Wayward son

The Irving stepmother of a man linked to the shootings of abortion doctors wrestles with questions about his involvement

It's Friday night when Lynn Kopp opens the door of her small single-story house off Story Road in Irving. Seeing a reporter, she doesn't even ask what it's about.

"I have not seen him since October 2, 1992, after his father died," says the 60-year-old former sales secretary, cutting to the chase. "I'm probably the last person he'd contact."

It's been 48 hours since the FBI issued a material-witness warrant for her stepson James C. Kopp. The FBI wants to question him in connection with five shootings of abortion providers in the United States and Canada, including last month's murder of Dr. Bernard Slepian inside his home in Buffalo, New York. While the FBI has been scrupulous about refusing to call her stepson a "suspect" in the murder, Lynn Kopp is clearly wrestling with the question of whether "Jimmy" could have done the deed.

"The most chilling thing I've read is this," she says, thrusting a faxed copy of a Washington Post report at her visitor. "They say his movements across the [Canadian] border exactly track the shootings."

As a result, for the last 48 hours Kopp has been fielding phone calls--first from a relative who heard of the search, then from the local office of the FBI, who sent out an agent Monday to talk with her. "I don't have any pictures of him," she says. "I gave them all to the FBI."

Indeed, the FBI seems to know little about the shadowy figure who has spent more than a decade on the fringes of the anti-abortion movement. (Despite a lengthy arrest record, there seems to be confusion over the most basic elements, such as his height, weight, and eye color.) There are, however, a few things on which Kopp's family and authorities agree. James Kopp was born in California on August 2, 1954, one of five children born to Charles Kopp, an attorney, and Nancy Kopp, a nurse.

Kopp graduated from high school in Larkspur, California, where he played the trumpet in the school band. From 1972 until 1976 he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, graduating in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in marine biology.

While at Santa Cruz, he met a young woman; after graduation, his stepmother says, Kopp and his girlfriend moved to Austin, where Kopp may or may not have done graduate work in physics at UT. (The university had not confirmed his attendance by press time.)

According to Kopp's family, in Austin around 1978 Kopp's girlfriend became pregnant. "She had gotten pregnant, and she had an abortion" without consulting Kopp, explains Lynn Kopp. "That's what got him involved [in the movement], he said. He was shocked by the wide availability of abortion."

Kopp and his girlfriend broke up, and Kopp headed back to California, where he attended graduate school at Cal State Fresno from the fall of 1978 until August 1982, graduating with a master's degree in biology. Though raised a Lutheran, Kopp's stepmother says, he converted to Catholicism and tried to join a Catholic order, but was turned down.

It was also around this time, she says, that Kopp became involved in the anti-abortion movement. The cause quickly consumed his life. "He never used either of his degrees," says his stepmother. "He only held menial jobs that helped the movement somehow."

In 1985, she says, Kopp was a partner in a pregnancy lab on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. "He worked as a technician so he could hand out anti-abortion literature," she says. A year later, she recalls, he worked in Oakland, California, repairing stoves. "He worked there because it gave him access to welding equipment to make chains." Along with other protesters, she says, he was arrested in the summer of 1986 for chaining himself to the equipment in a Bay area abortion clinic.

Kopp's father, especially, was less than pleased by his son's choice of avocation. "He used to grit his teeth when he talked about [Jim's arrests]," Lynn Kopp recalls. But Kopp's mother, who died in 1994, apparently encouraged him and supported him financially. "His mother was very supportive [of the anti-abortion activity]," says Lynn Kopp. "I know she contributed a lot of money [to the anti-abortion cause]...He was helping Jesus," she explains, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

Charles and Nancy Kopp divorced in the early 1980s. He married Lynn Kopp in 1985.

James Kopp's anti-abortion activities continued throughout the '80s. In the summer of 1988, he turned up in Atlanta during the Democratic National Convention and was arrested along with hundreds of other protesters in anti-abortion protests staged by Operation Rescue. The experience, many say, was critical. "The Atlanta jails were to the anti-abortion movement really what the czar's jails were to the Bolsheviks," explains Mark Potok, an editor with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of various right-wing groups. "It was kind of a university of radicalism. A lot of very important connections were made in 1988 in the jails. And that is where you saw a hard knot of [anti-abortion] extremists begin to form."

According to Potok and others, Atlanta may also have provided the impetus for publication of the Army of God manual, an underground anti-abortion manifesto containing 120 pages of instructions on how to make fertilizer bombs and homemade C-4 explosive, as well as how to cut off the thumbs of abortion doctors.

As authors James Risen and Judy Thomas report in their book Wrath of Angels, an account of the anti-abortion movement in America, the name "Army of God" was first used in 1982 by a group of anti-abortion activists who kidnapped Dr. Hector Zevallos in Edwardsville, Illinois. It was used again in 1985 in connection with a series of abortion-clinic bombings, and next surfaced in the Army of God manual. "It's a genuine manual of terror," says Potok. "And in the 'special thanks' section at the front, the very first name mentioned is Atomic Dog, the nickname Jim Kopp was given in jail in Atlanta."

For their part, neither Potok nor FBI officials believe the Army of God is a single organized group of terrorists. "It wasn't the Red Brigades; it wasn't launched by some underground central committee. At least, that's not the way it looks," explains Potok. "It's much more likely that this is a loose-knit, quasi-underground of anti-abortion extremists. Sure, they have contacts with each other...But most of them don't know the details of what the other is up to." The Justice Department, which investigated the possibility of an organized criminal conspiracy behind anti-abortion violence, apparently came to the same conclusion when it disbanded its task force in 1996.

Potok does, however, believe the 44-year-old Kopp may be associated with a group known as the Lambs of Christ. "One of the persons in jail in 1988 in Atlanta was Norm Weslin. Weslin formed a kind of hard-line anti-abortion group called the Lambs of Christ." As Potok notes, Weslin has been operating out of Rochester, New York, for about two years--the site of one of the five shootings that Kopp is wanted in connection with.

"I can't say definitively that Kopp is a member of the Lambs of Christ," Potok cautions. "But there's a lot of circumstantial evidence." Potok points to reports out of Buffalo that Kopp was arrested along with members of Weslin's group, as well as to Kopp's recent Vermont address. "Vermont has for some years had a very strong Lambs of Christ presence," he says, adding that Weslin was seen at protests in Wichita, Kansas, driving a recreational vehicle with Vermont plates.

Throughout the 1990s, Kopp lived the life of a wanderer. Driver's licenses were issued to him in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas. Since 1990, he has been arrested in West Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Vermont, listing address in Ohio, California, and Vermont.

The information seems to match that given by Kopp's family. Throughout the '90s, Kopp's stepmother says, he has drifted from place to place protesting. "He worked for Mother Theresa's ministry in the Bronx in 1991," she says. (A spokeswoman for the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa's order in the Bronx, says, "We don't know who he is," though she adds that it's possible he volunteered but no one remembers him.) When his sister Anne moved to Delaware, he moved a few miles away from her. In between Lynn Kopp would get the occasional report from family members. Two summers ago, she says, Kopp was living on the East Coast in a mobile home that doubled as a sanctuary for pregnant women. Last summer, he went on a mission in the Philippines. And she'll never forget the last time she heard from him directly.

"He sent me a thank you note after [his dad's] funeral," she recalls. "It was written on a piece of brown grocery sack. It said, 'Lynn--Thanks for your hospitality. Jim.'"

Lynn Kopp, meanwhile, actually prefers to think that her stepson may be part of some organized anti-abortion group responsible for the violence--a decoy of sorts. "You know, I keep thinking that maybe he isn't the one," she says. "I mean, I don't give a damn at this point whether he is or not. But I can't help thinking, maybe it's a smokescreen [that Kopp's car was spotted in the vicinity of Slepian's house], maybe someone else is really the guy.

"You know, I can see Jim Kopp just laughing at everybody. Because he always had that attitude.

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