The Doctor, The Niece, and The Killer

Next Monday, I will sit in a courtroom and watch the man who killed my uncle face justice. Friends think this should give me great satisfaction, but really I just feel nauseated. I’m afraid my uncle will be smeared. I’m afraid my aunt and cousins will lose ground on their hard-fought battle to live normally. And I’m afraid my uncle’s killer, whom I’ve met and corresponded with, will smile at me. The only things I’ve packed so far are waterproof mascara and anti-anxiety medication.

The case of The People of the State of New York v. James Kopp is unusual because the prosecution and defense agree on almost all of the facts. My uncle, Bart Slepian, was an Amherst, New York, obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice. By the late nineties, he was also the youngest of four doctors in greater Buffalo willing to work at the region’s only abortion clinic. Jim Kopp is a microbiologist turned anti-abortion activist. Totally committed to poverty, chastity, and protecting “life,” he was admired in anti-abortion circles for being so “Christ-like.”

But on October 23, 1998, Jim took an SKS assault rifle fitted with a scope, sneaked into the woods behind Bart’s house, and waited. At about 10 p.m., Bart and his wife, Lynne, returned home from Friday-night synagogue services. Upstairs, their youngest sons, ages 7 and 10, were sleeping in bed. Downstairs, their two older boys, 13 and 15, watched a Buffalo Sabres hockey game on television in the family room, which opened onto the kitchen. Chatting with his wife and sons, Bart heated up a bowl of soup.

Outside in the dark, obscured by tree branches, Jim watched through a pair of Tasco binoculars. As Bart bent his head to blow on his soup, Jim hoisted the rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and fired. Inside the kitchen, there was a ping. A little shattered glass skittered across the floor. “I think I’ve been shot,” said Bart. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lynne. Bart was already unconscious on the floor. With the hockey crowd cheering in the background, their oldest son grabbed a fistful of paper towels, knelt down, and tried to stanch the blood pouring from his father’s chest. Two hours later, Bart was dead.

Despite his prompt appearance on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Jim remained at large for more than two years. After a trail in Ireland went cold, he was finally apprehended in March 2001, in Dinan, a small town in northwestern France. Jim proclaimed his innocence for a year and a half. Then, last November, he admitted to shooting Bart. Jim said he intended just to wound Bart to prevent him from doing abortions: “I aimed at his shoulder. The bullet took a crazy ricochet.”

Jim’s defense is justifiable homicide.

Bart was my mother’s youngest brother. Shortly after my father died from kidney disease when I was 4, Bart left his medical school in Louvain, Belgium, and came to stay with my pregnant mother and me in Reno, Nevada. On and off for eight years, he lived in our unfinished basement and browbeat my broken mother into functionality. In short, Bart taught me how to love.

After Bart was murdered, I spent a year on tranquilizers. A lot of things were banging around in my head. Not the least of which was the fact that my uncle was being remembered, celebrated even, as an abortionist.

Bart actually worked only about eight hours a week at the abortion clinic, and he didn’t like doing the procedure. But he did it for almost twenty years, and his reasons pissed me off; a woman’s right to choose never made his top five. At first, Bart did abortions to pay off his student loans. After he became a father, he did them to prevent unwanted children from being born into a world that wouldn’t take care of them. Later, he did them to prevent the three remaining abortion providers in western New York from being overwhelmed. Bart also did abortions because he wasn’t the kind of man who caved in to bullies: the Christians who sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” so loudly outside his home that he and his family couldn’t hear their own Hanukkah prayers, the pro-lifers who followed his grade-school sons to school and begged them not to become killers like their father.

That’s not to say that Bart considered abortion entirely ethical. In his last speech, to a group called Medical Students for Choice, Bart insisted on saying, “Abortion is the killing of potential life. It is not pretty. It is not easy. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary.”

As I helped him write the speech, I accused my uncle of “doing abortions for all the wrong reasons.” He accused me of being silly.

After Bart’s death, after my year on tranquilizers, I became pregnant with the child he’d urged me to have ever since I’d married—in Bart’s opinion—“dangerously late” (at age 28). When I recorded my daughter’s heartbeat during my first trimester, then videotaped her ultrasound during my second (the pictures are still easily recognizable as her), I had to admit Bart had a point about abortion being the “killing of potential life.”

After I gave birth, I forced myself to watch several abortions. In a second-trimester procedure, which Bart had performed, a doctor dismembers the fetus into six pieces: four limbs, a body, and a head. Then—to make sure there’s no fetal tissue left in the womb—the doctor puts the fetus back together again on a little metal tray. It looks like a bloody broken doll. I wanted to call my uncle. I wanted to admit to being much worse than silly. I wanted to cry in his arms.

As soon as the FBI named him as the only suspect in my uncle’s murder, I became obsessed with Jim Kopp. It felt embarrassingly like a teenage crush. I clipped articles about him and made a scrapbook. I bought spy software to get the lowdown on everything from his credit rating to his arrest record to his old girlfriends; I wondered a lot if he had sex with them. I even went to a range and shot an SKS assault rifle at a human-shaped target 100 yards away.

Eventually, I called Jim’s friends and family. Many of the pro-lifers declared him innocent, and several were eager to tell how and why my uncle was “really” killed. According to them, Bart was about to convert to Christianity and become pro-life. This had sent the pro-choice community into a murderous rage, so an FBI agent had killed Bart to impress Janet Reno.

On the day Jim was apprehended in France, it happened that I’d arranged to talk to one of his friends, Susan Brindle, a writer and illustrator of “Precious Life” books. Susan took the coincidence as a sign that Jesus was welcoming me into Jim’s life. So she invited me to accompany her and Jim’s defense attorney to visit Jim in his French jail. Six days later, I boarded a plane for Paris.

I’d expected to meet Jim in a room divided by thick, grimy Plexiglas and to talk to him on a phone. I comforted myself that I wouldn’t have to touch him. But French jail turned out to be more relaxed than American-TV jail, and I met him in a small, private room with nothing but a thin wooden table separating us.

He’s a tall, lean, shockingly handsome man with eyes that really are baby blue. He carried a Bible. At the sight of me, he stuck out his free hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jim,” with the warm enthusiasm I associate with people in twelve-step programs. I shook his hand, mumbled “Amanda,” and sunk onto a narrow bench.

There was a long silence, and to fill it I told Jim two people had sent their love to him via me. (I hadn’t planned to give him this, but my mouth was just going.) The instant I mentioned the second person’s name, Jim curled into a fetal position and sobbed so abjectly I had the urge to hold him. I didn’t, and eventually he choked out that he thought this person hated him. He pulled himself together by saying, “If you wait long enough, everything in life comes back to you.”

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.

Bart’s father was the second Slepian Harvardite. Phil earned a degree in physics, but he devoted himself to the leather-bits business. Family lore has it that Phil filed for bankruptcy the day Bart was born.

So my grandparents and their three children (Bart, my mother, and my uncle Jacob) all moved into the attic of my great-grandmother’s apartment in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. There, my grandfather launched a new “business”—a service that provided the etymologies of surnames and conveyed breaking patent news—and my grandmother sold Parents magazine door-to-door. Since no one remembers anyone else taking care of toddler-age Bart, it seems my grandmother dragged him along, a sullen little sales tool.

The children had to fend for themselves. Jacob escaped into his studies and long-distance running. Bart and my mother became hooligans. They commandeered a television in a neighborhood doctor’s waiting room, and when that failed to amuse, they attended funerals at a “colored” cemetery. After the mourners left, my uncle and mother stole the floral arrangements and gave them to their mother.

My grandmother beat them with a brush. She kept the flowers.

Possibly because my grandmother had sunk into hopeless debt and possibly because she embezzled from her local Hadassah, the family left McKeesport and moved to Rochester, New York, when Bart was 10. The family’s economic situation steadily worsened, and my grandmother stole money Bart collected from the customers on his paper route and was supposed to give his distributor.

In Bart’s school records, a teacher wrote, “Bart has very little home life… . [I] feel he suffers from malnutrition and a lack of sleep.”

By the time Bart graduated from high school, my grandfather had given up hope of ever achieving anything himself. His stated goal in life became the right to line up his three boys (he had a son from a previous marriage) and say, “My son the doctor. My son the doctor. My son the doctor.”

The other two complied, with degrees from MIT and Harvard. But Bart was not a natural student, and he was the most squeamish person I’ve ever met. The sight of blood made him queasy. So it took my uncle twelve years, studying on two continents and in three languages, to become a doctor. Because he never became workaday about sickness, he trained to be an ob-gyn. Those patients were usually healthy and often happy.

The last few years have sobered me on the subject of abortion. Bart’s murder made me think about the procedure’s moral dimensions; becoming a mother made me feel them. And getting to really know pro-lifers has forced me to admit that they’re not—as I long believed—all crazy. To be sure, some are: driven by subconscious needs to punish women for having sex, to rationalize operatic furies raging in their souls, and to justify their own aborted lives. But others are perfectly sane people who just believe that life begins at conception and all life is sacred.

After I met with Jim in his French jail, I wrote him several letters. I told him I’d read Story of a Soul. I didn’t hear back until last month. In a short note, written just after he’d officially confessed, he said he was sorry he’d lied to me.

It’s been more than four years since Jim killed Bart. I still miss him. I love him more than ever. Bart was a hero. Because he did what he thought was right, because he faced up to bullies, and because he refused to sanitize the truth for other people’s comfort or even for his own.

The Doctor, The Niece, and The Killer