Bungling in Buffalo

Fugitive James Kopp is finally charged in the killing of an abortion doctor after the FBI harasses the wrong men.


Jeff Stein
May 6, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)

Thursday's indictment in the assassination of a Buffalo abortion doctor comes as cold comfort to two other men who were wrongly sought for questioning in the high-profile case.

James Kopp, a well known anti-abortion demonstrator, was charged Thursday with the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, director of Buffalo's most prominent abortion clinic, last October 23. Authorities said DNA tests linked a hair found near Slepian's house to the 44-year-old suspect, who vanished shortly after a rifle shot struck the doctor as he stood in his kitchen. Kopp's car was later found abandoned at the Newark, N.J., airport, but he remains at large. The investigation has been criticized for delay -- especially for a six-month lag time in finding a scoped rifle, buried in the woods behind Kopp's house, that investigators now believe was the murder weapon. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has yet to release any ballistic test results on the rifle.

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One detail linking Kopp to the case was a report that Kopp was spotted cruising Slepian's neighborhood in the days leading up to the doctor's murder. And in a curious sidelight to the case, two other men were spotted in Kopp's neighborhood the night after his killing. Weeks later they were soon subjected -- wrongly -- to the intense, chilling, and perplexing attention of the FBI.

The two men, longtime left-wing activists in their 50s, suspect they were picked up for Driving While Political.

The twisted tale of mistaken identity began on Oct. 24 when Robert Stauber and Michael Gingerich, of Cleveland, Ohio, borrowed a friend's car and drove to Buffalo to attend a vigil for Slepian, who ran western New York's primary abortion facility, which served women from as far away as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where there are restrictions on the procedure.

With the wrong directions, they drove to Slepian's home in suburban Amherst, N.Y., instead of to the city clinic where memorial services were scheduled. Seeing no vigil on the dark street, they inquired of a passing patrol car. The police asked for identification, which they supplied, and sent them on their way. They attended the vigil and returned to Cleveland the next day.

In the ensuing weeks the FBI announced it was seeking Kopp for questioning in connection with Slepian's murder.

On Nov. 13, however, the official finger of fate pointed to Stauber and Gingerich. Several FBI agents showed up outside the apartment of Debbie Szemborski, owner of the car that Stauber and Gingerich had borrowed to drive to Buffalo. Questioned tersely through the intercom, because she refused to let them in, Szemborski explained why her car had been spotted there.

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Meanwhile Stauber, 52, a skeptical man with the wisp of a goatee, quickly got word the FBI was looking for him. He immediately called a lawyer, Mark A. Kaiser, who notified the FBI he would arrange a meeting with his client.

Apparently, that was a red flag for the hard-charging G-men -- especially because of Stauber and Gingerich's affiliation with the Revolutionary Communist Party, a small Maoist group with a well-known loathing for the U.S government. Or, as Kaiser put it, people who "harbor serious distrust of the FBI and an unwillingness to talk to any FBI agents."

Handed a bad script, the FBI played to type.

The agents went back to Szemborski's apartment, pounded on her door, and demanded to be let in for questioning, according to Kaiser's account. She refused. Then they showed up at the lawyer's house, even though -- or maybe because -- he'd called the local FBI office, explained a scheduling conflict for that evening, and arranged for the agents to meet his clients the next day.

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The agents rushed back to Szemborski's building, let themselves in and began pounding on her apartment door.

"I have nothing to say to you," she said. "Call my attorney. Go away."

"If something comes of this matter," the agent allegedly said, clearly meaning the Slepian killing, Szemborski could be charged "as an accomplice."

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When Szemborski told them to leave, the agents began working the hallway, pounding on her neighbor's doors.

Kaiser says he finally arranged for the agents to meet Stauber in a downtown restaurant at 10:30 a.m. the next day. They showed up at noon, after Kaiser called several times. Ever tactful, they tried to brush aside Kaiser and interrogate Stauber at the table.

No deal, Stauber and Kaiser said. Is he a suspect? the lawyer asked the agents. No, they said. A material witness? No. Then, Kaiser said, Stauber has nothing to say.

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End of story.

Or it should have been. Instead, less than 24 hours after the restaurant parley with the FBI, a Cleveland television broadcast opened dramatically: "The FBI says there are two more men they think might have information about the sniper slaying of Dr. Barnett Slepian."

According to the FBI press release, "The FBI office in Cleveland asked police across the country Friday to look for Ronald Stauber and Michael Gingrich [sic]." The broadcast said, "the FBI report indicates a connection between the two men and Kopp, who was reportedly sighted in Mexico recently."

The Associated Press filed an account, quoting an Amherst, N.Y., policeman saying, "there's a tie-in there, that's all it says." That was enough. The story circled the globe in an instant, picked up by radio and television stations, the New York Times and other leading papers. And, of course, the Internet. Months later the newsletter of NOW, the National Organization for Women, repeated the erroneous report, although it later issued a correction. No one else has.

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State police cruisers everywhere, meanwhile, still had the "BOLO" -- "be on the lookout" --bulletin in their computers. It may still be there. The FBI won't say.

In an interview last month in Buffalo, where he'd gone to protest anti-abortion demonstrations, Stauber remained genuinely puzzled by what had happened to him.

"It was not clear where they were going with this, or what they were trying to accomplish," he said. As a hardened leftist, he suspected some sort of political motivation. But he can't understand how the FBI could pull a frame-up since he hadn't the remotest connection with Slepian, beyond paying respects to the dead man and his family the night after his murder.

According to the FBI, it was all just a misunderstanding, a mistake. "A rookie screwed up," was one exasperated explanation from an agent who asked not to be identified. Another FBI source suggested blithely that it was probably just a clerical error.

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"Those [bulletins] are handled by clerks and secretaries," the source said. "They have a whole pile of them to type up. They just take them from the pile and put them in the system. Sometimes they don't catch up for days."

Stauber, for his part, still gnaws on the events that gave him unwanted notoriety.

"They had hundreds of leads they were following up. How come just our names got into the paper?" he wonders. "And after we had talked to them? It doesn't make sense." He shakes his head.

The FBI says it's looking into it.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Abortion




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