said he was regularly threatened by residents for his abortion protests, but he never took them seriously.
"From most accounts, Mr. Pouillon was not particularly religious, although he did occasionally attend St. Paul's Catholic Church in Owosso, residents said," The Times reported.
Others were remembering Pouillon as a good neighbor and devoted family man. Some even called him a martyr. About 200 people gathered in front of Owosso High School Sunday afternoon to sing, pray and share memories about Pouillon.
Cal Zastrow, cofounder of Personhood USA, a pro-life advocacy group, called Pouillon a "peaceful pro-life Christian" and a "close friend."
"Jim was completely non-violent and never condoned using violence. I knew him very well and had prayed and ministered with him often. He was praying and holding a poster of a newborn baby outside of Owosso High School," Zastrow said in a statement Sept. 11.
"... The last time I talked to Jim was this week, Monday. I prayed with him over the phone as he was preparing to go talk about Jesus and show pro-life signs in front of Owosso High School, where he was martyred this morning," Zastrow added.
National Right to Life, the nation's largest pro-life group, condemned the violence surrounding Pouillon's death.
"We are saddened to learn of this tragic taking of innocent human life," executive director David O'Steen said Friday. "National Right to Life extends its sympathies to Mr. Pouillon's family over his death. While the motive behind the shooting is unknown, we know that Mr. Pouillon was known for his stand against abortion.
"The National Right to Life Committee unequivocally condemns acts of violence. The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life," O'Steen said. "Any unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal."
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said Pouillon "dedicated his life to convincing others to reject the violence of abortion."
"We hope Attorney General [Eric] Holder will as vigorously denounce the murder of Jim Pouillon, who tried to save babies from violence, as he did the murder of George Tiller, the late-term abortionist."
Tiller was killed at his Wichita, Kan., church in May. A memorial service for Pouillon was Sept. 16 at Owosso High's Wilman Field.