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.
This is Part 1 of Cashill’s report. Visit WND every day this week to read each installment of his expos?.
On the night of Oct. 23, 1998, no would-be killer was more likely to escape justice than the one lurking in the woods behind Dr. Barnett Slepian’s stately home – “greater Buffalo’s Taj Mahal” in the words of Slepian’s niece, Amanda Robb.
The temperature had reached 55 degrees that day, warm by western New York standards, and would reach 55 again the next. Just before 10 p.m. on this dry, windy night, Slepian with his wife, Lynne, and his four sons returned home from synagogue. Shortly after arriving, he headed to the kitchen to prepare some soup. Lynne and his oldest son, then 15, joined him.
As Slepian passed in front of his undraped window, a skilled marksman raised what the FBI would claim was a Russian-built SKS carbine with an extended stock, sighted his prey through the telescopic lens and fired a single shot. The bullet pierced the window, smacked Slepian in the back, passed through his chest, ricocheted around the kitchen and landed on the hearth of a fireplace adjacent to the kitchen.
“I think I’ve been shot,” Slepian gasped as he staggered from the blow.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” chided Lynne.
But Slepian was not being ridiculous at all. Unlike most doctors, he lived with the knowledge that an inexplicable sharp pain might very well be the result of a sniper’s bullet. Earlier that day, in fact, the National Abortion Federation had sent a fax to his Buffalo clinic warning of a pattern of sniper attacks on Canadian abortion doctors. The attacks warned about eventually did occur, in early November.
Lynn Slepian had seen the warning as well. She had talked to her employer, the Amherst Police Department, about 4 p.m. that afternoon to make them aware of it. When she saw the hole through the window and her husband now on the floor, she understood the seriousness of her husband’s plea and called the Amherst Police Department for help.
Based on FBI documents, the shooter’s next few minutes had to be the most intense of his life. After firing the shot, he hustled through the woods an estimated 162 feet to the hole from which he had earlier retrieved the rifle, wrapped the rifle in a rubber material, inserted it in a cardboard tube, and reburied it a foot deep along with two pair of gloves. So well did he cover the hole that teams of officers would not find it for another six months.
The shooter then hurried to a second hole at least 20 feet from the first. He took out a black plastic garbage bag and stuffed it with an empty Remington cartridge box, a pair of Tasco binoculars, a pair of protective earmuffs, a flashlight, a green baseball cap, a wristwatch and a black fanny pack. He cleared out the hole with a trowel and placed the trowel on the bottom and the black bag on top of that. He then covered this hole well enough with his hands and feet that it would take searchers nearly two weeks to find it.
Long before the shooter finished his work, the sound of police sirens shredded the still night air of the Roxbury Park subdivision. At 10:07 p.m., Amherst PD Officer Ted Dinoto had gotten a radio call about a possible shooting at the Slepian residence and arrived on the scene about two minutes later.
As he raced through the subdivision’s winding streets, Dinoto would not see the man in the dark hooded sweatshirt, the one who crouched behind a neighbor’s bushes on Slepian’s side of the street. A 14-year-old jogger did, however. According to Amherst Police Department, or APD, documents, when she and her mother heard the sirens, they headed over towards the Slepians’ to check out the commotion. As they approached, the girl spotted the hooded man and watched as he “ran from behind the bushes to a car waiting in the driveway of the house” and got in on “the passenger side of the ‘small, dark car,’ which then sped away.” The girl would repeat this story under oath to a grand jury. She was the only known eyewitness at the scene.
Once they had arrived, the police and the EMTs knew at a glance just how fatally accurate the marksman had been. They did what they could do for Slepian at the scene, loaded him into the waiting ambulance and rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead about two hours after the shooting.
Back at the Slepian home, Michael Dujanovich of the Erie County Central Police Services Lab set up a ballistic alignment laser and traced the path of the bullet to a tree in the wooded area behind the house. Also on site was APD Captain Michael J. Melton who supervised the collection of evidence.
Had the bullet from an unknown sniper felled a radiologist or a cardiologist or a pediatrician, the investigation would have moved in a radically different direction than it did. First, attention would have fallen, however uneasily, on the spouse. Had there been any altercations or history of abuse? Had either of the couple been seeing someone outside the marriage? Had there been any changes in the insurance policy? If the wife of an affluent radiologist had taken a prosaic job at the local police department, as Lynn Slepian had, the police brass would be quietly fighting the fear that one of the department’s own bad apples had been involved. Might that warning call six hours earlier have given him the perfect cover?
In this era of Columbine, the police also would have had to question the two teen-age sons. “Bart had grown mean,” Amanda Robb would say of her uncle, Barnett Slepian. “He broke toys the boys fought over and went ballistic over the merest hint of pubescent moroseness.” If the rabbi cried during the eulogy Robb gave for her uncle, the boys did not. They sat dry-eyed throughout, “not so much as a sniffle” among them.
The police, of course, would have questioned the doctor’s business partners, likely suspects any time a professional is murdered. They also might have looked for cuckolded husbands, unpaid loan sharks or greedy drug dealers. The questioning would have gotten ugly and personal. When it comes to murder, it always does.
But Barnett Slepian was not a radiologist, a cardiologist or a pediatrician. In a lengthy, laudatory biography in the New York Times, reporter Susan Sachs described him as “an obstetrician and gynecologist by training and an abortion doctor by principle.” By the time that death overtook Slepian, Amherst police had concluded that he died defending that principle. Had the killer any other motive, he could breathe easier. The question of abortion would drive all serious inquiry.
To be sure, no other line of inquiry held as much promise. Over the past four years, there had been four comparable shootings across Canada and northern New York State. On Nov. 8, 1994, a sniper fired through the exposed window of a Vancouver, British Columbia, home and wounded an abortion doctor in the leg. The next year, on Nov. 10, a sniper fired through a den window of an Ontario abortion doctor and hit the doctor in the right elbow. On Nov. 11, a sniper shot a Winnipeg doctor in the right shoulder as he stood by a window in the rear of his house.
Authorities believed that these three shootings were keyed by Canada’s Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, a day known to some as “Remember the unborn children day,” the focus of activity across Canada by those who oppose abortion.
Slepian knew about these shootings, but they were all in Canada, and none took place until Nov. 8. If Slepian seemed unduly casual about his behavior on October 23, it may be because he did not know about the one shooting that would have alarmed him most.
On Oct. 28, 1997 a sniper had fired through the window of Dr. David Gandell’s home in Perinton, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. The two shots missed the doctor, who was adjusting a clock near his indoor swimming pool, but he was wounded slightly by flying debris from the bullet. The parallels between this case and Slepian’s were strong. In both, the sniper hid in a wooded area behind the residence of an upstate New York abortion provider. Both residences had windows facing the woods. Although both shootings seemed to send a strong message, no one claimed credit for either attack.
One major difference, other than the outcome, was that the Monroe County Sheriff’s office did not presume a motive. When the deputies asked Gandell who might have had cause to shoot him, his first instinct was to cite his ex-wife. He and his “new wife” had just returned home from a honeymoon that had followed hard on the heels of a “vicious divorce.” As a second possibility, Gandell cited an unhinged ex-neighbor, a survivalist, who celebrated his hatred of the doctor with a shrine and who would skulk about in the bushes behind his house. The sheriff’s office then questioned both the doctor and his new wife about disgruntled boyfriends and other likely suspects. Despite his abortion work, a minor part of his larger practice, the doctor had “received no threats of any kind” and did not suspect anti-abortion protesters.
According to friend and fellow abortion provider, Dr, Morris Wortman, the doctor did not believe that abortion played a role in the shooting until FBI agents told him they were “convinced” that it did. Curiously, the agents informed Gandell of this only a few days before Slepian was shot. What led to this late communication by the FBI is not known. The Monroe County sheriff’s spokesman was unaware that the FBI was involved at all and questioned why it would be. There is nothing in the official Monroe County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Report to suggest any kind of late breakthrough or any FBI involvement. The case still remains open. “At the end of the day,” says the sheriff’s spokesman, “there was never any indication of a motive.”
The Buffalo News reported a year after Slepian’s death: “Police in Monroe County were able to keep the Perinton incident a secret for almost a year.” The sheriff’s spokesman, however, denies that anyone tried to keep anything secret. He suggests in all candor that the story simply wasn’t newsworthy. Whatever the cause, the attempt on Gandell’s life received no coverage beyond the immediate area until after Slepian had been killed.
If the details of the FBI involvement in the Perinton case remain murky, the motives behind it are much clearer. In May 1994, a Democratic Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. This law made it a federal crime, among other offenses, “to injure, intimidate or interfere with persons seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health care services.” At the time the bill was passed, 22 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, only one abortion doctor had been murdered in the United States. To put this in perspective, 41 cab drivers had been murdered in New York City just the year before without prompting federal legislation.
In August 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno established the Task Force on Violence Against Abortion Providers, often referred to as “VAAPCON.” VAAPCON was charged with determining whether there was a nationwide conspiracy to commit acts of violence against abortion providers. In fact, VAAPCON proved to be something of a bust.
“The Justice Department conducted a two-year grand jury investigation,” The New York Times would later report. “Agents pursued some anti-abortion activists using surveillance teams. But investigators never found a specific plot against abortion clinics and staff members.”
The Justice Department itself acknowledged VAAPCON’s failure. “The evidence gathered did not support a definitive conclusion as to the existence of a nationwide conspiracy,” reads a later task force report on the subject. Still, VAAPCON showed the FBI and local police just how determined the Clinton administration was to protect the abortion industry. In 1995, Clinton would direct each of the 93 United States Attorneys to establish a local task force to coordinate law enforcement efforts relating to clinic violence.
The fruits of this long standing investigation and coordination were apparent almost immediately after Slepian’s murder. Before 24 hours had passed, without a shred of evidence from the scene as to who the killer might be, the FBI and a dozen or so local police descended unannounced upon the Crestwood Village retirement community in rural New Jersey.
Jim Gannon, then 77, knew something was wrong when he saw the flashing strobes. He had no idea the police had come for him, however, until he saw them, guns drawn, surround his house front and back. With nothing to hide, Gannon let them in. The police did not point their weapons at Gannon, but they did at a younger friend who was visiting and who is still shaken by the memory. They holstered their guns only when they realized that this man was not the one they were looking for.
For reasons still not clear, not at all clear, the FBI was seeking an anti-abortion activist with no known history of violence. That man was James Charles Kopp.
Tomorrow: “James Kopp ‘like a priest'”
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.