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The Doctor, The Niece, and The Killer

Then he started rambling. Not like a crazy person, but like someone with a very intricate mind that sometimes gets knotted. He was spellbinding.

His narrative was a tangle of strands about “victim souls,” abortion, his “calling” to stop it, his destiny, my uncle’s murder, popular movies, and fleeting mentions of his “fiancée.” He explained that he felt it was his destiny to die a “slow, suffering death.” But that was okay, because he was chosen to be a “victim soul.” At one point, during a meeting he’d had with Mother Teresa in San Francisco, the nun had suggested that Jim become a priest, a request he thought was superseded by Jesus’ calling him to devote himself to stopping abortion. I asked him how he knew Jesus wanted him to stop abortion.

“We are just called,” he said, and he recommended I read Story of a Soul, Saint Thérèse d’Lisieux’s autobiography.

I asked him when he first started thinking about abortion. He studied the floor and then my face, as if to make sure I could handle the truth. Finally, he said his college girlfriend had thought she was pregnant, so he’d driven her to an abortion clinic. He burst into fresh tears at the memory, saying, “In my religion, intention is the same as action.” Then he whispered, “Jenny must be so embarrassed.” Then he curled away from me and said, “I didn’t shoot your uncle. But I’m going to plead guilty and do the time—25 years straight up—because someone of my religion did.”

This hung heavily in the air. I worried I was going to throw up. As I felt my face twitching, Jim smiled beatifically and changed the subject to movies. He suggested I watch Pay It Forward, which he said was the story of his life and Columbine, and he loved Bless the Child, a film about a Satanic cult. But he warned me not to watch the part when the girl walks down into the subway: “Something really bad happens to her.”

As bad as what you did to my uncle, I thought.

But Jim was already telling me to close my eyes, plug my ears, and count to 40 as the unfortunate girl goes into the station. He then urged me to see There’s Something About Mary and quietly added that I looked so much like Cameron Diaz that I must get tired of hearing it all the time. It suddenly dawned on me that my uncle’s killer was flirting with me.

A bell startled both of us. I asked if that meant it was time to go. Jim didn’t know. I was his first “friend” to visit. A guard appeared to take Jim back to his cell. As he stood up, I asked Jim if I could write him. He said, “Yes.”

I said, “I really want to understand you.”

He said, “God bless you.”

I asked Jim when he first started thinking about abortion. Finally, he said his college girlfriend had thought she was pregnant, so he had driven her to an abortion clinic. He burst into tears.

Then, right before walking out, he gave me his Bible. I opened it. It was inscribed, “To Mandy,” the nickname only my family uses.

Susan, posing as part of Jim’s legal team, had spent nearly eight hours with him the day before. She’d returned to our hotel room positively beaming, giddy with the news of Jim’s “engagement.” For the first time, he’d told Susan, he felt that Jesus no long wanted him to be celibate; Jesus wanted him to have a wife and family. Jim decided he was going to make this happen with an anti-abortion activist named Amy, whom he hadn’t seen or spoken to in at least two years, with whom he’d never been on a date, and who he’d been told had terminal brain cancer. “Jesus is gonna work a miracle,” Susan said, grinning. “I just know they’re gonna get married and have babies!”

I smiled and mumbled, “Whatever Jesus wants.”

It’s hard to imagine Jim Kopp’s gleaming California family as a cradle of murder—or even zealotry. Jim’s father, Chuck, was a corporate lawyer, and his mother, Nancy, a nurse turned stay-at-home mom. Altogether, they had five children: three girls, Jim, and his fraternal twin, Walter.

Precocious and popular, Jim was considered the “smart” boy, and both his parents hoped he would grow up to be a doctor, a profession Nancy held in such esteem that she made her children stand up anytime a physician entered a room.

As Jim reached adolescence, the pressure on him to be successful mounted. The rest of the Kopps were falling apart. When Jim was 11, his 13-year-old sister Mary was diagnosed with schizophrenia. At 19, she came down with leukemia. At 22, she died. At 18, Jim’s sister Marty disappeared into the commune scene of Oregon. At 23, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. At 28, his oldest sister’s husband died of a heart attack. Along the way, Chuck was fired, nearly lost his pension, and began drinking. Nancy coped by compulsively eating and spending and manically searching for Jesus. At one point, she was an active member of a dozen churches.

Jim graduated from high school early and moved out of the house at 17. He took a volunteer job on Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The next year, he entered the University of California at Santa Cruz. During his senior year, he lived with his girlfriend, Jenny—who did in fact have the abortion.

Jim didn’t question the morality of the procedure for another six years. That process began as he researched his biology master’s thesis, “The Annelid Sperm Reaction: Sperm Reaction and Sperm-Egg Binding in the Sand Tube Worm.” Over and over, he watched the microbiology of conception until he became convinced that Jesus had put sacred knowledge under his microscope.

Thus Jim was “called.” As his classmates earned M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s, he opened a “crisis pregnancy center” in San Francisco, where he administered pregnancy tests, then showed the women pictures of aborted fetuses. As his twin brother married, Jim converted to Catholicism and, after his meeting with Mother Teresa, wrestled with the idea of becoming a priest. As Walter started a successful business career, Jim was rejected from the priesthood and moved on to join Operation Rescue, where he quickly racked up scores of arrests. After his parents divorced, after his father rejected him as a “damn fool,” Jim joined the Lambs of Christ, an extremist group led by “Father” Norman Weslin, who encourages his followers to be “at one” with the babies they’re trying to save—so at one, in fact, that he recommends they take laxatives, so that when they chain themselves to abortion-clinic entrances, they end up lying in their own feces.

Jim’s father died in 1992. His mother, who’d supported Jim’s efforts to live a Christ-like life with unconditional love and a credit card, died in 1994. That same year, after President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act (known as FACE) into law, 30 anti-abortion leaders signed a “Defensive Action” statement that advocated “taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force,” and Jim allegedly shot his first doctor—a man in his kitchen, waiting for his breakfast toast to pop up. Over the next four years, Jim allegedly shot four more doctors, all of them in their homes. Bart was the only fatality.

So much about Jim is painfully understandable. His rage has little to do with religion, less to do with politics, and almost nothing to do with saving babies. He was an upper-middle-class kid who was supposed to grow up to be a doctor. He is a brilliant man with a marketable graduate degree. But he has never paid his own rent, never held anything but a menial job, and hasn’t had a real intimate relationship in 25 years.

Of course Jim identifies with unborn babies who are about to be aborted. Of course he’s crazy to save them. Jim Kopp is an aborted man.

At Thanksgiving when I was in the second grade, my teacher asked the class to find out if any of us were part Native American. I asked my uncle Bart. He said, “Yes. You descend from the great and proud Schmo-hawk tribe of western Pennsylvania.” When Artifact Day came along, Bart gave me a dill pickle.

In fact, the Slepians were Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bart was named for our first American, a failed junk dealer turned leather-bits salesman who is remembered for sitting on the steps of shul and eating a ham sandwich. This was Great-Grandpa’s way of showing his sons that he considered admission to Harvard more important than admission to Heaven.