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.
In today’s article, Part 6, Cashill delves into the strange aspects of the FBI’s discovery of a rifle near the scene of the murder nearly six months after Slepian’s death.
Given the furor in the pro-choice camp over Dr. Barnett Slepian’s murder, Attorney General Janet Reno established a new federal unit on Nov. 9, 1998, to investigate the possibility that Slepian was the victim of a widespread anti-abortion plot. The National Clinic Violence Task Force, as it was called, included 12 Justice Department lawyers and members of several law enforcement agencies, but the brunt of the work was to be done by the FBI.
Then an extraordinary thing happened. The FBI all but mutinied. As The New York Times reported on Nov. 15, “A number of senior FBI agents privately expressed misgivings about the attorney general’s latest task force.” Although the Times is restrained in its language, the implications are large. “Bureau officials fear that expanding the investigation could drive the agency over the ill-defined boundary that separates inquiries into criminal activity from those into political causes and unpopular ideas.”
Even the Times missed the significance of its own story. FBI “officials,” with the likely blessing of FBI Director Louis Freeh, used the Times to broadcast its disgust with the Justice Department’s ongoing harassment of the pro-life movement. The Justice Department only recently had concluded a two-year-long probe into the very same question that came to nothing. And now its subordinate agency, the FBI, was publicly linking its bosses in Justice to the Hoover era. ”We should investigate violations,” one FBI official told the Times. ”We shouldn’t investigate groups.”
One can easily envision something of a culture war within the ranks of the Justice Department: the ardently feminist, pro-choice Justice Department attorneys on the one hand; the more traditional, more Catholic FBI agents on the other. Louis Freeh, in fact, is a member of Opus Dei, a small, select Catholic lay ministry that is the subject of much fevered conspiracy speculation on the left. The priest who led Dr. Bernard Nathanson to conversion was also a member of Opus Dei.
Still, for all their resistance, at least some FBI agents would prove to be good soldiers and do what Justice demanded. One of the FBI agents involved in the Slepian investigation, in fact, would be a keynote speaker at the National Abortion Federation’s convention in Chicago in the spring of 2001.
On Nov. 12, 1998, the FBI interviewed the landlord of suspect James Kopp’s last known address in Jersey City, N.J., where he had been living under the name of Clyde Swenson. The FBI searched the apartment and found a notebook that listed the phone number of Slepian’s clinic.
According to the Amherst affidavit, FBI agent Michael Ferrarri told the grand jury that he traveled from Buffalo to Jersey City to examine “the note paper.” Only then was it sent to the FBI lab in Washington. Ferrarri also testified that it was he who examined Kopp’s personal effects when they were sent from Gannon’s residence to the FBI office in Buffalo. Unstated is why the New Jersey agents did not just send the note paper to Ferrarri or fax it. Jersey City is about 400 miles away from Buffalo.
Unstated, too, is whether Slepian’s number was the only number listed or one out of hundreds. The FBI affidavit acknowledges that the number on the top of that given page was “716.” It also notes that the number of Slepian’s clinic followed two crossed out numbers and was listed as “834-6796.” Based on this evidence, it would seem that Kopp kept a running account of abortion clinics by area code and that there was nothing unique about his having Slepian’s office number.
On Dec. 18, 1998, the FBI was made aware of a 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier that had been left in a parking lot at the Newark Airport on Nov. 5. The Vehicle Identification Number matched Kopp’s. Neither the FBI nor the Amherst Police affidavit acknowledge that the car, when found, had New Jersey license plates, not Kopp’s from Vermont. When asked about this by CBS News, the FBI’s Monica Patton could not say for sure whether the plates had been stolen.
It is possible, of course, that Kopp switched out the plates on Nov. 3 or 4 when he realized that he was a suspect. It is also possible that the FBI “suggested” to Citizen 1 back in Amherst that perhaps the license plates she saw had Kopp’s last registered Vermont number. What is troubling is that neither affidavit clarifies the issue. The FBI knows whose New Jersey plates they were and, if stolen, when they were stolen.
On April 8, 1999, the FBI found the evidence that tied everything together. Nearly six months after the shooting, for no apparent reason, “U.S. law enforcement officials” decided to search the woods behind Slepian’s house one more time. There, as luck would have it, they found, approximately 162 feet from the shooting site, an SKS rifle, wrapped in a rubber material, inserted into a cardboard tube, and buried a foot deep.
No other item of evidence raises more questions than does this rifle. When questioned by the New York Times, Frank J. Clark, the district attorney of Erie County, honestly acknowledged, ”I’ve been in this business 27 years and worked directly or indirectly on thousands of homicides, and in not one did the perpetrator bury the gun at or near the scene.”
Clark claimed that the FBI had used a metal detector earlier in the investigation but “scanned only the area around the tree where they presumed the sniper had fired.” Clark here seemed to be taking the FBI at its word. He was probably not in a position to address the question of how the FBI had found the trowel and the hidden bag of Kopp’s personal effects 140 feet from the shooting site if not with a metal detector. Nor might he have known, as the neighbors did, that a line of at least a dozen investigators combed the area “shoulder to shoulder,” sometimes on their hands and knees.
“Law enforcement officials,” presumably the FBI, confirmed to the Times that they had used metal detectors earlier, but that “weather and ground conditions” in the days after the crime prevented them from finding the rifle. They also claimed that “metal detectors don’t work all the time” and that using them is a “hit or miss” proposition.
Experts in the field do not share the FBI’s lack of faith in metal detectors. Former prosecutor Michael Cherkasky was quoted in the same Times article as saying, “If you’re looking for a gun, it’s one of the easiest things to use a metal detector to find.” The owner of a California metal detectors company, Sean Rabbani, told the Times that a properly adjusted metal detector can be “unfailingly accurate,” and that he could have found the gun within eight hours, even if it had been buried in an area as large as two acres. Besides, as noted earlier, the weather at the time of the shooting and in the following days was relatively mild.
The authorities, however, needed some tangible evidence linking Kopp to the murder. In their public announcements, all that they claimed to have on Kopp that linked him to the murder scene were carpet fibers from his Chevrolet Cavalier and a single strand of hair. As the Times noted upon the discovery of the rifle, “The police have not formally identified a suspect.” With rifle in hand, they would remedy that problem.
Two days after the discovery, on April 10, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Mark Hoback visited the A to Z Pawn Shop in Old Hickory, Tenn. FBI agent Ferrarri claimed that he had found the name of the pawnshop and a map to it in Kopp’s blue bag. In reviewing the federal forms required for a firearm purchase, Hoback found one for an SKS sold on July 16, 1997, to a man whose Virginia driver’s license identified him as B. James Milton. The document indicated that the purchaser was two years younger and 15 pound heavier than Kopp, but he was a white male of roughly the same height, and that seemed enough to justify further investigation.
As the FBI soon discovered, Virginia had never issued a driver’s license to a B. James Milton. This gave its agents the latitude to claim that Milton and Kopp were the same person even though they offered then and offer now no evidence to confirm the link. Nor do either the FBI or the Amherst Police documents make any mention of fingerprint or DNA evidence on the rifle. Pawnshop proprietor Patricia Osborne is no help either. Despite a claim by the FBI early in the investigation that she had identified Kopp from photos, she told the Associated Press, “I barely remember the transaction and could never have identified his face. I only know what the FBI told me.”
At this point, regardless of how it was obtained, the FBI had the rifle as well as the bullet found in the Slepian home. In his testimony to the Grand Jury, FBI firearms examiner James Cadigan stated that he test fired a second bullet on the recovered SKS, compared it to the bullet that killed Slepian and noted that they exhibited the “same general rifling characteristics.”
The Amherst Police affidavit added one caveat, a major one: “A conclusive connection between the Slepian bullet and the rifle could not be reached since, with high-powered rifles like the one recovered, it is not uncommon for the rifle barrel’s interior to change with each shot thereby precluding the finding of an absolute connection.”
The Washington Times’ Insight Magazine contacted a number of forensic experts on this point. To a person, they were “astonished by that conclusion.” If an SKS rifle could not be linked to a specific bullet at a crime scene, every criminal in the country would want one.
Insight asked J.B. Wood of Corydon, Ky., the nation’s foremost authority on the design of semiautomatic weapons, whether a single fired round could so affect the barrel’s interior that the very next round would exhibit different markings. Wood, who has served as a forensic expert in more than 300 cases, answered, “It could happen that over a period of time with many rounds fired, the interior of the barrel, the rifling and the markings it would leave on the projectile could change over a period of a long time and many shots. But from one shot to the next, no.”
Given the lack of any conclusive ballistics on the rifle, the map to the A to Z Pawn Shop is less incriminating than it might seem. After all, if the always-wary Kopp had purchased a potential murder weapon there, the last thing he would do is keep the map tying him to the point of purchase. Besides, none of his friends had ever seen him with a firearm, knew him to practice his marksmanship or heard him volunteer information about guns or shooting, even those with whom he had stayed for months on end.
Had Kopp purchased this gun in June 1997, he would probably have used it before, beginning with the Perinton, N.Y., shooting in October 1997. “All signs of logic point to [Kopp] as a suspect in both cases,” Amherst Assistant Police Chief Ronald Hagelberger told the Buffalo News a year after the Slepian murder. “There are so many similarities in the cases.” But the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department had retrieved the two spent bullets in the Perinton shooting, and neither affidavit mentioned any connection between those bullets and the one found in Slepian’s home.
There’s more. In May of 1999, more than 18 months after the Perinton shooting, investigators allegedly found an indentation in the ground near the doctor’s home. If the police inference is valid, this suggests that the shooter hid the rifle between postings and took the gun with him after firing a shot.
The finding of the indentation, however, suggests another, more sinister possibility – the possibility that the FBI knew the Perinton shooter’s MO even before its agents “found” the rifle on Slepian’s property. In fact, it would make sense for the shooter to hide the gun when not actively on point. The Perinton discovery confirmed that. But as the Perinton discovery also confirmed, it made no sense to leave the gun after the shooting.
Remember, too, that the FBI reportedly showed up in Perinton a few days before the Slepian shooting and told Dr. Gandell that anti-abortionists had been behind the attempt on his life. Only the darkest of cynics would argue that the FBI – or some agent claiming to be the FBI – was attempting to pre-establish a pattern for the planned assassination of Slepian a few days later. But why the FBI intervened when it did remains a mystery.
As to the map to the pawnshop, presuming the FBI found it as claimed, only one reason suggests why Kopp hung on to it. He had once pawned something there and had to find his way back. A to Z was just one of many pawnshops on a list that only the FBI would describe with the forced locution “gun and pawn” shops. Given his subsistence lifestyle, it is not hard to imagine Kopp visiting the occasional pawnshop.
The question of whether Kopp could have bought the gun at A to Z hinges on his whereabouts on the day of purchase, July 16, 1997. Mark Crutcher and attorney Ed Zielinski at Life Dynamics in Denton, Texas, decided to see if they could locate him on that given day, never an easy task with Kopp. After some research, they discovered that he had spent a good part of that summer with Doris Grady and her family in Pittsburgh, Pa., 550 miles from Old Hickory, Tenn.
The pair called Grady. To avoid biasing the outcome, they did not tell Grady specifically what they were hoping to prove. They simply asked her if she could account for Kopp’s presence on July 16. She told the two men that Kopp and her sons had worked on a variety of construction projects around the house that summer, the most notable being the building of a fence. In Pittsburgh, this requires a permit from the city, a process that proved frustratingly slow and pointless. Grady claimed that they worked straight through on the fence project as soon as they got permission. She then went through her files and found the permit. It authorized work to begin on July 14.
The Life Dynamics people held their breath as Crutcher asked the next question. “Did Kopp work on that fence every day of that week?”
“No,” Grady answered, unaware of the anxiety she was inducing. “On one day he did not.”
“What did he do on that day?” Crutcher asked, fearing the answer.
“Well on that day,” Grady answered innocently, “he and my son had to pull the stump out.” When Crutcher explained that she might well have exonerated Kopp, Grady broke out in tears.
Grady may have opened a door on a scandal of major proportions. If Kopp did not buy that gun and did not plant it, someone else had to, and that someone was probably not the shooter. In any case, by the time of Kopp’s arrest two years after the finding of the gun, the FBI seemed none too proud of its ballistic evidence. Media reports mention that Kopp is tied to the shooter’s perch by only a single strand of hair.
Tomorrow’s finale: “Why did Kopp flee U.S.?”
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”
Read Part 5, “Jumbled dates, planted evidence?”
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.