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Link sought between Maryland abortion case, Florida clinic

By Jason Tomassini

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Florida officials on Wednesday were investigating any potential links between a fire at a Pensacola abortion clinic and a New Jersey abortion doctor who has been charged with murder, authorities said.

The cause of the fire on Sunday at the American Family Planning Inc. clinic has not been determined, said Deborah Cox, a spokeswoman for the Florida State Fire Marshal.

A mailing address for the clinic listed on the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration website is 1 Alpha Avenue in Voorhees, New Jersey, the same address as American Women's Services, which provides abortions at clinics in four Mid-Atlantic states.

American Women's Services is owned by Steven Brigham, a New Jersey doctor arrested on murder charges on December 28. Brigham is charged in Maryland with five counts of first-degree murder, in what could be the first case to test the state's fetal homicide law.

Brigham practiced at American Family Planning Inc. in the 1990s, and his license in Florida was revoked in 1996, according to the Florida Department of Health website.

The blaze began near the ground level of the building and extended up to the outside of the attic, said Pensacola Fire Marshal David Allen. No one was hurt, and Allen estimated damage to the two-story building at $50,000 to $75,000.

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigation, Cox said.

The investigation into Brigham and an employee, Nicola Riley, who is charged with one count of first-degree murder, began in August 2010 following a botched abortion in Elkton, Maryland, where Brigham and Riley were present, police said.

Officers who searched the Maryland clinic during an ensuing investigation found 35 fetuses in a freezer, a source said.

Maryland prosecutors have declined to comment on how the murder charges are tied to the botched abortion or the frozen fetuses.

Maryland criminal law states that people can be charged with murder if they "intend to cause the death of the viable fetus." Its state law defines a fetus as "viable" if "there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus' sustained survival outside the womb."

Brigham provided abortions to five patients ranging from 18 to 33 weeks pregnant, according to a report by the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners.

The report said Brigham started the five late-term abortion cases in his New Jersey clinic, giving patients injections that either softened the cervix or caused "fetal demise." The patients then traveled to Maryland where the abortions were completed, the report said.

Brigham completed some himself and Riley completed others under Brigham's supervision, the report said. Brigham's New Jersey license was suspended in October 2010 and he received a cease-and-desist warning in Maryland a month earlier.

Brigham argued to the board that the procedures in New Jersey were only preliminary to an abortion and that he only consulted doctors at the Maryland clinic.

Brigham's attorney in Maryland, C. Thomas Brown, declined further comment on the case. Florida officials would not comment on a potential link between American Family Planning and Brigham. Brigham is awaiting extradition in New Jersey.

Riley appeared on Tuesday in District Court in Salt Lake City, where she was arrested, her Utah-based lawyer, Edwin Wall, said. A bond hearing will be held on January 9, when extradition proceedings to Maryland may be determined, he said.

Riley is in custody on a no-bond warrant, said her Maryland lawyer, Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, who said the case against Riley holds no merit.

"I can tell you we strongly believe the charges are without legal basis," she said.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)