Clinic Arsonist Identified

Planned Parenthood Fire

Clinic Arsonist Identified

The FBI said the same man, who died after his arrest, was responsible for attacks on Planned Parenthood’s clinic and shooting at the federal building.

by scott barker • November 1, 2022
Planned Parenthood Fire
Knoxville firefighters battle the intentionally set blaze at Planned Parenthood's East Knoxville clinic on Dec. 31, 2021.

A Jefferson City man charged with shooting at the John J. Duncan Federal Building earlier this year was also the only suspect in separate instances of vandalism and arson at Knoxville’s Planned Parenthood clinic in 2021.

The FBI said Reno was planning more crimes before his arrest in July.

Mark Thomas Reno, 63, died from an undisclosed medical condition on Aug. 15, less than a month after his arrest and before standing trial for damaging windows at the federal building or being charged with the incidents at the Planned Parenthood clinic, court records show.

A member of a Catholic militia group, Reno was at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, had a history of violence and was apparently planning more crimes when he was arrested on July 18.

“I want to thank the investigators who worked tirelessly in pursuit of justice in this series of attacks, meant to terrorize our staff and stop patients in East Tennessee from getting the health care they rely on,” Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, said Monday during a virtual news conference. 

“I am really grateful to the Knoxville Fire Department and federal law enforcement agencies for fearlessly pursuing the truth as we rebuild our capacity to serve patients in the Knoxville area,” she said. 

A combination of eyewitnesses, surveillance videos, high-tech tracking devices, and a sharp-eyed and resourceful fire investigator led authorities to consider Reno the suspect in all three crimes.

Mark Thomas Reno

Mark Thomas Reno

An unsealed affidavit from FBI Special Agent Thomas Calhoon filed in a civil forfeiture case over two of Reno’s vehicles and a rifle used in the crimes provided details of the incidents and the investigation.

Sixteen days before the first Knoxville incident, Reno attended the raid on the Capitol wearing a disguise, which included a cane. The FBI identified him in a video but did not have any evidence he entered the Capitol. 

At 5:55 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 22, 2021, the 48h anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision affirming abortion rights, Reno fired a Dragon’s Breath incendiary shell from a 12-gauge shotgun through the glass entry doors of the Planned Parenthood clinic on North Cherry Street in East Knoxville. Though the Dragon’s Breath shell spews fire like a flame-thrower and is an extreme fire hazard, the damage was largely confined to the doors. 

No one was inside the clinic at the time, but a witness had seen a man in a black sedan, later identified as Reno’s 2012 Ford Fusion, outside the clinic. The man wore a hat and a bandana over his nose and mouth.

At the other end of that year, on the morning of Dec. 31, 2021, a woman living near the Planned Parenthood clinic saw a red pickup truck in the alley next to the building. A few minutes later, she saw an individual walking away from the clinic and then the truck speeding out of the alley with its lights off. 

The center’s surveillance camera footage captured glowing light consistent with a fire on the north side of the building just before an individual walked to the red pickup truck and drove off. Surveillance footage of nearby businesses showed the truck leaving the scene as well.

The fire destroyed the 10,000-square-foot building, which was closed for renovations at the time. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined gasoline had been used as an accelerant.

Authorities initially said they had no suspects in either incident. The initial break in the case came on Jan. 23, when an unnamed plainclothes fire investigator for KFD saw a red truck matching the one seen at the Planned Parenthood fire at a public gathering in Knoxville. Without identifying himself as a fire investigator, he struck up a conversation with the driver, who turned out to be Reno. 

On April 26, the fire investigator saw Reno at a public event near the ruins of the Planned Parenthood clinic and again engaged him in conversation. 

During the course of those two encounters, Reno told the fire investigator that he was a member of Church Militant Resistance, a conservative Catholic organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and talked about the Planned Parenthood fire. He told the fire investigator he opposed abortion and was willing to fight for his beliefs.

Ashely Coffield of Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood's Ashley Coffield

He said he planned to set fire to the clinic when reconstruction began and also said he had cased the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, the city’s other abortion provider at the time, and planned to set its building ablaze as well.

After those encounters, the FBI obtained court authorization to attach tracking devices to Reno’s black Ford Fusion and red GMC Sierra pickup truck. 

Those devices proved invaluable to authorities on the afternoon of July 3, when Reno fired three shots from a .22-caliber rifle at the John J. Duncan Federal Building in downtown Knoxville. No one was injured, but the bullets did $5,440 worth of damage to the ground-floor windows. The tracking device in the Fusion and security camera footage downtown enabled the FBI to trace his movements before and after the incident.

On July 18, the FBI executed a search warrant at Reno’s Jefferson City home. 

Agents found a shotgun and incendiary shells, and a bandana matching the description of the one worn by the man who shot through the Planned Parenthood doorway. 

They recovered a gas can and seven matchbooks, plus books on making improvised explosives and incendiary devices. A family member identified Reno and his truck in a still shot from surveillance footage of the Planned Parenthood arson scene.

Authorities found a .22-caliber rifle with a silencer and ammunition. Reno’s cell phone contained photos of the Planned Parenthood clinic and the federal building, plus screenshots of social media discussions of the arson.

Reno was taken into custody that day, and a grand jury returned a one-count indictment charging him with destruction of government property on July 26. He fell ill while in custody and died while being treated at a hospital in Danville, Ky., near the jail where he was being held. A specific cause of death is not mentioned.

Coffield said Reno is not the only person to blame for the vandalism and arson at the Planned Parenthood clinic. 

“When politicians use hateful rhetoric against abortion providers and support extreme laws like the total abortion ban we have in Tennessee, it shouldn't surprise us that some people believe real-world violence is justified,” she said.

Since the attacks on the Planned Parenthood clinic, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, and abortion in Tennessee is banned with no exceptions. The Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health closed. Planned Parenthood, which did not perform surgical abortions at its clinic, still plans to continue providing women’s health services.

“We have purchased a mobile health unit that we're launching before the end of this year,” Coffield said. “We are nearly complete with our plans for a new building at 710 N. Cherry St. in Knoxville and we're getting close to requesting permits from the city to start construction.”