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People Top 5
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- April 16, 2001
- Vol. 55
- No. 15
After a Two-Year Overseas Manhunt, Police in France Seize a Suspect in the Sniper Murder of a Buffalo, New York, Doctor Targeted by Antiabortion Radicals
Finally, on March 29 the FBI called with news that may bring the Slepians some comfort. Earlier that day police in a small town in France had arrested James Charles Kopp, a radical in the antiabortion underground, after he tried repeatedly to cash a $20 wire transfer believed to have been sent to him by supporters in America. Long sought as the prime suspect in Barnett Slepian's murder, Kopp, 46, had eluded investigators in at least three countries before arousing suspicion in Dinan, some 250 miles west of Paris.
Within hours FBI and police descended on a run-down apartment building in Brooklyn and arrested two reputed Kopp associates. According to an FBI affidavit detailing intercepted phone conversations and e-mail exchanges, Dennis Malvasi, 51, and Loretta Marra, 37—both of whom have served time for crimes related to antiabortion protests—appear to have been supplying Kopp with money and preparing to help him return to the U.S. via Canada using a fake passport.
Malvasi, a convicted abortion-clinic bomber, and Marra, who was arrested with Kopp in Vermont after blockading a clinic there in 1990, are being held on charges of conspiring to harbor a fugitive. Kopp, meanwhile, remains in custody in France while U.S. officials draft a formal request for extradition.
Back in Amherst, where Barnett Slepian had been constantly harassed by abortion opponents, word of the arrests brought a sense of relief. But his widow, Lynne, realizes that what lies ahead will not be pleasant. "For most people this would be the end," she says. "For me it's going to open a lot of wounds."
Her ordeal began on a fall day in 1998, when Bart Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist with a thriving practice, received a sobering fax from a Buffalo clinic where he regularly performed abortions. The fax warned that several clinics and doctors in the region had been targeted by a sniper. Lynne, who had met her husband in 1979 while working as a nurse at Buffalo General Hospital, where he was a resident, says the warning didn't frighten Bart, one of the few doctors in the region who was willing to provide abortions to patients who wanted them. "He could never understand a physician who would take a patient and say, 'You made a mistake, go somewhere else,' " she says.
Besides that, says Lynne, her husband had come to accept the fact that a degree of danger went with his work. For years protesters had besieged his office, taunted his patients and, in 1988, disrupted his celebration of Hanukkah with Lynne and their four sons—Andrew, now 18, Brian, 16, Michael, 13, and Philip, 10. As antiabortion tactics turned more violent in the late '80s, the doctor viewed the possibility of harm with a degree of defiance. "Somebody gave him a bulletproof vest and he said, 'Why bother?' " recalls Lynne. " 'If somebody wants to shoot me, they'll shoot me in the head.' "
On the evening of Oct. 23, 1998, Slepian returned to the family's two-story brick house in Amherst around 10 p.m. He was in the kitchen heating soup and chatting with his wife when a gunshot shattered a window and ricocheted through the house. "We were all standing there as it whizzed over our heads," recalls Lynne. Hit in the back by a bullet that passed through his lungs, Bart Slepian was pronounced dead at 11:30 at a nearby hospital.
Outside the house, where the shooter was apparently braced against a fence, investigators found a single strand of hair, as well as a Russian-made rifle buried nearby. A crucial break in the case came when one of the Slepians' neighbors gave police the Vermont license number of a battered Chevrolet seen in the neighborhood. That led authorities to Kopp, a California native and well-known militant who traveled the country from one protest to the next. "He was kind of a folk hero in the movement," says Jeff White, former national head of Operation Rescue, a pro-life group for which Kopp volunteered in the late '80s before taking a more radical turn.
The FBI manhunt focused overseas after Kopp's car was found abandoned two months later at Newark International Airport in New Jersey. "I sat down with Lynne and said, 'We are going to catch him,' " says then-FBI special agent in charge Bernie Tolbert, who pushed to have Kopp placed on the Ten Most Wanted list. "We lived this case 24 hours a day." Using wiretaps of suspected confederates in America, investigators tracked Kopp, who has used as many as 30 aliases, to Ireland, where he briefly clerked at a Dublin hospital. By March of this year, Irish police were closing in when Kopp apparently fled to Paris, then Dinan, where he bunked in a youth hostel outside town.
A few days later French police distributed a picture of the suspect. By then Kopp was already a familiar face at the Dinan post office, where he'd attracted attention by using three different aliases in one day to receive wire transfers. "He was a little nervous," recalls postal inspector Christian Guillot, "and you noticed that, because he had a rosary that he kept turning in his fingers." When a postal worker spotted Kopp making a call from a phone booth a few days later, she alerted police.
For the moment Kopp's legal status is uncertain. Though France and the U.S. are bound by a treaty that facilitates the return of fugitives, France has refused to extradite suspects who might face the death penalty. Prosecutors in this country will have to bear that in mind when they seek extradition in the coming days. Whatever the outcome, Lynne Slepian won't rest easy until Kopp is brought to trial. "It's very lonely," she says of her life since her husband's murder. "Especially at night. I sleep with the cats. I have to be both parents to the children. I have to make all the decisions. People assume we've gone on. But there's not one hour that goes by that this doesn't affect everything we do."
Michelle York in Amherst, Peter Mikelbank in Dinan, Aaron Smith in New York City, Mary Finnegan in Dublin, Leslie Berestein in Los Angeles and Eric Francis in Vermont
- Michelle York,
- Peter Mikelbank,
- Aaron Smith,
- Mary Finnegan,
- Leslie Berestein,
- Eric Francis.
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