John Salvi, who shot two people to death and wounded five others at two area abortion clinics in 1994, ended his troubled life Friday in a maximum-security prison outside Boston, prison authorities said.
Salvi, 24, a reclusive, failed hairdresser and zealous anti-abortion crusader, was serving a sentence of two consecutive life terms without parole at the Cedar Junction prison in Walpole. He was found, shortly after 6 a.m., alone in his cell with a plastic garbage can liner tied around his head.
Prison authorities were unable to revive him, and he was taken to nearby Southland Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:55 a.m. The preliminary cause of death listed by the medical examiner’s office was asphyxiation.
Ronald Duval, the superintendent of the prison, said at a news conference that a guard had said Salvi was asleep when he checked on him shortly after 5 a.m.
Duval said there was “no indication that Mr. Salvi was mentally ill or in need of any special intervention.” He added that he did not believe that the prison was responsible for Salvi’s death.
Salvi, who was convicted of two murders at his trial last March, arrived at Walpole in July. In prison, as in the outside world, he was a loner.
Salvi’s lawyers said they were saddened but not surprised by his suicide.
“We had thought he would be dead within a year,” one lawyer, Janice Bassil, said in Boston, adding that she had thought Salvi would commit suicide or be killed in prison. “His mental illness made him very maladaptive to a prison environment.”
Shortly before Christmas last year, Salvi slipped a noose made from a pillow case around his neck at the Norfolk County Jail. A guard spotted him before he was harmed. While Salvi’s lawyers said it was a serious suicide attempt, the prison authorities disagreed.
Salvi had been living alone in Hampton, N.H., before he opened fire at the Planned Parenthood and Preterm abortion clinics in suburban Brookline on Dec. 30, 1994, killing two clinic receptionists, Lee Ann Nichols, 38, and Shannon Lowney, 25. He shot Nichols 10 times at pointblank range. It was the worst violence yet at abortion clinics in the nation.
Salvi left the clinic, cut his longish hair and fled to Norfolk, Va. He was arrested a day after the shootings, shortly after he opened fire on an abortion clinic there.
At Salvi’s trial, Ruth Nichols, the mother of Lee Ann Nichols, described him as “a little man with a big gun” who had shot her daughter in the back. Friday she said in a telephone interview with New England Cable Television that Salvi’s death was “another kind of closure.”
“One thing about my daughter - she had so much living to do,” Nichols said. “I often wondered what her thoughts were at this horrible happening. I wonder what John Salvi’s last thoughts were.”
Nikki Nichols Gamble, the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, said Salvi’s death was “a final chapter in a really tragic series of events that destroyed three young people’s lives.”
Duval said at the news conference that while the other inmates left Salvi alone for the most part, he had recently been in a fight with another inmate and that both had been disciplined.
James L. Sultan, who had been appointed by the court along with his law partner, Charles W. Rankin, to work on Salvi’s appeal, said that when he last saw his client, on Oct. 25, his face was swollen, and one eye still red, from that fight.
“I’m sure a lot of people are not going to shed any tears for him,” Sultan said. “But they should shed tears for our system. To me, this illustrates the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with mental illness. He belonged in a hospital.”
Salvi’s lawyers argued during his trial that Salvi had acted under delusions brought on by paranoid schizophrenia. The prosecutor from the Norfolk County district attorney’s office in Massachusetts portrayed Salvi as an anti-abortion terrorist who methodically planned the attacks and his getaway. The jury convicted Salvi of murdering Lowney and Nichols.
The Norfolk County district attorney’s office declined to comment on Salvi’s death. That office, along with prison authorities, is investigating the suicide.
While Salvi had his own cell at Walpole, he was part of the general prison population. He spent much of his time reading the Bible and other religious material.
Salvi, who was Roman Catholic, believed that the Freemasons, the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan were conspiring to persecute Catholics. Bassil said he had periodically telephoned her law office to request the address and zip code of the Pope.
Salvi’s parents, John C. Salvi II and Ann Marie Salvi, who had retired to Naples, Fla., visited their son in prison often, Sultan said.
On a recent visit, Duval said, Ann Marie Salvi had mentioned to the prison staff “that she had been telling people for a long time and no one wanted to listen” that her son suffered from “long term mental illness.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SALVI’S VICTIMS On Dec. 30, 1994, Salvi killed Shannon Lowney, 25, a receptionist at the Boston Planned Parenthood Clinic, and Lee Ann Nichols, 38, a receptionist at a nearby clinic. Those wounded included patients, a guard and several friends and relatives of patients.