PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — For throwing a makeshift Molotov cocktail into Peoria’s Planned Parenthood clinic earlier this year, a Chillicothe man will go to federal prison for 10 years.
Tyler Massengill, 32, clad in an orange jumpsuit of a Peoria County Jail inmate, showed no emotion as the sentence was read aloud. He stood before the judge and apologized, saying he never meant to hurt anyone. Rather, he said, it was the opposite.
“I feel for the people who have lost their jobs. I’m not trying to play like I am victim at this. I was sincerely hurt,” he said, noting that he thought his unborn child was aborted at the clinic.
He said he was a gifted student, a state champion wrestler but then when he stopped taking his medication at the beginning of high school, his life spiraled out of control. He said he had a stable life but his drug addiction and his mental issues took over.
The second-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Shadid was packed with denizens of the federal courthouse but also people from Planned Parenthood and from the office of U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen, who were to hold a press conference on the steps of the courthouse after the hearing to give their take on the hearing.
Shadid also ordered Massengill to pay $1.45 million in restitution.
He must serve at least 85% of his sentence and has been in custody for just shy of seven months.
The sentencing hearing
On Feb. 16, about a month after the fire, Massengill waived indictment by a federal grand jury and pleaded guilty to malicious use of fire and an explosive to damage and attempt to damage the Planned Parenthood Peoria Health Center, 2709 N. Knoxville Ave., on Jan. 15. He has remained in custody of the U.S. Marshals pending his sentencing.
The statutory limits for the charges were at least five years in prison and possibly up to 20 years. He also could be ordered to pay restitution. But his federal sentencing guideline range was 92 to 115 months in prison, according to court records.
Sentencing guidelines are not mandatory but rather a starting point for judges to begin their consideration. And it showed, as Shadid opted to go above the range.
The judge, when explaining his sentence, said that he appreciated Massengill’s statements but that it didn’t change the facts of the case.
“Is this simply the price that others have to pay when others become self-absorbed in their lives?” Shadid asked.
He also noted that because of Massengill’s actions, several healthcare services to the Peoria community were not available. More than 4,000 patients, 75% of which were from the Tazewell or Peoria county area, were treated in the year before the fire.
“If it is possible to be both spontaneous and intentional at the same time, you achieved it,” Shadid said. “And to add to your accomplishments, there’s the striking of fear, stress and inconvenience to thousands of patients and employees from the many other Planned Parenthood facilities who wonder if they are next on the list of misguided people like you.”
Arguments by the attorneys
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Hanna, Jr., played a video in court that showed Massengill filling up a container with gas, then walking to the building holding the soap container that was full of gas. He’s seen lighting it and then punching the window.
The video also shows the fire starting in the waiting of the clinic and for several seconds, one can see the fire grow and smoke fill the waiting room. There is also body camera footage from the Peoria Fire Department which shows the view from a firefighter.
It’s plainly clear how extensive the damage was to the building which is charred on the inside. The lobby is a mess as firefighters had to pull down parts of the ceiling and the walls to put out the fire.
During the sentencing hearing, Hanna read aloud from a report made by a FBI agent who talked to Massengill’s ex-girlfriend. The woman told the agent she never had an abortion; which was a key reason Massengill had given for why he set the fire.
The prosecutor urged the judge for a stiff sentence, saying the nation can’t afford to have people who “smash windows and set fire to buildings” Hanna also ticked through Massengill’s extensive criminal history — which was at the time of the range — saying he picked up cases as young as 16. He was arrested, Hanna said, more than 30 times.
A common theme was the Chillicothe man’s inability to comply with probation, his turn to violence and the fact that he was not able to finish three instances of residential drug treatment.
On the other hand, Massengill’s attorney Karl Bryning sought a 5-year prison term. The attorney said his client had a long history being abused and neglect. His mental illnesses, Bryning said, have been untreated over the years. His drug and alcohol abuse also played a factor, the attorney said.
For nearly 20 minutes, the attorney described the horrific childhood Massengill had endured. He had attempted suicide multiple times. He intentionally overdosed as well. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, depression, substance abuse and possible bipolar disorder.
That night, Bryning said, Massengill had been to his father’s house. His father had been verbally and physically abusive for years to Massengill and was “100% against abortion.” It was in that context that Massengill, who lost his grandmother on Christmas Day 2022, wound up at a gas station and then went to the clinic.
And while he tried to cover it up, the attorney notes, he also went to the Peoria Police Department and then confesses to the crime.
What happened that night
According to his plea agreement, filed in the U.S. Clerk’s Office, Massengill is seen walking up to the building holding what appears to be a laundry detergent bottle. He then lights a rag which is in the bottle and puts it into the building through a busted out window before leaving.
The agreement, which gives a factual basis, states the Chillicothe man had bought gas and made a homemade Molotov cocktail before he went to the building on North Knoxville.
Massengill’s homemade firebomb landed in the waiting room of the clinic. Smoke quickly spread throughout the building. Damage was estimated at more than $1 million. Planned Parenthood said they hope to reopen about a year from the incident.
He was caught fairly quickly as police, acting on several tips, were able to identify his truck which had two red doors while the body was white. He was taken into custody nine days later and when questioned, said he started the fire because he was mad at his former girlfriend decided to have an abortion.
He told officials that if the arson caused a “little delay” for a person to receive services at the clinic, then it was “worth it,” the agreement states. Previously, in December 2020, he posted on social media about “smash(ing) planned parenthood” with “rocks.”
Planned Parenthood response
Planned Parenthood held a press conference after the sentencing and said they are satisfied with the sentencing.
“10 years is a fair and just sentence, and we are very pleased with the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and very grateful to all the law enforcement who were involved in this case,” said President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois Jennifer Welch.
U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen, a Rockford Democrat, said it wasn’t time to celebrate but rather to stay focused on protecting the reproductive rights of woman and others who need services from Planned Parenthood.
“No one should live in fear because they work in a place that provides essential reproductive care for those who need it,” the congressman said. “No one should be afraid of walking into a clinic to receive healthcare that they have a right to access.”
“Violence will not be tolerated. We will not live in fear.”