15 Law Enforcement Officers Murdered By Domestic Extremists Since the Oklahoma City Bombing
Since the Oklahoma City bombing, domestic extremists have murdered 15 law enforcement officers. Each of their deaths was a unique tragedy.
By Susy Buchanan
Birmingham, Ala., Police Department
Jan. 29, 1998
Robert "Sande" Sanderson was moonlighting as a security guard at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 29, 1998, when he was torn apart by an explosion of dynamite and nails, the first fatal abortion clinic bombing in the United States.
Sanderson had just come off the night shift at the Birmingham Police Department, where he had been working with a rookie cop.
Smart and capable, Sanderson could easily have moved up the chain of command, his colleagues say. But he seemed happy to stay right where he was, playing to his greatest strength — mentoring young officers.
In his recent book, Hunting Eric Rudolph, author Henry Schuster describes Sanderson as "the prototypical Officer Friendly," a man who volunteered often and had a soft spot for kids. Even the abortion protesters perennially outside the clinic had respect for Sanderson, a man who was not only cordial with them but also as protective of their safety as he was of that of the clinic workers and their patients.
Sanderson's last shift as a police officer was relatively uneventful, with a few pot busts and a lot of talk about football and Green Bay's recent Super Bowl victory. Then he headed over to the clinic, where he began his shift at 7 a.m. He was trying to earn enough money to buy his teenage stepson a car.
The work didn't bother Sande Sanderson. Although he personally did not believe in abortion, he firmly believed in upholding the law.
That winter morning, Sanderson noticed something askew near the entrance to the clinic, a package of some sort, half-buried in the dirt. He bent over to investigate, probing it with his police baton.
Bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, wearing a wig and watching from nearby, detonated the package with a remote control device. Sanderson's keen eye spoiled what many believe was Rudolph's plan to explode the bomb later in the day, when the clinic would be full of patients. But it couldn't save the officer.
The bomb blast blew a crater into the ground and killed Sanderson instantly, hurling part of his body over a fence. A nurse arriving at work, Emily Lyons, was horribly injured, losing an eye and enduring years of operations to patch her body back together. Sanderson's body, which took the brunt of the blast, had protected her from even worse.
But for Sanderson's widow, Felecia, it could hardly have been more catastrophic.
Sanderson was the one who made perfectly smooth gravy at Thanksgiving, the one who brought home the tree at Christmas, she remembers. These kinds of small, family traditions were too painful for her to continue after his death.
"It's hell on earth that I am living," Felecia told the Intelligence Report about a year after Sande Sanderson died. "I miss every little thing about him. I think about him all the time. Sande is what was meant for me."
Rudolph was identified almost immediately after the Birmingham bombing, but managed to elude authorities in the North Carolina woods for five years despite a massive federal manhunt. Distraught, Felecia Sanderson repeatedly traveled to North Carolina to encourage the federal task force searching for the fugitive — men and women who came to love her for steady, unrelenting efforts. In the same way, although their views on abortion could hardly have been more different, Felicia became Emily Lyons' friend and quiet confidante.
When Rudolph was finally captured, he struck a plea bargain that saved him from a federal death sentence. At his sentencing earlier this year, Felecia, standing with her back to Rudolph, told the court that she would "never forget the look on my son's face when I told him Sande was gone."
"I want to tell you there is no punishment in my opinion great enough for Eric Rudolph," she said. But she declined to say what his ultimate punishment should be. "I'm going to leave the final judgment in God's hand."