An autopsy report backs up his "crazy ricochet" claim, but experts doubt his professed intention to "wound," not kill.
An autopsy report could back James C. Kopp's claim that the bullet he fired at Dr. Barnett A. Slepian took a "crazy ricochet" that killed the Amherst abortion provider.
But it may not prove his contention that he was only trying to wound Slepian.
And firearms experts say that if Kopp's true purpose was only to wound Slepian, the high-powered Russian assault rifle he used was the wrong weapon, with the wrong ammunition.
Was Kopp telling the truth last week, when he sat down with two reporters from The Buffalo News and insisted that he never meant to kill Slepian?
Local defense attorneys, firearms experts and law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case were interviewed in an effort to fact-check some of the statements made by Kopp during a four-hour interview in the Erie County Holding Center.
Kopp's claim that his gunshot struck Slepian in the left rear shoulder, struck a bone and ricocheted through his upper body is verified by the findings of an autopsy done after the October 1998 slaying, according to law enforcement officials and other sources.
Those sources noted, however, that Kopp and his attorneys have known about the autopsy for months, which might lead skeptics to believe that Kopp tailored his comments in the interview to fit the autopsy results.
The report done by the Erie County medical examiner's office shows the bullet entered Slepian's body at the back of his left shoulder, veered toward his spine and exited through his right armpit. Slepian, 52, bled to death.
"The autopsy report does show that the bullet struck behind the left shoulder, glanced off a bone and ricocheted through the body," said one source who is familiar with the report.
But the source added that the shoulder is "the wrong place" to shoot someone if the only intent is to injure.
"All the major arteries leading from the heart are in the vicinity of the shoulders," the source said. "If you only wanted to prevent someone from doing operations, you would shoot them in the hand."
Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County Health Department commissioner, concurred.
"I can see why a layman might think that shooting someone in the shoulder would not be fatal, but major arteries run under the armpits, along the neck and under the collarbone," Billittier said. "All those arteries are near the shoulders.
"There actually is no 'safe' part of the body to shoot someone in, because you never know what path the bullet will take once it enters the body. It could always hit a bone and go into an artery."
Weapon and motive conflict
According to firearms experts, if Kopp wanted only to wound the doctor, he should have chosen a less lethal weapon than the Soviet-made SKS military rifle he used.
"If he truly intended to wound him, he could have tried a low-powered cartridge, such as a .22-caliber," said Marshall J. Brown of East Aurora, a National Rifle Association firearms instructor and longtime gun expert.
Similar comments came from Mike Haas, a California ammunition expert who runs an educational Web site on firearms and ammunition called AmmoGuide.com. And one local investigator compared Kopp's use of the Russian rifle to "using an elephant gun to kill a mouse."
The 7.62x39mm bullet used in Kopp's gun is considered high-powered ammunition, which travels about 2,300 feet per second, said Brown, a former firearms trainer for the Erie County Sheriff's Department. In comparison, a .22-caliber bullet travels at about 1,300 feet per second.
"In other words, the bigger bullet weighs about three times as much and travels nearly twice as fast," Brown said.
In the interview, Kopp said he considered himself a sharpshooter and an expert on the SKS weapon.
"I had worked with that gun quite a bit before, and I was very, very accurate," Kopp said.
Kopp maintained that "any idiot" examining the facts of the Slepian shooting could figure out that the attack was not meant to be fatal.
Kopp also maintained that no one in the pro-life community -- either locally or elsewhere -- suggested Slepian to him as a potential target. Kopp said he began making plans in 1997 to come to Western New York and shoot at an abortion doctor.
He said he simply picked the names of Slepian and other abortion providers "out of the Yellow Pages," and had no idea that Slepian's office and home had been picketed for years by people who oppose abortion. Kopp said he also was unaware that Slepian had been a controversial figure whose battles with demonstrators had made numerous news reports over the years.
Kopp said he decided to target Slepian after scouting the homes of Slepian and about six other local doctors. He said he chose Slepian because his home was vulnerable, with a rear window facing a woods.
Why did he come to Western New York?
"For no particular reason," Kopp said. "I got his name from the Yellow Pages. Nobody in the pro-life community handed me a dossier on Dr. Slepian. That would have made my job easier."
Slepian isn't listed
But a check of the Yellow Pages in the region's two major telephone books for 1997-98 shows that Slepian was not listed by name among local abortion providers. A Main Street clinic where Slepian performed abortions had a small display ad, but Slepian's name was not mentioned.
In the phone books, Slepian is listed only under the heading of physicians who specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, and not at the Main Street address.
"I don't ever recall Bart Slepian having his name listed in the Yellow Pages as an abortion provider," said Glenn E. Murray, a pro-choice attorney who was a friend of Slepian's. "Very few doctors do have their names listed there. Why? Because they don't want to get shot by James Kopp wanna-bes."
Murray believes Kopp had help in planning and possibly in carrying out the shooting. He believes Kopp is now trying to put all the blame on himself, to prevent others from being prosecuted.
"I find it totally implausible that Kopp only got Bart's name from the Yellow Pages," Murray said. "I believe he got it from some of his confederates, his co-conspirators . . . the people who are cheerleaders for violence."
Kopp's attorney, Bruce A. Barket, said Kopp sincerely regrets killing the doctor, but also believes that the shooting saved the lives of some children who would have been aborted.
Kopp's claims attacked
In what is likely to be the central argument of his defense in an upcoming murder trial, Kopp insisted during the interview that he truly regrets killing Slepian. He said he believes the autopsy report on the death will buttress his claim.
"I never, ever intended for Dr. Slepian to die," Kopp said. "I aimed at his shoulder. The bullet took a crazy ricochet, and that's what killed him. One of my goals was to keep Dr. Slepian alive, and I failed at that goal."
Murray doesn't believe that.
"Kopp is a coldblooded killer," he said. "If you're trying to make sure you only wound someone, you don't fire into a house from that distance, at night. His claim that he was only trying to wound Bart is preposterous. It's patently unbelievable."