Editor’s note: Did James Kopp really kill abortion doctor Barnett Slepian? That’s the question author and producer Jack Cashill probes in his comprehensive, seven-part exclusive series for WND. Cashill puts a microscope to the actions of federal and local law enforcement agencies and analyzes how political considerations of the Clinton administration affected the murder investigation. He also examines the evidence in the case and raises insightful questions about how and when it was gathered.
Cashill, in this his fifth installment, details several holes in the stories of witnesses and raises probing questions concerning the FBI’s contentions about crucial dates and evidence in the case.
The first real break in the investigation into the shooting death of abortion doctor Barnett Slepian came courtesy of a female neighbor. According to the Amherst Police Department extradition documents, this assistant professor at a nearby medical school had been out jogging at 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 14, nine days before the shooting, when she saw a suspicious looking man exit a vehicle and begin a slow jog.
The woman, “Citizen 1” in the FBI affidavit, claims that the “whole scene was so unusual” that she went back to the car after her jog and noted the car’s Vermont license plate number. She then recorded a description of the man and the number of the car, BPE-216, in her journal. On the ABC news program “Primetime” broadcast on April 5, 2001, she is reported as having also left a note to her husband, which read, “If anything ever happens to me, this guy did it.”
The witness told the police of her suspicions by Oct. 27. On that day, state trooper James Probst traced the car to Kopp and learned of his arrest record for anti-abortion activities. Why this highly anxious professor waited for at least three days after the murder and nearly two weeks after the encounter to share her well-documented suspicions with the police is not clear. Why the authorities postponed the manhunt for a suspected killer until a week later, Nov. 3, Election Day, is also uncertain – especially given the generalized fear that Kopp might strike again.
Both of these questions presume that the woman gave honest, uncoerced testimony to a grand jury six months after the shooting. She also told the grand jury that when shown photographs of Kopp’s 1987 black Chevrolet Cavalier two months after the shooting, she confirmed that it was the “same” car that she had seen on Oct. 14. In her description of the man to the grand jury, this otherwise attentive witness made no apparent mention that he had a beard or wore glasses.
Other witnesses also came forward after the fact. A male high-school teacher testified, according to the Amherst affidavit, that on the afternoon of Oct. 18, from a distance of between 15 and 25 feet, “he observed James Kopp jogging slowly in the vicinity of Dr. Barnett Slepian’s home.” Despite the distance, this witness, Citizen 2, was able to identify Kopp from a photograph in the local paper released nearly three weeks after the encounter. The photo released by the FBI was a mug shot of Kopp without his glasses taken after a rescue. Even Kopp’s friends could not recognize the dazed, unsmiling man in the picture.
Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 21, a female witness, Citizen 3, spotted a man “trotting slowly” through the neighborhood on two early morning occasions. She passed within three feet of the man and noted his dark reddish hair but made no mention of either beard or glasses. When she greeted him, the man failed to respond on both occasions. But when, on the fateful day of Oct. 23, Citizen 4 encountered a thin, bearded jogger alleged to be Kopp, he and the jogger “exchanged greetings.”
What is more perplexing is that despite the conscious efforts of both the FBI and the Amherst Police to link Kopp to these sightings, only Citizen 2 claimed that the jogger wore glasses. (And at 15-25 feet, he was apparently the farthest away.) By all accounts, Kopp was useless without his glasses. And one has a hard time envisioning the nearly disabled Kopp as a jogger or even a “plodder” as he was so conveniently labeled.
The FBI and the Amherst Police affidavits diverge on several minor points but on only one major point – the total absence from the FBI’s document of what would have been Citizen 5, the 14 year-old jogger who spotted what was likely the getaway car. As mentioned earlier, this girl testified to the grand jury that she saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt run from behind the bushes to a car waiting in the driveway of a house near Slepian’s and jump in the passenger side, after which the car sped away.
The FBI likely ignored the girl’s testimony because it strongly suggests an accomplice. The smallish Chevrolet Cavalier has a floor shift and a center console between the front seats. Sliding across it would be difficult for a man of Kopp’s obvious disabilities as well as a pointless waste of time. Nor does it seem likely that a single shooter would have left his car in an unknown neighbor’s driveway for some indeterminate length of time. If this indeed were the getaway car, a more probable scenario would have the driver pulling up to a predetermined spot upon hearing the gunshot and then speeding away with his passenger.
The treatment of the 14 year-old raises any number of questions. Although she was with her mother at the time, neither the FBI affidavit nor the Amherst Police Department’s mention the mother except in passing. Unlike the other witnesses, the girl was apparently not asked to identify Kopp or his car. Nor does there seem to be any hint of a follow-up interview with the girl or her mother.
In its affidavit, the FBI gives the Citizen 5 designation to Jim Gannon, the 77-year-old friend of Kopp’s upon whose house the FBI and about 10 armed police officers descended “on or about Oct. 24, 1998.” How the FBI could be so imprecise on a date of this importance mystifies the observer. The affidavit does, however, confirm that the FBI confiscated boxes and a blue bag that Kopp had left behind.
By the morning of Nov. 3, Election Day, the word was being broadcast that a Vermont man was wanted for questioning in the Slepian case. On that same day, Kopp telephoned the office of his employer, Richard Bruno, and told the secretary that he was sick and would call when able to return to work. Kopp never called back and never again talked to Bruno.
On Nov. 4, the FBI held a press conference announcing that it had obtained a material witness warrant for one James Charles Kopp. According to the FBI affidavit, this name “had not previously been associated with Dr. Slepian’s homicide,” an admission that makes the FBI’s search for Kopp at Jim Gannon’s house the day after the shooting even harder to explain. On Nov. 4, or the next day at the latest, Kopp met a female friend at the Newark Airport where he abandoned his car, and they drove together to Mexico.
On Nov. 5, for reasons never explained, “U.S. investigators” once more combed the wooded area behind Slepian’s house and found the black plastic bag mentioned earlier, 140 feet from the likely spot where the shot was fired. Among the items in the bag were a green baseball cap, a watch, a fanny pack and others that would incriminate no one if apprehended. The only items that might suggest guilt were a pair of binoculars and an empty box for 7.62 x 39 mm cartridges. The FBI sent the items to its lab in Washington for analysis. In the meantime, the FBI had gotten a search warrant to go through the boxes it had seized from Gannon’s home and concluded that hairs from the green baseball cap matched the DNA from a toothbrush found among the boxes.
Among the other items allegedly found in the seized boxes was a list of phone numbers for “gun and pawn shops” throughout the South and a map to at least one of them, the A-Z Pawn Shop in Tennessee. The FBI found Kopp’s fingerprints on the paper.
On that same day, Nov. 5, the FBI claims to have retrieved “trace evidence” off the tree near where they believe the shooter was located and sent it on to the FBI forensics lab in Washington, D.C.
On the day of the shooting, Oct. 23, average wind speeds exceeded 14 mph with maximum sustained wind speeds over 27 mph and gusts exceeding 35 mph. The following day was comparable. It rained two days before Nov. 5 and snowed on two more. These conditions were less than ideal for the preservation of that trace evidence, a single strand of hair and carpet fibers. That the FBI took two weeks to find this evidence, and then on the same day that its agents found the bag, again raises suspicions of just how all of this evidence got there.
On Nov. 7, a particularly curious event took place. According to the Amherst Police affidavit, FBI agents William Waldie and Daniel McKenna visited the elderly Jim Gannon’s home in Whiting N.J., and they allegedly took Kopp’s blue bag. The next day, they returned to the Gannon residence, and they allegedly removed the boxes. As to Gannon, he specifically recalls the boxes being taken on the 24th, long before Kopp was named as a suspect.
In the blue bag, the FBI found a typed letter dated Feb. 12, 1993, apparently from Kopp to a Father Leach. The FBI quotes the letter in its affidavit as proof that in 1993 Kopp felt compelled to “do more.” The only problem is that Kopp, writing in the past perfect tense, is clearly referring to his own moment of awakening about 10 years prior to that when “he was shown an aborted fetus by a pathologist.” This is when he moved from the “letters to the editor” stage to that of a committed activist, not in 1993.
This confused story-telling raises red flags all over the place. A cynic might suggest – and the Clinton years made cynics out of many an American who once respected the FBI – that the Bureau seized Kopp’s personal effects on Oct. 24 and sent them to Buffalo. There, someone went through the boxes for possible items that a sniper might use and planted them in the woods behind Slepian’s house. The personal effects would also have yielded usable trace evidence, like the single human hair allegedly found on the shooter’s tree. In this scenario, the FBI, to cover its steps, then sent its agents back to Gannon and testified that they did not seize the personal effects until Nov. 7, two days after the items were found on Slepian’s property.
This story might have held if Life Dynamics, the pro-life organization out of Denton, Texas, had not somehow gotten hold of the extradition documents. (Indeed, Life Dynamics would do more and better original research on the case than The New York Times.) The discrepancies between the Amherst PD’s affidavit and the FBI’s had not yet been smoothed out. There may be innocent explanations for these variances, but they may also suggest an imperfectly improvised framing of James Kopp.
Kopp’s often lonely, peripatetic lifestyle and his almost totally undocumented existence made him an easy target. The Justice Department exploited this weakness before the grand jury. His employer Richard Bruno testified that from business worksheets he could account for Kopp’s work from “Oct. 1 through Oct. 14,” 1998, but then not again not until Nov. 2. The FBI specifically places Kopp “at a construction site” on the 14th but no later. Both the FBI and the Amherst police include this testimony in their affidavits to suggest Kopp’s guilt.
To a French extradition officer, Bruno’s office in Piermont, N.Y., might seem close enough to Slepian’s home in Amherst, N.Y., to justify the timeline, but, in fact, they are eight hours apart. At the time, Kopp lived in Jersey City, N.J., an hour still farther away from Amherst. If Kopp had indeed worked through the 14th, he could not have been in Amherst on the morning of the 14th when the FBI’s key witness is alleged to have identified his car. Realistically, for him to be jogging at 5:30 a.m. in Amherst on the 14th, Kopp could not have worked past the 12th of October.
And it only gets stranger.
Tomorrow: “Smoking gun in abortion-doc killing?”
Read Part 1, “Abortion politics meet law enforcement”
Read Part 2, “James Kopp ‘like a priest'”
Read Part 3, “Leftists involved in abortionist’s death?”
Read Part 4, “Slepian softens before his death”
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.