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For Frenchman who helped nab James Kopp, not even a ‘merci’ from feds

DINAN, France – Fifteen years after spotting Bufffalo’s most notorious fugitive on the cobblestone streets of this ancient walled city, Jean-Louis Cabrol still goes by the nickname he earned that day.

But the longtime French street cop whom the locals dubbed “FBI” has never gotten one silver franc or one two-toned Euro from the agency. And that fact is the source of some sadness for Cabrol, as well as the source of some notoriety here in this frozen-in-time tourist town of 11,000.

The FBI had offered $50,000 in reward money for the capture of James C. Kopp, who fled to Europe after assassinating Dr. Barnett Slepian, the Amherst abortion provider. But none of the four French people involved in Kopp’s arrest received any reward money. ¶ “We’re still hoping for it, but I can’t say how much we’re hoping. But we’d be very happy if we did get it,” Cabrol said through an interpreter.

Cabrol remains something of a local hero here for his role in capturing Kopp, who shot Slepian as the doctor was heating up a bowl of soup near a window in his kitchen in October 1998.

And because Cabrol is a local hero, his recent retirement has sparked a belated and very polite attempt to right what some people here perceive as a wrong.

Ouest-France and Le Telegramme, the two main newspapers in this medieval town tucked away in Brittany, both have run stories in recent months that raised the issue of the FBI reward money.

And upon seeing that, a French lawyer named Alain Prual took it upon himself to write to The Buffalo News, seeking what he sees as justice for Cabrol.

“It appears that the one who has allowed the arrest of J.C. Kopp never received, despite his demands, the bounty of $50,000 promised for the arrest of J.C. Kopp,” Prual wrote, seemingly via Google Translate. “At retirement time, this deserved bounty, even as late thanking, would be welcome.”

It certainly would. Cabrol, now a ruddy-faced man of 60, said he and his wife would use any reward money to travel to see family and to buy gifts for their grandchildren.

But so far, the only reward Cabrol has received is his “FBI” nickname, along with vivid memories of an arrest that, he said, was the highlight of his career.

That’s not a surprise, considering that Cabrol spent his career at the lowest rung of the ladder of French law enforcement. Day after day for 26 years, he patrolled street crossings and delivered parking tickets and collected taxes from local businesses.

All that changed, momentarily, on March 29, 2001.

That morning, Cabrol spotted a man in a baggy gray overcoat and athletic pants and huge, thick glasses with cream-colored frames.

“I looked at him and thought: ‘Ah, there’s another tramp,’” Cabrol said.

But he began to change his mind about the strangely dressed man a few hours later, just after he finished his afternoon patrol outside a Catholic elementary school.

Nearby, a postal clerk spotted that shabby fellow at a phone booth. She immediately recognized him as the guy she had discussed with the national police only a day earlier, after he tried to cash a money order with a fake passport. That same day, the national police received a fax from the FBI, saying that Kopp could be hiding out in France. So when the clerk called the French feds to tell them about the guy with the fake passport, they told her that she ought to be on the lookout for him.

When she saw that shabby fellow again the next day, she flagged down Cabrol in the street outside the post office and told him to start following the man.

Cabrol did just that, getting close enough to get a good look at him. Strangely, Kopp looked the uniformed cop straight in the eye and said, in French, “Good evening!”

Cabrol then dropped back and followed Kopp at a distance as he wound his way through a street fair – where, by chance, Cabrol bumped into two plainclothes colleagues from the national police who had received information indicating that Kopp could be nearby. Cabrol told them what was going on, and they started following the strangely dressed man, too.

After Kopp limped up a steep, narrow street away from the children at the street fair and into Dinan’s ancient downtown, the two plainclothes officers jumped him.

Chaos immediately ensued. Thinking he was being mugged, Kopp started screaming, in French: “Police! Police!”

And thinking the very same thing, an elderly woman rushed into the street and started clubbing the two plainclothes officers with an umbrella.

“I had to separate the old lady from the other policemen,” Cabrol recalled.

Seconds later, the two plainclothes officers separated Kopp from his freedom, slapping handcuffs on him.

And suddenly, Dinan – where not much news has been made since William the Conqueror’s forces invaded in the year 1065 – found itself in the headlines worldwide.

Cabrol, as the only person involved in the arrest who chose to talk to reporters, found himself on the front page of both Ouest-France and The Buffalo News.

The rest of the story spun out slowly. By the summer of 2001, France agreed to extradite Kopp to America. Two years later, a state court found Kopp guilty of murder, sentencing him to 25 years to life in prison. Four years after that, a federal court convicted him, too, sentencing him to life in prison plus an extra 10 years on a weapons charge.

Also in 2007, the FBI announced that it paid $25,000 of the reward money to Joan Dorn, an associate professor of social and preventive medicine in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. Less than two weeks before Slepian’s murder, Dorn had seen a suspicious man lurking in her Amherst neighborhood, so she jotted down his Vermont license plate number. The suspicious man turned out to be Kopp, as authorities discovered once they traced that Vermont licence plate number.

Meantime, the FBI also gave a reward to one more individual who provided helpful information in the case, but that person cannot be publicly identified, said Maureen Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Back in France, though, Cabrol, the two plainclothes officers who arrested Kopp and the postal clerk were wondering: Where’s our money?

After the arrest, Cabrol said, he and the three others presumed they would split the bounty. That being the case, they contacted the French Interior Ministry to inquire about the reward, only to receive what they thought was a surprising answer.

“They told us there was no hope,” Cabrol said.

But one of the reasons for that may be that they were talking to the wrong people.

“To the best of our knowledge, we’re not familiar with anyone in France making any claim for the reward money,” said Dempsey, the FBI spokesperson.

In other words, the four French citizens with the sleuthing skills to spot one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives didn’t exhibit the same skills after the arrest, when the FBI was parceling out the reward money.

And now, 15 years later, Cabrol has pretty much given up hope for it.

“We will believe it when we see it,” Cabrol said.

Of course, there’s no telling whether they would have gotten any reward money even if they had asked the right people. After all, reward money for captured fugitives rarely goes to police officers, because capturing fugitives is part of their job.

Even so, there is one thing Cabrol still does hope to see via parcel post from the U.S.A.

“Not only did we not get a reward, we didn’t even get a thank-you letter from the FBI,” he said. “That mattered. A thank-you letter would have been nice.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com