The Buffalo News, Dec. 29, 2002
By JERRY ZREMSKI, News Washington Bureau
The more you look at James C. Kopp, the less he looks like a loner.
Authorities say they have no proof that anyone joined Kopp in plotting the October 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian of Amherst, or that a wide conspiracy aided Kopp during his 21/2 years on the lam.
Nevertheless, investigators and abortion rights advocates said Kopp had help, maybe before the shooting and certainly afterward.
“There must have been a support network that moved him to Mexico to Heathrow to Manchester to Scotland to Ireland,” and finally to France, where he was captured in March 2001, said Michael Reynolds, a former investigator for the Southern Poverty Law Center who is studying the Kopp case.
“He was of such stature that he would be welcomed at the house of anybody in the movement,” Reynolds said.
Some pro-life activists agree.
While denying any knowledge of Kopp’s flight from the law, Bill Koehler, a friend who allowed Kopp to stay at his New Jersey home in the mid-1990s, agreed that hard-core abortion opponents would help any respected colleague in trouble.
“It’s like the Underground Railroad,” said Koehler, who signed a petition backing the killing of abortion doctors. “You know who’s supportive, you know where the safe houses are, but you don’t publicize it. Everything is on a need-to-know basis.”
Now that Kopp has confessed, the depth of his support network is the one remaining mystery surrounding Slepian’s murder.
It’s clear, though, that Kopp could have drawn on several potential sources for help. A study of arrest records and interviews with pro-life figures and pro-choice investigators together demolish Kopp’s image as a lone eccentric.
Kopp was really a man of the world, with contacts all over the globe. For example:
• He traveled widely over two decades, meeting abortion opponents all the way from Buffalo – home to one of his old jailmates – to Europe, which he visited at least three times before the Slepian shooting.
• He had ties to the Army of God, a radical Christian group that calls the killing of abortion doctors “justifiable homicide.”
• He also allied himself with the Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway Catholic group that once harbored a Nazi war criminal and that has parishes in the Irish town where he fled after shooting Slepian and the French town where he was captured.
Add it all up, and one thing is certain: “This sort of thing normally comes down to the lone nut,” said Frederick Clarkson, a former Planned Parenthood investigator who has been studying the Slepian murder. “But James Kopp is neither nuts nor alone.”
Examining the evidence
Clarkson and other investigators say they make that presumption on the basis of the evidence – and holes in the evidence – which suggest that Kopp could not be strictly a solo operator.
First, they ask questions about the shooting itself.
They wonder how Kopp could have quickly buried the military rifle he used in the shooting in one spot behind Slepian’s house and buried other evidence in another spot – and still have time to escape.
And given that Kopp’s New York driver’s license was suspended at the time of the shooting, they wonder if someone else may have driven Kopp’s car while he was casing the neighborhood and while he made his getaway after the slaying.
“If you’re planning a major crime in Amherst, why would you take the added risk of driving around the area with a suspended license?” asked one source close to the Slepian case.
Authorities are at a loss to pinpoint anyone who might have worked with Kopp before the murder, but they know a bit more about the help he got during his years on the run.
Investigators have interviewed a woman who admits that after the Slepian shooting, she drove Kopp to Mexico, the first international stop on his fugitive journey to Europe. The woman denied knowing of Kopp’s involvement in the slaying, and prosecutors view her as a witness, rather than an accomplice.
Prosecutors take a far harsher view of Dennis Malvasi and Loretta Marra, the Brooklyn couple charged with aiding Kopp during his flight from the law. Malvasi and Marra stand accused of communicating with Kopp between March 2000 and March 2001 and sending money to him in France.
Pro-choice investigators also think others could have helped Kopp during his trip to Europe and his long stay in Ireland, where he lived before leaving for France a few weeks before his arrest.
“Our conclusion was that he was absolutely not acting alone and not acting with just one or two people,” said Ann Glazier, director of the Planned Parenthood Federation’s security group. “There had to be many people involved.”
After leaving his native San Francisco area in the late 1980s, Kopp stayed for long periods with abortion opponents in New Jersey, Vermont and Pittsburgh, and was arrested in abortion protests in Burlington, Vt.; Long Island; and Rome, Italy.
Along the way, he met plenty of people who could have helped him.
“James Kopp had friends everywhere,” said one of those friends, the Rev. Robert Pearson, a New Jersey priest who also signed that petition advocating the killing of abortion providers.
Kopp met countless kindred spirits at abortion protests that spanned the globe. During 70 days in Burlington, Vt., in 1990, for example, he met John Tomasello of Buffalo.
Tomasello said in an interview that he barely knows Kopp and has not been in contact with him since those days in Vermont.
But he also said he wants to visit Kopp in his jail cell, to show some support.
“I think he was led by misguided compassion,” Tomasello said. “But if the man was on trial and I was on the jury, I would have a hard time convicting him. What makes one murder worse than the other? The innocence of the victim.”
Tomasello contended that while Slepian killed innocent babies, Kopp killed “a mass murderer.”
Others who know Kopp more intimately still doubt that he killed Slepian, despite his confession.
“He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Anthony J. Ryan, who befriended Kopp in the mid-1980s, helped him convert to Catholicism and remembers his friend as absolutely nonviolent. “He would do anything for you.”
Ryan said he met Kopp at a political event in San Francisco and helped him get involved in the pro-life movement. Kopp was already interested in the issue, having studied in Switzerland with Francis Schaeffer, a pro-life theologian.
Schaeffer summed up his philosophy in a speech in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1982.
“At a certain point, it is not only the privilege but it is the duty of the Christian to disobey the government,” Schaeffer said.
Before long, Kopp was doing just that. When Randall Terry launched Operation Rescue in 1988, Kopp signed on, acting as the Protestant minister’s ambassador to Catholics, said Richard Cowden Guido, a writer for Catholic publications who befriended Kopp at the time.
In that role, Kopp found himself at one of the pivotal events in the history of the pro-life movement: the mass arrest of hundreds who protested at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988.
Records show that at least five of those arrested went on, in the early 1990s, to sign the Army of God’s “Defensive Action” petition. It states: “We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child.”
Kopp never signed that petition, and friends said he remained openly opposed to violence. But sources within the hard-line pro-life movement said many more people supported “defensive action” – otherwise known as justifiable homicide – than signed the petition.
“You have a movement born in Atlanta,” said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation.
Kopp, meanwhile, quickly took his version of the movement to Europe, where he and other pro-life activists toured England and Scotland for a series of protests in 1989. Kopp made a similar trip in 1992, getting arrested and doing jail time in Rome.
And all along the way, Kopp made contacts that could conceivably pay off if he ever found himself in trouble.
“Kopp’s network in Europe is well-established,” said Reynolds, who is considering writing a book on Kopp.
A key strategist
By 1993, “justifiable homicide” was more than just a theory. That year, an abortion doctor in Pensacola, Fla., was shot to death, and a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, was shot and wounded.
Fatal shootings occurred again in Pensacola and in Brookline, Mass., in 1994.
Also in 1994, a series of mysterious autumn shootings – apparently tied to Canada’s Remembrance Day – began with the wounding of Dr. Garson Romalis at his home in Vancouver.
Kopp, who confessed to The Buffalo News in the Slepian killing, is now the main suspect in that shooting and three others leading up to Slepian’s October 1998 murder. But never did Kopp take a public role in the violent anti-abortion fringe.
Instead, he evolved into a key pro-life strategist who associated quietly with advocates of violence.
“He was fairly well-known,” said Andrew Burnett, the only signer of the Defensive Action petition arrested at Buffalo’s 1992 “Spring of Life.” “He was a pretty charismatic guy.”
Kopp served as a chief strategist for the Lambs of Christ, a Catholic group that pushes the concept of peaceful protest to its limits.
The Rev. Norman Weslin, the Rochester-area priest who founded the group, could not be reached to comment, but several sources called Kopp one of the group’s key figures. For example, Kopp devised the elaborate locks that protesters used to chain themselves together at clinic protests.
Kopp had another role, too.
“He was their advance intelligence agent,” said Clarkson, who is preparing a book on anti-abortion violence. “He was absolutely the guy with the connections.”
One of those connections was to the Army of God.
The authors of the Army of God handbook thanked “Atomic Dog” – Kopp’s nickname – for a simple reason.
“He certainly wasn’t the author,” said Koehler, Kopp’s friend from New Jersey. “He was an inspiration, really.”
Kopp was well-known to figures associated with the Army of God, a shadowy organization that runs a Web site that, in recent months, has praised Saudi Arabia for executing homosexuals and lauded Kopp for killing Slepian.
Malvasi – who is accused of helping Kopp while he was on the lam – spoke at the 2001 White Rose Banquet, which honors those who commit anti-abortion violence.
In his speech, Malvasi decried the thought that “violence never solves anything.”
“Of course it does,” Malvasi said. “It solves all kinds of problems, and just men have used it as a tool throughout history.”
Moreover, the Rev. Michael Bray – who arranges the banquet and is seen by pro-choice groups as the central figure in the Army of God – said in an interview that he is in touch with Bruce Barket, Kopp’s attorney.
In fact, Bray appeared to know about Kopp’s confession before The Buffalo News broke the story Nov. 20.
In a Nov. 13 letter to the Christian Gallery Web site, when every other Kopp supporter was still insisting Kopp was innocent of Slepian’s killing, Bray wrote: “Yes, of course Atomic Dog shot Abortionist Barnett Slepian. The termination of the murderer was a deed quite consistent with Mr. Kopp’s life of service for the innocent, brutalized womb children of America.”
Philosophy of aid
Bray refused to say whether he knows Kopp. Bray also refused to specify his own relationship with the Army of God.
Yet the Army of God’s Web site is filled with Bray’s writings, and his office wall bears a certificate calling him a “chaplain” in the organization. Bray insists that’s a joke, but says no such thing about the justifiable-homicide theory, which he detailed in his 1994 book “A Time to Kill.”
The theory contends that taking one life is justified if it will save many others. Bray said it’s not about vengeance; it’s about saving babies.
“It would have been right to shoot Dr. Slepian because he was performing abortions, but you can’t go around shooting retired abortionists,” Bray said in an interview in his Bowie, Md., home.
And it would be right, too, he said, for abortion opponents to provide aid and shelter to anyone taking aim at the abortionists.
“If there is such a thing as safe houses, it’s certainly a good thing, and may there be more of them,” he said.
Like Koehler, Bray referred to the Underground Railroad, the silent network that rescued blacks from slavery. And the Rev. David Trosch, a Catholic priest from Alabama whose bishop stripped him of his parish because of his belief in justifiable homicide, said a network of support for abortion opponents could very well exist.
“I know I’ve had offers for safe havens,” Trosch said.
Koehler said anyone protecting a pro-life activist would do so without asking why the activist was on the run.
“I am sure Loretta and Dennis didn’t know anything about Jim’s actions,” Koehler added, speaking of Loretta Marra and Dennis Malvasi. “He knew not to tell them. That’s the code of conduct. You don’t give up information, because that would hurt the people giving you help.”
Suspicions of a network
Hearing statements like that, pro-choice activists get very angry, and not just at the likes of Bray.
They wonder why a federal task force looking for a violent anti-abortion conspiracy came up empty in the mid-1990s.
And they wonder why only Malvasi and Marra have been charged with aiding Kopp.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, has long believed that Kopp had plenty of help.
“The police have resisted it, resisted it, resisted it,” Smeal said. “We’re told they’re no longer resisting that theory.”
While investigators have not been able to pinpoint any aid that Kopp got from any European pro-life group, there’s one connection that fascinates and frustrates them.
In Scotland, Ireland and France, Kopp gravitated to communities that had churches run by the Society of St. Pius X, which was expelled from the Catholic Church in part because it remains fervently wedded to the Latin Mass. Kopp attended Mass at the St. Pius X parishes in each of those communities.
A Pius X connection?
Kopp traveled from Ireland to France in March 2001 in the company of two priests, presumably from the St. Pius sect, said Reynolds, who is gathering information on Kopp.
“Pius X must be more important than we ever thought,” said Smeal, whose organization has investigated the Slepian shooting.
Calls to a top Pius X official in the United States, Bishop Richard Williamson, went unanswered. But after Kopp’s capture in France, the society denied any knowledge that Kopp was a fugitive.
“Mr. Kopp always went by the name of Timothy O’Brien, and he was known in our church only by this name,” said the society, which has a church in Buffalo. “Whether or not Mr. Kopp committed the alleged crime, our society does not in any way approve this kind of action.”
Then again, the society could have provided plenty of help to Kopp even if virtually no one knew who he was, said John Thomson, a former Pius X seminarian from Toronto who now contends the group is a cult.
“Everything in the society is based on obedience,” Thomson said. “One or two guys at the top could just say, “Take care of this guy,’ and everybody else could be compliant, and in the dark as to what he did.”
Several sources noted that the society harbored Paul Touvier, a Nazi war criminal. French officials captured Touvier at a Pius X monastery in Nice in 1989, after he had been spotted walking around town, dressed as a priest.
Kopp may not have wanted such an elaborate cover. During his time on the run, he wrote a letter to Marra in which he referred to a desire to “return to the field.” Authorities believe that refers to a return to the United States – possibly to shoot other abortion doctors.
After Kopp’s arrest in late March 2001, his friends rushed to his defense.
Susan Brindle, a Catholic pro-life activist from Tennessee, visited him three times at his French jail cell. Life Dynamics, a pro-life organization, produced a report aimed at exonerating Kopp.
And in October, three people associated with the Lambs of Christ walked into Buffalo GYN Womenservices clinic, laid on the floor and refused to leave. Their action came a day after a group calling itself Missionaries of Hope said it planned to stage a protest “in solidarity with the alleged assailant James Charles Kopp.”
The man arrested, Luis Menchaca, had been arrested with Kopp at least twice – at the Atlanta protests of 1988, and in Burlington, Vt., in 1990. One of the two women arrested, Janet Cocchi, was arrested with Kopp in Vermont.
And Tomasello – the Buffalo man jailed with Kopp at that same Vermont protest acknowledged that Menchaca and Cocchi stayed at his home at the time of that October protest, and that he drove them to the clinic that day.
Other Kopp supporters will hold a rally in Buffalo next month, said Bray, the suspected Army of God figure.
All of this enrages pro-choice activists, who think that the network that supported Kopp is still at large and active on his behalf. What’s more, they acknowledge that those who helped him will likely never get caught.
“It’s very difficult to get these people to talk to you,” said Glazier, of Planned Parenthood. “Law enforcement is the enemy (to them). A lot may never come out.”
News Staff Reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, and Washington Bureau assistants Diana C. Moore and Sarah Nemeth, contributed to this report.