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Mercenary for Justice

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Loretta Marra: Malvasi's wife and James Kopp's friend.  

Sometime in 1998, Dennis came to Joseph’s apartment carrying a large sack. Joseph looked inside. It was a rifle.

“What the fuck?! Are you for real?”

“I’ve gotta store it,” Dennis said, “for a friend.”

The nation’s most notorious abortion-related murder had taken patience. James Kopp visited the woods behind the house on the outskirts of Buffalo for days—wrapping his Russian-made SKS in vinyl and stowing it in a tube he’d planted in the ground, then covering the tube with leaves until he came back, waiting for the right moment. Finally, at 9:55 p.m. on Friday, October 23, 1998, Kopp got the shot he wanted. The abortion doctor was standing in the kitchen, microwaving a bowl of soup. Kopp pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered a window and hit the doctor in the back.

“I think I’ve been shot,” Barnett Slepian said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said his wife, Lynne.

He bled to death before he could get to the hospital.

Slepian’s death instantly galvanized the abortion debate: Pro-choice supporters cried out for justice; militant pro-life advocates proclaimed that justice had been done. Bill Clinton called the killing a “tragic and brutal act.” The Justice Department launched an international manhunt for the sniper. But Kopp had a carefully thought-out getaway plan. He dyed his hair blond to match a fake driver’s license, and a friend drove him to the Mexican border. Within weeks, he flew to London undetected; from there he’d move on to Ireland. But Kopp had one stroke of bad luck. A woman who lived near the Slepians told the police about a man she’d seen while jogging who had seemed out of place. She’d even written down his car’s license-plate number.

On November 4, a material-witness warrant was issued for James Kopp, with a $500,000 reward offered for information; by the time Kopp was indicted, the reward had been raised to $1 million. FBI agents raced to search all the places he had lived over the years and to interview friends. Near the top of their list was Loretta Marra. They found her pager number in the phone records of another friend of Kopp’s but still couldn’t locate her. They went to her father’s funeral in December, but she didn’t show up. Their best move, they decided, was to somehow get to Dennis Malvasi.

In the spring of 1999, Joseph says he was in the parking lot of a shopping center on Ralph Avenue when a van rolled up next to him and stopped. The van door slid open.

“We want to talk to you.”

“Forget it,” he said, and kept walking.

Joseph knew Dennis was still on parole. He figured this must be about him. So he told him about the van a few days later. “I was followed,” he said. “You better watch it.” Dennis smiled cryptically and thanked him.

A few weeks passed, then it happened again—this time an SUV pulled up beside Joseph while he was parking his car.

“Can we talk now? It doesn’t have to be here. We don’t expect you to trust us.”

“No,” Joseph said. “I don’t want to get involved”—though he had no idea what Dennis might have done.

In mid-September, Joseph was hanging out in Marine Park, making conversation with a plainclothes detective he knew named Julio.

“There was a killing in Buffalo,” Julio said.

“Yeah?” said Joseph.

Julio told Joseph that the victim had been an abortion doctor.

Joseph’s mind flooded. Dennis.

Days later, on September 27, 1999, Joseph found himself sitting in the back of an SUV with tinted windows parked at a Toys ’R’ Us near the Kings Plaza mall on Flatbush Avenue. Julio was there, to make him feel comfortable. And in the driver’s seat was a man in a dark suit. The man was smiling. “How,” asked the man, “would you like to have $1 million in your pocket?”

A few days later, face-to-face with FBI agents in an airless downtown hotel room, Joseph panicked. He started making demands, insisting that no one call him by his real name. He even made up a pseudonym on the fly: Jack, from a framed poster he saw on the wall, Steele, from Remington Steele. He still wasn’t ready to cooperate, but the agents kept pursuing him, asking to meet again and again, and in October, a new agent called. “Would you give me a try?” asked Michael Osborn of the New York office. Osborn told Joseph that all he wanted to know was what Loretta and Dennis knew about the case. He was respectful; he even called him Jack Steele.

Joseph was running out of reasons to say no. He knew they’d never stop asking. Maybe, he told himself, there was an angle here: If Dennis was clean, no harm done; if Dennis did happen to know who did this, he would help solve a murder and go home a millionaire.


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