One murder too many?

National | The case of an Oklahoma City abortionist charged with murdering his wife raises questions: Can legal killing lead to illegal killing?

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

Cruising through Quail Creek, a fashionable suburb in northwest Oklahoma City, travelers could easily miss the home of Dr. and Mrs. John and Susan Hamilton. The generous dark-red brick house is set further back from the road than any other in the leafy neighborhood. A curving red pebble stone driveway leads visitors from Brush Creek Road, then disappears behind pines, oaks, and sycamores before revealing the house, which appears nearly windowless, its front shielded by brick columns and high shrubs. It's the picture of genteel, upper-crust seclusion. On Valentine's Day, it also proved a secluded spot for murder. At 11:06 a.m. on Feb. 14, a 911 dispatcher contacted Oklahoma City police with a "trouble unknown call" at 3056 Brush Creek Road. When police rushed up the pebble stone drive, they found a white Corvette and a beige Jaguar XJ6 parked as usual in front of the Hamilton house. But inside, they found prominent Oklahoma City obstetrician-gynecologist John Hamilton, 52, barefoot in the kitchen wearing a bloody black sports coat, green dress slacks, white dress shirt, and no tie. In a bathroom, they discovered the dead body of society-page and country club regular Susan Hamilton, 54, lying nude in a pool of blood with a man's dress tie looped around her neck. Her forehead had been bashed in with a blunt object. Dr. Hamilton told police he came home from performing a surgery at nearby Mercy Medical Center and found his wife dead. He tried to perform CPR, he said, then dialed 911 for help. But evidence at the scene convinced detectives that the doctor was lying. Less than seven hours after he called 911, police arrested John Hamilton. A judge later denied bail and Oklahoma County District Attorney Robert H. Macy charged Dr. Hamilton with murder in the first degree. That shocked the couple's wealthy neighbors, fellow churchgoers, and country club friends, who couldn't believe John Hamilton could commit murder. "Everyone thought he was the kindest person in the world," said the Hamiltons' across-the-street neighbor Diane Marlherbe, who taught fourth-grade Sunday school with Mrs. Hamilton at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. "My friend sitting next to me in church said, 'He delivered my baby. There's no way he could have done it.'" But not everyone was surprised that Dr. Hamilton might be capable of killing, since he had long been in the killing business. In 1980, he purchased the Oklahoma City Clinic for Women. There, he disposed of "problem" fetuses for the next 20 years. Since Dr. Hamilton's arrest, the brown brick building on North Western Avenue has sat unused. Trash dances across the deserted parking lot. The front doors stay locked and drawn shades conceal a white plastic sign on the counter inside: "Cash or money order only." Oklahoma City pro-life activist Stan Engle said the murder-one charge against Dr. Hamilton "seemed normal. Someone who makes a living taking the lives of the unborn is only one step away from taking the lives of the born." The question now is, did John Hamilton cross that line? And if a jury finds that he did, could years of involvement in abortion have led him to do it? Some abortionists have crossed the line from the legally and socially acceptable killing of pre-born people to the unlawful act of killing born ones, but it usually happens in the midst of operations. In 1991, a jury convicted abortionist and plastic surgeon Joe Bills Reynolds of second-degree manslaughter after he killed his wife during a liposuction procedure. His criminal punishment: a $1 fine. In 1995, New York doctor David Benjamin was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. During a late-term abortion procedure, Dr. Benjamin lacerated a woman's uterus and did not return to his clinic when his staff called saying his patient was in danger. Last month, a jury found Arizona abortionist John Biskind, 75, guilty of manslaughter for the 1998 death of LouAnne Herron, 33. Ms. Herron was at least the second woman to die under his care. Jurors concluded that Dr. Biskind knew Ms. Herron was in serious trouble, but left the A-Z Women's Center anyway to go visit his tailor. Jury foreman Russell Craig told reporters the jury was offended by Dr. Biskind's smiling arrogance during the trial and his testimony that he knowingly left a seriously ill patient under the care of $7-an-hour medical assistants. Oklahoma City physician Dominic Pedulla believes the brutality of abortion penetrates the abortionist's soul, rendering him capable of other brutal acts. "The abortionist lives an intrinsically violent lifestyle [that isn't] sanitized because the doctor is making a nice living, dresses well, and lives in an upper social stratum," said Dr. Pedulla, who described Dr. Hamilton as "one of the most well-known abortionists" in the city. "An abortion doctor is confronted with an irreconcilable conflict.... How can he compartmentalize and say, 'On the one hand it's okay to kill these babies, and on the other hand it's not okay to solve my anger problems with violence'?" Former abortion workers say compartmentalization-the partitioning of self-awareness or moral code-is exactly how abortionists and clinic workers survive mentally and emotionally. While working as a head abortion-clinic nurse, for example, Joan Appleton's job required her to sift through each jumble of post-abortive baby parts and reassemble the baby's body. The procedure, called "grossing," was meant to ensure that no infection-causing body parts had been left inside the aborting mother's womb. "You must harden yourself and keep your mind focused on the woman instead of the child," said Ms. Appleton, who left the abortion industry in 1989 and now heads American Centurions, a counseling and recovery program for former abortion workers. "You have to stay focused on the rhetoric of 'choice,' which says you're a hero who is helping women." Pro-abortion cheerleading and materialism collude to keep abortion workers shackled to their trade. But it is spiritual blindness, said Ms. Appleton, that ought to spur compassion rather than anger in the hearts of pro-lifers: "Pro-life activists are so used to considering abortion workers the enemy, that they have a hard time looking at them as just fallen sinners." American Centurions adds abortionists and abortion facilitators to the list of the industry's victims. John and Susan Hamilton tried to compartmentalize the stress that poured into their lives as the result of abortion. Mrs. Hamilton was no abortion bystander; as a physician's assistant, she worked at the clinic alongside her husband. When pro-life picketers paraded outside their Quail Creek home, the Hamiltons apologized to their neighbors. When sidewalk counselors began regular vigils at the clinic, the Hamiltons erected "No Trespassing" signs. When picketers brought signs of their own ("Abortions kill babies") to the clinic, Dr. Hamilton reacted by trying to distance himself from his source of all-cash income: In 1984, he announced publicly that he had sold the clinic, but that was a red herring. According to tax and corporate records obtained by The Daily Oklahoman and WORLD, he did sell the clinic in 1983-but to a limited liability corporation whose officers were his son and daughter, Shannon M. and John Kris Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton continued to perform abortions there and by 1988, regained official ownership. Did Dr. Hamilton's public duality extend into his own heart? Former abortionist Haywood Robinson says the economics of abortion can blind doctors' eyes to the truth of what their hands are doing. "The abortion industry operates on cash, paid in advance," he writes in The Centurion's Pathway. "Hireling physicians are handsomely rewarded per abortion and we attempted to perform as many as possible on a given day. We became addicted ... to the extent where [the money] was now our master and motivator. We were blind to the fact that it was blood money." Similar blindness may have afflicted John Hamilton. A former associate to whom WORLD granted anonymity because she feared for her family's safety said, "At first [Dr. Hamilton] was gung-ho on abortion. He really felt like he was doing women a service. But after time, he did not want to let [his abortion practice] go because it was such a moneymaker. He didn't care anymore." While investigating Dr. Hamilton this month, Oklahoma County authorities learned that he aborted between 15 and 20 unborn children each Tuesday and Thursday at his clinic. Each Wednesday and Friday, he deposited about $3,000 into the bank. When detectives searched the doctor's Jag on Feb. 15, they found a blue bank bag with $2,860 in cash and a deposit slip from the Oklahoma City Clinic for Women. Nearby was a Valentine's Day card in a red envelope, possibly destined for Susan Hamilton, though police found another card addressed to her inside the house. The only girl among five children, Mrs. Hamilton was raised Susan Shibley in Sapulpa, a small town near Oklahoma City, where her parents ran a café. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, she was described by former high-school classmates as the kind of beauty who turned heads when she walked into a room, but that she was "beautiful on the inside," too. After she wed John Hamilton 15 years ago, the popular power-couple lit up Oklahoma City's society circles. They frequented the Quail Creek Golf and Country Club, and attended and hosted upscale soirees. As recently as January, the couple appeared in the society pages of The Sunday Oklahoman after hosting an engagement party at which "An ice-sculpted palm tree decorated the table where guests gathered for a lavish array of foods." Though Dr. Hamilton's involvement in abortion was well known, many in the community seemed to accept and compartmentalize that brand of killing. Former patient Diane McDaniel told The Daily Oklahoman, "If asked if he could do it, I'd say there is no way he could have killed anything. He is a very kind man. I wouldn't think he would hurt a fly." Neither do Dr. Hamilton's associates believe he could hurt his wife. The couple's marriage seemed solid to friends and colleagues. "He was absolutely head over heels in love with her," said Dr. Karen Reisig, who was in practice with Dr. Hamilton for 12 years. But beneath a serene surface, darker currents roiled. According to a police report, the couple had recently been involved in "heated domestic arguments." Investigators learned that Mrs. Hamilton had accused her husband of an affair with a former patient and had threatened to leave him. Mrs. Hamilton's friend Sherry Coffee told detectives that the night before Mrs. Hamilton died, Dr. Hamilton had told Ms. Coffee that he could not live without his wife. Less than 24 hours later, he would have to learn how. After police found Susan Hamilton lying on the bathroom floor, bloody, beaten, and with strangulation marks around her neck, the doctor told police his story: On Feb. 14, after performing a morning procedure at a private surgery center, he came home and exchanged Valentine's Day cards with his wife. He then headed for Mercy Medical Center to perform another surgery, and later returned home and found Mrs. Hamilton dead. Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Wes Lane, who is prosecuting the case, disputes that story. "Time frame and blood evidence issues point only to Dr. Hamilton," he told WORLD. For example, he said, no bloody trail was found at the crime scene that would indicate an unknown killer's escape. Police did, however, lift seven "swabbings of possible blood" from Dr. Hamilton's Jaguar. Forensics experts are now testing that evidence. Investigators discovered that the doctor did indeed perform a surgery at a private facility at 7 a.m. on Feb. 14. Dr. Hamilton was also set to perform a laparotomy-an abdominal operation-at 9 a.m. at Mercy Medical Center, but he rescheduled that procedure, moving it forward to 8:30 a.m. Dr. Hamilton did not show up on time for the laparotomy. Hospital staffers paged him at about 9 a.m. as they were about to anesthetize the female patient, but Dr. Hamilton told them he wasn't in the hospital and not to put the patient to sleep. According to Mr. Lane, he arrived at the hospital about an hour behind schedule. "We believe he left the surgical center after the first surgery, killed [Mrs. Hamilton], returned to the hospital, performed the second surgery, then went back home and pretended to discover her body," Mr. Lane told WORLD: "It was a brutal, very violent crime." John Hamilton may be innocent, but according to Philip Ney, a British Columbia psychiatrist who specializes in post-abortion counseling, flashes of violence can be characteristic of the erosion of the natural instinct to nurture that occurs among abortion workers. In his studies of former abortion workers, Dr. Ney found that many react with anger even to their own children's frailties and inadequacies when a nurturing response would be more appropriate. When humans crash through the instinctual restraint against killing other humans, Dr. Ney said, "something weakens inside them, so that it doesn't serve them well in any other situation in which they become enraged." Last month, a Boston abortionist became enraged and threatened to kill five nurses at Brigham and Women's Hospital. The nurses told Boston police that Rapin Osathanondh, head of the hospital's family planning unit, threatened during a staff meeting to "execute people. I'm going to kill you. I'm going to execute you, Texas-style." According to a police report, Dr. Osathanondh was angry over some forms that were missing from a nursing station. A subsequent hearing determined that there is enough evidence to pursue the nurses' complaint as valid. A jury will decide legally whether John Hamilton murdered his wife. The evidentiary trail developed by police and attorneys can be misleading, as demonstrated by Sheppard vs. Maxwell, the 1950s case in which Dr. Sam Sheppard was found guilty of murdering his wife, but was later acquitted after a new trial. The case inspired the television program and movie, The Fugitive. Dr. Hamilton's defense attorney Mack Martin is now playing up the abortion connection, but giving it a new twist: At a March 16 hearing, he told a judge that suspects in Mrs. Hamilton's murder ought to include anti-abortion activists. His client, he says, is innocent.

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