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 this installment, Part 2, Cashill profiles accuse killer and lifetime pro-life activist, James Kopp.
Jim Gannon knew James Kopp about as well as any one man could know another more than 30 years his junior. “I was in jail 14 times,” says Gannon. “Most of the time I was with him.” Adds Gannon freely, “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
When Gannon retired from his job with an electrical engineering company – his last office had been on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center – he dedicated his retirement years to the pro-life cause. He and Kopp traveled with an intensely Catholic group known as the Lambs of Christ. What led to Gannon’s and Kopp’s arrests was their participation in “rescues,” non-violent interventions at a given abortion clinic. The participants believed that if they could shut down a clinic for even an hour or two, and in the process dissuade a single woman from having an abortion, the life saved would more than justify their likely arrests.
Among the “rescuers,” Kopp had developed an almost legendary reputation for his creativity and intelligence. Using his personally refined locks, he had devised, among other things, the system called “lock and block.” This system turned protesters into linked and all but immovable objects and had frustrated police forces across the country.
Kopp brought a sophisticated technical background to his calling as a rescuer. Born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1954, he received his bachelor’s in biology from the University of California at Santa Clara and his master’s in embryology from California State University at Fullerton. While employed as a laboratory technician at The University of Texas, he flirted with medical school and scored high enough on his MCAT tests to be admitted. He was also published in the European scientific publication International Journal of Invertebrate Reproduction and worked at Stanford on a project involving nerve reconnection for Vietnam veterans with spinal-cord injuries.
It was his studies in embryology that persuaded Kopp, then an agnostic, that life was a continuum, one that began at the moment of conception. Kopp has traced his more visceral awakening to an incident in which a physician, herself an abortion sympathizer, confronted him with a fetus in a pail. The insights gleaned from these experiences led him to abandon his research career, join fully in the pro-life movement and eventually to convert to Catholicism.
Kopp traveled the world in his 15-year career as a pro-life activist. He had engaged in rescues in Italy and Poland among other countries. In India, he spent considerable time with Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity. In the Philippines, the mayor of Manila honored him for his work in helping expose abortion clinics, there still illegal.
In the United States, his efforts mostly just got him arrested, 20 times in all, and occasionally beaten, though nowhere as badly as he had been in Italy. As a result, Kopp had a chronically bad back and walked with a noticeable limp.
“He couldn’t run or do anything like that,” says Gannon. “I don’t think he was physically capable.” Gannon notes that when jailed together, Kopp had to sleep on the floor to ease the pain in his back. According to Gannon, the thin, bearded Kopp wore thick glasses all the time. “He couldn’t see two feet in front of him without them.” Adds close friend Doris Grady of Pittsburgh, “He’s as blind as a bat.”
Throughout his ordeals, Kopp showed an almost Gandhian devotion to non-violence and passive resistance. Regardless of the provocation at a given rescue, he would not fight back. “He is a gentle, gentle person,” says Grady, who observed him at many such rescues.
“Never once did he ever talk about justification for violence,” says Gannon. As to whether he could have killed Slepian, “It’s totally beyond my belief and comprehension, absolutely, impossibly.”
The Rev. James Morrow of Aberdeen County, Scotland, who has known Kopp well for 12 years, concurs with Gannon. “He is totally non-violent in his thinking,” says Morrow without hesitation.
“Jim’s life revolves around his desire to please God,” says Grady. She notes that he would have loved to have a wife and children, but he felt that he had a mission to resist the “terrible grievance” of abortion. “We thought of him like a priest,” says friend Susan Brindle. As Brindle tells it, Kopp stayed out of priesthood to do rescue work, but otherwise lived a pious, celibate life with daily Mass and communion.
Brindle, from one of the few Catholic families in her part of the South, learned about non-violent resistance through her participation in lunch counter sit-ins during the latter days of the civil-rights era. Like many Catholics in the pro-life movement, she rejects all forms of violence, including the death penalty and even “the just war.”
According to Brindle, Kopp shared her particular abhorrence for the killing of abortion providers. “When an abortionist is killed,” she quotes Kopp as saying, “it is a million times sadder than even when a baby dies.” Kopp offered two lines of reasoning to support his argument. One is the deeply Catholic contention that it is a greater sin to deprive an abortionist of his chance for his repentance than it is for the abortionist to take the life of an innocent. The second, and more practical argument, is that a given abortion doctor “could be the next Dr. Nathanson.” A one-time abortion provider and now a powerful spokesman against the abortion industry, Nathanson is revered in the pro-life movement.
Kopp had similar conversations with Doris Grady. On one occasion, after the bombing of an abortion clinic in Alabama, Grady expressed a tolerance for such an act as long as no one was hurt. According to Grady, Kopp immediately challenged her. He argued that by putting police and firefighters at risk, and perhaps even a janitor, a would-be bomber acted in a morally unacceptable way. So compelling was his argument that Kopp convinced Grady of the same.
When the subject of bombing came up, Kopp grew oddly reflective, almost paranoid. “There is a list,” he told Grady. “My name’s on it. Yours is on it. They are going to pick us off one by one. If you ever hear of me doing something like this, don’t believe it.”
Kopp stayed with Grady in the summer of 1997. That previous fall, the Eric Rudolph manhunt had dominated the news. After failing to pin the terrorist bombing at the Atlanta Olympics on hapless security guard Richard Jewell, the FBI turned its attention to Rudolph, a suspect in an earlier bombing of an abortion clinic. Why an abortion protester would bomb the Olympics was never quite made clear, but clear to Kopp and others in the movement was why the FBI went after Rudolph. That he would one day join Rudolph on the FBI’s “most wanted” list could not have surprised Kopp.
Kopp’s lifestyle gave him much opportunity both for reflection and discussion. At some times, his “quiet times,” he lived by himself in quasi-monastic retreat, supporting himself through odd jobs. At other times, he would stay with his more settled colleagues in the movement, occasionally for months on end as he did with the Brindles and the Gradys. They came to know him well as a man of undeniable dedication, one with so few attachments to the things of the world that he sometimes arrived by Greyhound or even by thumb.
Kopp had stayed with Jim Gannon on several occasions, the last time being June or July of 1998. When Kopp moved on, he left behind several boxes of clothing and personal effects. The day the FBI descended upon Gannon’s home – less than 24 hours after the shooting of Dr. Slepian – the agents asked if they could take the boxes away with them. Gannon did not object for the sole reason that he believed Kopp to be innocent of any wrongdoing. Inexplicably, instead of sending these artifacts to the FBI forensic laboratory in Washington, as is the FBI’s custom, the agents sent them to the FBI’s Buffalo field office. What happened to Kopp’s possessions after they got to the Buffalo office has sparked a controversy that will not easily go away.
Even more troubling, however, is why the FBI pursued Kopp in the first place. On Oct. 26, two days after the visit to Gannon’s house, “law enforcement officials,” probably the FBI, were telling the New York Times that “so far, little information had been developed about the killer – what he or she looked like or what car was used in the getaway.”
The affidavit that the Amherst Police Department prepared to help extradite Kopp from France – more on this later – argued that the first evidence tying Kopp to the scene of the crime was not discovered until Oct. 27. The FBI affidavit made no claim for an earlier date. Typically, a police agency presents its strongest evidence when applying for extradition, especially to a prickly country like France. But the affidavits from both the FBI and the Amherst Police show absolutely no link between Kopp and Slepian before the 27th, and even that evidence is highly questionable.
There seem to be two possible reasons why those FBI agents came looking for Kopp less than one day after the shooting. One is that they were on something of a fishing expedition. The other is that they knew something about Kopp that they have not yet revealed. Both have troubling implications.
If the first is true, word likely came down from Justice to round up the usual suspects. Less than two weeks before a critical congressional election, pressure would have been intense to produce a scalp before Election Day. The White House let its intent be known before it could be sure of a motive.
“President Clinton said today that he was ‘outraged’ by Dr. Slepian’s slaying,” commented the New York Times the day after the killing, “and that the Justice Department was working with the local authorities to track down his killer.”
The Justice Department had something of a head start. If VAAPCON could not find a conspiracy of violence, it had surely allowed Justice to profile every serious rescuer in the country. Kopp’s file had to be on top of the stack. Smart, cunning, a natural leader, Kopp had been a thorn in the side of the abortion lobby for years. What is more, his peripatetic lifestyle and long periods of isolation suggested the possibility of guilt and left him more vulnerable to accusation even if innocent.
From the perspective of the Justice Department, all abortion resistance was suspect and dangerous. From day one, Justice had been Hillary Clinton’s show, and she had made the department into a formidable feminist stronghold. She insisted upon and finally got a female attorney general, the ardently pro-choice Janet Reno. For several years before the shooting, Reno’s No. 1 deputy, and the woman who had really run the department, was the thoroughly political Jamie Gorelick. The Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for western New York was one Kathleen Mehltretter. It was Mehltretter who first named Kopp as a suspect, reportedly at the urging of pro-choice activists in Buffalo. Indeed, the relationship between the Clinton administration and the abortion lobby was intimate, their open hostility to the pro-life movement shared. Few among them seemed able or willing to distinguish the violent from the non-violent, the Huey Newtons of the cause from the Martin Luther Kings.
In the days following Slepian’s murder, abortion supporters painted pro-lifers with one broad, ugly brush. “The horrendous assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian,” observed Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, “cannot be separated from the virulent and inflammatory language of radical right-wing ideologues who demonize women, abortion and medical providers without regard to the real-life consequences.”
“Coming on the heels of the gruesome murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming,” said NARAL President Kate Michelman in a widely echoed theme, “[the Slepian murder] is also a telling reminder of the increasing climate of intolerance and hatred we now see in America.” Michelman made this comment on the 24th of October, the day after the shooting.
“[Slepian’s] death shows again how tentative the right to abortion has become in the face of terrorism by anti-choice fanatics,” thundered the New York Times on the 26th. Like Michelman and so many others, the Times editorialist did not need evidence to assign blame. “Their repeated acts of terrorism must be met with the severest possible crackdown by law enforcement authorities.”
No voice was louder or more clearly heard than that of the National Organization of Women. NOW organized vigils from coast to coast, climaxing with an Oct. 28 gathering in Washington at which feminist leaders honored Slepian and pledged “to stand up to anti-abortion thugs.” Speaking at the vigil, among others, was Ann Lewis, White House communications director, who brought statements from President Clinton and Vice President Gore. “A common theme emerged from these memorials,” commented a NOW newsletter, “the inflammatory rhetoric of anti-abortion leaders in and out of Congress creates an environment in which hate and violence can and does flourish.”
Abortion supporters may have seen murder as a natural extension of Kopp’s mission, but to his many friends in the movement murder represented the antithesis of everything he stood for. If Kopp were the killer, he had lived the last several years as something of a double agent or a Dr. Jekyll, a man so utterly cold and cunning that he deceived the very people with whom he was living and working and praying. Nor could the Slepian shooting have represented a sudden breakdown. As shall be seen, to make the Slepian case, the FBI would have to implicate Kopp in the Canadian murders dating back to 1994.
This possibility his friends completely and passionately rejected, even before they knew what the evidence was. The Justice Department underestimated this passion. Its agents likely believed the stereotype of the seething, violent, pro-life extremist that the media had carefully crafted. Kopp’s friends knew better. They were not about to accept the judgment of the Clinton Justice Department, even if they had no forum in which to challenge it.
In truth, the rescue movement has few resources and very close to no allies in the mainstream media. When she learned of Kopp’s capture in France in March 2001, the one place Susan Brindle could think of that might provide help or justice was Life Dynamics, Inc., a sophisticated pro-life organization based in Denton, Texas.
Susan’s husband, David Brindle, discouraged her. “They won’t touch this case with a 10-foot pole,” he told her. If the media were unaware of nuances among pro-life activists, the Brindles were not. They knew that Life Dynamics had little tolerance for violence and no use for a murderer cum martyr like, say, the left’s convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
Still, Susan felt she had no choice. She went to Denton. She made her plea to Life Dynamics’ legal specialist, attorney Ed Zielinski, and President Mark Crutcher. Her passion was so intense and her conviction so strong that by the next day, she and Zielinski were on their way to France.
Said Crutcher upon their departure, “We won’t get involved unless Ed looks in Kopp’s eyes and tells me he’s not guilty.” A former assistant prosecutor and defense attorney, the hard-boiled Zielinski had heard every lame alibi in the book. He would not be easily conned.
A few days later, Zielinski returned to Denton. When Crutcher saw him, the first words out of Zielinski’s mouth were, “The guy didn’t do it.”
Tomorrow: “Leftists involved in abortionist’s death?”
Read Part 1, “Abortion politics meet law enforcement”
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.