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  FBI Seeks Man in Buffalo Sniper Case

Investigators are seeking James Charles Kopp as a material witness in the slaying of abortion doctor Barnett Slepian. (AP)

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By Blaine Harden and Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A3

An antiabortion extremist with a decade-long history of arrests for disrupting women's clinics around the country is being sought for questioning in the sniper murder last month of a Buffalo abortion doctor, investigators said today.

Police are looking for James Charles Kopp, 44, whose nickname among antiabortion radicals is "Atomic Dog" and who has spent time in jails in New York, Georgia, West Virginia and Vermont for blockading abortion clinics.

Law enforcement sources said Kopp could be a key to unlocking a series of five sniper attacks in the past four years -- three in Canada and two in upstate New York -- on doctors who perform abortions. In each shooting, a sniper with a high-powered rifle fired through a window into the homes of doctors. Kopp's black 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier with Vermont plates was spotted directly behind the home of Bernard A. Slepian around the time the doctor was shot to death in his kitchen on Oct. 23. Investigators also have found records showing that Kopp crossed the U.S.-Canadian border at times coinciding with the earlier abortion shootings in Canada.

Kopp is not a suspect in Slepian's murder, according to the FBI office in Buffalo, but is wanted to explain the presence of his car in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst before the shooting. "We don't have any idea where he is. We are looking for him everywhere we can," FBI Special Agent Bernard Tolbert told reporters in Buffalo.

During previous investigations into Kopp's involvement in antiabortion protests, he was identified by federal law enforcement sources as someone with the potential to commit violent acts. Investigators almost immediately began looking for him after the Slepian shooting, but have failed to find him at several different places that he is known to frequent, a federal investigator said.

Kopp's last known residence was near St. Albans, Vt., in the tiny community of Swanton, not far from the Canadian border. He had rented a room for the past year in a farmhouse and worked in construction, according to Kate Biladeau, news editor of the St. Albans Messenger.

"There are a lot of indications of some level of involvement and certainly enough to believe that he has information about the Slepian murder," said a senior federal official. "But at this point we do not have evidence that ties him to the shooting. If we did, we'd charge him."

Concerned about a wave of attacks and intimidation of abortion providers, Attorney General Janet Reno is preparing to organize a multi-agency federal task force to investigate antiabortion crimes.

While investigators look for possible conspiracies that link antiabortion crimes, the task force will have a broader mandate. It will be patterned after the church arson task force that investigated church burnings in 1995 and 1996. That effort developed a network of contacts between law enforcement agencies and African American congregations.

"As with the church burnings we have a national crime problem on abortion now and no one knows exactly what's up," said an official familiar with the planning for the task force.

The task force will also look at the intimidation of eight abortion clinics in the Midwest that received hoax letters claiming to be dusted with deadly anthrax. It will also investigate 22 recent attacks on abortion clinics in the South with butyric acid, which irritates the eyes, nose and skin.

The man investigators want to question in connection with the Slepian murder has been a passionate opponent of abortion since the 1980s, according to a number of published reports and acquaintances.

Once a professional trumpeter in California, Kopp became the president of the Lourdes Foundation in the 1980s, according to Daniel J. Grimm. Grimm, a lawyer who represented the foundation, said the group operated a center in San Francisco that referred women to doctors opposed to abortion.

"He was serious about the need to save babies," said Grimm. "It was the main issue of his life."

Kopp was jailed in Atlanta in 1988 along with scores of other activists who belonged to the group Operation Rescue. While he was in jail, he became friends with several prominent members of the extreme fringe of the antiabortion movement, according to "Wrath of Angels," a new book by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas.

Kopp's fellow inmates at the time included Shelley Shannon, an Oregon housewife later convicted of shooting a doctor in Wichita, and John Arena, a New York activist later jailed for attacking abortion clinics with acid.

It was in Atlanta that Kopp got his nickname "Atomic Dog," which was later featured in the acknowledgments of a manual showing antiabortionists how to build bombs, make explosives and cut off the thumbs of abortion doctors. The manual was circulated by a loose association of extremists who called themselves the Army of God.

"I have heard different things about that nickname," said Thomas, author of the book on the antiabortion movement. "That it's just something people made up, that it has to do with his crazy red hair and some people told me it was maybe because he liked to mess around with physics."

Mark Potok, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that Kopp seems to fit the pattern of wandering of a number of committed antiabortionists.

Harden reported from New York, Suro from Washington. Staff writer Liz Leyden in New York and special correspondent Pamela Ferdinand in Boston contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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