Book Club: Sniper – The True Story of Anti-Abortion Killer James Kopp

Nineteen years ago today, at his home in Amherst, New York, returning from synagogue after a memorial service for his father, gynecologist Barnett Slepian, his wife, and their sons were preparing a late supper. He started heating soup in his microwave oven, then left the room. Seconds after his return, he stood, silhouetted by the blue light of the microwave, as a soft-tipped bullet left a high-powered SKS rifle from a wooded area 36 yards away, traveled through a sunroom window, and ripped through the doctor’s back, spinal cord, ribs, aorta, and lungs. He bled out within seconds. One son barely missed injury from the single ricocheting bullet.

The shooter escaped.

“… no civilized society can tolerate or excuse excesses that are tantamount to anarchy or to terrorism.” –Judge Michael D’Amico at sentencing of sniper James Kopp

In this true-crime book, Sniper: The True Story of Anti-Abortion Killer James Kopp, journalist and author Jon Wells takes the reader through the ensuing 29-month international effort to identify and capture James Kopp in France, extradite him, and try him for murder. Today, Kopp is incarcerated for life, was convicted of additional federal charges, and is suspected of shooting four other abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada, wounding them severely.

What can we learn from this book? I’ve selected passages from the book to highlight the important messages.

Why Kopp selected Dr. Slepian as his (allegedly) fifth target, among numerous obstetricians who provided abortion care in New York and Canada.

  • The Slepian house bordered on a secluded wooded area, allowing undetected preparation and escape routes for a sniper.
  • Slepian did not shy away from controversy. “Abortion is the killing of potential life. It is not pretty. It is not easy. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary,” Slepian said in public speeches. “His niece, Amanda Robb, had helped him craft the words for a presentation he made to a Buffalo group called Medical Students for Choice. Why would Bart say those words to a pro-choice audience? He had to know pro-life activists would jump all over a quote like that, to illustrate that even abortion providers like Dr. Barnett Slepian had moral issues with the procedure. But Bart, being Bart, was simply telling it as he saw it, and damn the political optics. Quite obviously most terminated fetuses would otherwise live. But abortion was legal. Women requested them. OBs were needed to perform the surgery safely. Bart was an OB. And so he provided the service.”
  • Slepian advocated standing up to terrorists of any ilk. He admired Israel’s approach. “Israel doesn’t sit around wringing its hands. They take care of things,” he told a friend.
  • “Bart’s instinct to never back down got him in trouble. One night he got into it with a group of teens. He came home from school and found a group of them in front of his driveway. He asked them to move, an argument started, one of the teens threw a rock through Bart’s window. The police got involved and Bart spent the night at the police station.”

Police and FBI are doggedly determined to hunt anti-abortion, religious-zealot murderers and ensure justice is done. A massive effort and expenditure of resources was required to bring Kopp to justice. (Warning to reader: It’s tough plodding through layer upon layer of detail.)

  • Law enforcement’s pursuit of Kopp started with an observant jogger’s identification of the suspicious getaway car (complete with license plate number — nice work, ma’am) and continued by tracking Kopp’s escape to Mexico with the help of an accomplice and her automobile. Kopp then fled to Ireland and then France using numerous false identities, and cash from his anti-abortion support network.
  • The chase involved dozens of law enforcement professionals from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Mexico, and France, as well as the cultivation of informants and hundreds of interviews.

An intelligent person with scientific training can twist themselves into a fanatical, manipulative, religious martyr. How this happened in Kopp’s case makes for fascinating, but disturbing, reading.

  • Born into a traditional, upper-middle-class, staunch-Republican California family, Kopp played trumpet in his high school orchestra, marched in the band, and blended into the woodwork at school, unlike his more personable twin brother.
  • Extremely bright, he graduated from high school a year early, as though “he didn’t need the trappings of his senior year.”
  • When he was 20, he lost to leukemia his youngest sister, Mary, a diagnosed schizophrenic and born-again Christian, for whom he had great empathy.
  • His college work in embryology convinced him that abortion killed an innocent human life. “Show me a counterargument based on science, or faith, or something, anything,” he said.
  • In 1983, he graduated with his master’s degree in biology from Cal State Fullerton, with a 3.84 on a 4.0 scale.
  • Raised a Lutheran, he converted to Roman Catholicism and became affiliated with the militant Roman Catholic anti-abortion group known as “The Lambs of Christ.”

Defendant Kopp, predictably, failed to manipulate Judge Michael D’Amico into buying his “justifiable homicide” defense. (Kopp had waived a jury trial where he might have had a better chance.)

  • Judge D’Amico: “I guess in spite of all your education and all your intelligence, Mr. Kopp, there is one thing you haven’t learned and that’s that the pursuit of one’s goal, your objective, that no matter how moral or just it may appear, does not permit the infliction of violence on your adversary. What may appear righteous to you may appear immoral to someone else. And obviously the reverse is true. The bottom line, I suspect, is that no civilized society can tolerate or excuse excesses that are tantamount to anarchy or to terrorism.”

Irony. Assassins, beware of unintended consequences.

  • At trial, Kopp’s attorney argued that Kopp had tried to wound Slepian, not kill him: “The government has been saying Kopp shot five abortion providers, and four of them did not die. He maintained that his purpose was to wound them, and Slepian’s death was unintentional.” His intention was to put wounded physicians out of operation and warn others away from performing abortions. However …
  • “In Vancouver, Dr. Romalis, allegedly one of Kopp’s victims, continued to practice medicine, but had to alter his practice somewhat. He had always delivered babies as part of his practice. A major part, in fact. But delivering babies, like other surgeries, is a physically demanding job. After he was shot in the thigh, he no longer had the physical stamina to deliver babies — it can involve being on your feet a long time. Romalis couldn’t stand long enough. The wound, the hole punched in his leg by the assault rifle, had put a stop to that. So Dr. Garson Romalis could only do procedures that required little time standing. He could perform what are called, in obstetrics phraseology, terminations. Abortions.” Oops.

So, if you enjoy detailed true crime books, want to learn more about a staunch supporter of access to abortion, are intrigued by the psyche of an anti-abortion terrorist, or just enjoy seeing the good guys triumph in the end, consider Sniper: The True Story of Anti-Abortion Killer James Kopp.