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A shot in the dark

They Shoot Doctors, Don’t They? — an excerpt

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Dr. Jack  Fainman gazes at the spot behind his St. Vital home where gunman crouched to fire bullet that narrowly missed killing him.

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Dr. Jack Fainman gazes at the spot behind his St. Vital home where gunman crouched to fire bullet that narrowly missed killing him.

Obstetrician Jack Fainman bitterly recalls the assassination attempt that ended his 40-year medical career and the troubling role of the Winnipeg police who he says made him a ‘sitting target.’

NOVEMBER 11, 1997. Remembrance Day. The luxury of a day off. It’s 8 p.m. Dark outside. I’m sitting with my back to a riverside window wall, watching TV. My wife Fagie is in the bedroom getting ready for company and then... and then... the sudden sound of a gunshot, a sharp pain in my right shoulder, just inches from my head.

I probe the pain and discover blood. "Fagie, I’ve been shot." She calls 911, helps me down the circular stairs to the ground floor front entrance. I take my own pulse to check for shock.

I apply pressure with a towel Fagie brings me to staunch the bleeding.

In what seems like forever but is in fact only minutes, paramedics, the police and our guests for the evening arrive, in that order. I am rushed to Emergency at the Health Sciences Centre, conscious all the time, my friend, a doctor, with me. There’s a quick assessment in Emergency. No surgery required. The bullet fragments cannot be removed and are still there, over 14 years later. They still bother me. In fact fragments still exude from time to time.

I am moved to a treatment bed where I will spend the next five days. It’s a surreal time. There are police guards at my hospital room door 24 hours a day. Senior detectives are in to question me daily. I am cautioned by the police to avoid the media while they investigate.

Fagie spends the next few days in hiding with friends.

That shot in the dark ended my 40-year medical career. As an obstetrician, I had successfully delivered well over 5,000 babies, each delivery a profound moment of joy for the mother and for me! Now, that was about to end. Forced retirement at age 66 loomed in front of me, very much earlier than I wanted. A crushing blow.

There are two aspects of the role of the Winnipeg police in all of this which trouble me. The first is that I was strongly urged not to say anything to the media which might suggest that my being shot was linked to the politically-charged abortion issue. How ridiculous when two other prominent Canadian obstetricians had been shot in the same way!

Even more troubling to me is, that after the second shooting in 1995, two years before I was shot, a bulletin had been sent to police forces in major Canadian cities advising them to alert obstetricians to the danger and asking them to take precautions. I was not alerted and I took no precautions. I was a sitting target and should not have been.

My shooting was the third in a series of shootings of prominent obstetricians in Canada, each assassination attempt remarkably similar. Each took place on or about Remembrance Day: Dr. Garson Romalis in Vancouver, B.C., Nov. 8, 1994; Dr. Hugh Short in Ancaster, Ont., Nov. 10, 1995. Each shooting was carried out by a sniper with a high-powered rifle. Each shooting was carefully planned, almost certainly by the same person, almost certainly an American.

There can be little doubt that each shooting involved the assistance of a Canadian resident living in the same city as the intended victim. The investigating detectives thought my movements, which varied a great deal, must have been tracked by someone for at least a year.

The Canadian shootings were clearly an attempt to murder, fortunately a failed attempt in all three cases. Not so lucky was Dr. Barnett Slepian of Amherst, N.Y. On Oct. 23, 1998, he was killed by a single shot from a high-powered rifle.

Shortly after my shooting, a National Task Force on Doctor Shootings was formed consisting of representatives from the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Vancouver police, the Winnipeg police, the Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League. Together, these organizations raised an astonishing fund of $547,000 as a reward "for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for these shootings."

James Charles Kopp, an obsessed, extreme anti-abortionist known in pro-life circles as the Atomic Dog was identified by the Canadian task force on the shootings as a person of interest. American authorities also identified him as the key suspect in the Dr. Slepian murder. They tracked him down and found him hiding in a small city in France living under an assumed name. He was arrested, returned to New York pursuant to an extradition order, indicted, and convicted. Kopp is now serving a life sentence with no chance of parole under any circumstances.

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The Case

The FBI and New York police had amassed sufficient evidence to indict Kopp for the murder of Dr. Slepian but had been unable to track him down. With the help of an undercover agent, Jack Steele, they found Kopp in Dinan, France, where, in March 2001, he was arrested. Prior to his apprehension, the police had noted that among the many anti-abortion extremists who turned up frequently at clinic pickets (many of the demonstrations involving violence) were Dennis Malvasi and his wife Loretta Marra. She appeared to have a passionate, though non-sexual, devotion to Kopp.

A re-creation of the sniper's viewpoint into Fainman's home from a dike along the Red River. Fainman was watching TV when he was shot.

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A re-creation of the sniper's viewpoint into Fainman's home from a dike along the Red River. Fainman was watching TV when he was shot.

The police then contacted Jack Steele, a close friend of Malvasi but not himself an anti-abortionist ideologue or at all aware of Malvasi’s connection to Kopp. They persuaded Steele to go undercover by holding out the then available Canadian and U.S. rewards totalling over a million dollars ($547,000 in Canada and $500,000 in the U.S.) for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the shootings. Over a two-year period, Steele won the confidence of Malvasi and Marra by participating with them in anti-abortion demonstrations and persuading them that he was a longtime friend of Kopp who, in fact, he had never met.

When Kopp learned that the FBI was hot on his trail and knew that he was living in Dublin under an assumed name, he fled to France, taking up residence in the small city of Dinan where he believed he could protect his anonymity. But, desperate for money, he contacted Malvasi and Marra, unaware that their apartment and phones had been bugged by the FBI. They were anxious to send Kopp money but were worried about the security breach which could occur if they themselves wired Kopp the money. Steele volunteered to be the "innocent" sender. Malvasi drove him to a Western Union office and waited and watched as Steele completed the task, not however being able to note, because of a partly obstructed view, that Steele surreptitiously wrote Kopp’s address on a scrap of paper and slipped it into the top of his boot, handing it over a day later to his FBI contact.

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At the time of the murder in October 1998, no weapon had been found at or near Dr. Slepian’s house. In the spring of 1999 when the ground had thawed, a more thorough search of the woods behind Dr. Slepian’s home was ordered. While other detectives were meticulously, inch by inch, looking for clues on the ground, Det. Donald Wright looking up rather than down, noticed a paint marking on a tree and then nearby another and then a third. Using the surveyor’s method of triangulation from these three points — something which he had learned in his Boy Scout days — Wright located two cut evergreen branches crossed over each other. Digging down at that spot, police very quickly found a semi-automatic SKS rifle and two pairs of gloves. Subsequently, through modern forensic methodology and DNA testing, there was enough real or direct evidence (as it is called in criminal law parlance) to bolster the circumstantial evidence and thus issue an indictment of James Kopp for the murder of Dr. Slepian. When in custody, Kopp was ordered pursuant to federal statutory provisions to provide DNA evidence. When his DNA was compared to DNA found on the gloves as a consequence of the successful search, the odds were only one in 280 billion that it could be anyone else.

Police investigating the crime scene asked Fainman not to say anything to the media that might link the shooting to the politically charged  abortion issue.

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Police investigating the crime scene asked Fainman not to say anything to the media that might link the shooting to the politically charged abortion issue. (CANADIAN PRESS)

In the end, after Kopp’s arrest and extradition and many months of legal maneuvering, he surprised everyone by pleading guilty firstly to the second degree murder of Dr. Slepian and secondly to the violation of a federal law protecting access to reproductive services. On the murder charge, Kopp received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years. Subsequently, on the violation of the federal law, he again received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment but this time with no chance of parole whatsoever. Many of Kopp’s supporters couldn’t believe this seemingly mild-mannered man was capable of murder. But his admissions of guilt earned him a sentence of life imprisonment without any chance of parole. Eventually he will die in prison.

Kopp has never admitted to the Canadian shootings and has refused requests by Canadian police officials to be interviewed. There is, certainly, considerable circumstantial evidence tying Kopp to each of the Canadian shootings, but without the kind of direct evidence which the U.S. police were able to unearth against Kopp in the Slepian case, the likelihood of Kopp being convicted in Canada is slim.

Furthermore, Canadian law enforcement officials came to the conclusion that even if they could persuade a U.S. judge to order Kopp’s extradition to Canada, it would be pointless, not only because he is already serving a life sentence but the chances of a conviction for any of the Canadian shootings appears difficult.

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James Kopp, currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail for the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian  in Amherst, N.Y., will likely never be tried for the shooting in Winnipeg.

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James Kopp, currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail for the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Amherst, N.Y., will likely never be tried for the shooting in Winnipeg. (CP)

The circumstantial evidence in Dr. Fainman’s case is as follows: At 1:10 a.m., about four hours after Dr. Fainman was shot, a car bearing license plate Vermont BPE 216, was recorded crossing the border from Canada to the U.S. This car was found to be registered to James Kopp.

Dr. Fainman lived in a rather remote corner of the city of Winnipeg and while, because of its unique architecture his house is easily identified, it is not easily accessed.

The forensic evidence indicates that the sniper likely parked his car in a small playground located about 200 metres from the Fainman house and then proceeded, clearly with the certainty of prior knowledge, to the flood-prevention dike just behind the Fainman house, walking along it until he was directly in front of the rear glass wall of the house.

Either he alone had selected Dr. Fainman as his Winnipeg target and scouted the area weeks in advance or, as may well have been the case, he had Winnipeg confederates who set it up for him.

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When the Canadian police decided to close the case, there remained only the matter of the Canadian reward of $547,000 which Jack Steele, the FBI undercover agent, had hoped to get, but did not.

He did not because the explicit terms of this Canadian reward fund was available only for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the shootings in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton, and not for any shooting in the U.S.

As recently as August 2010, Steele was demanding payment of this Canadian reward stating, no doubt with more than a grain of truth, that the extreme anti-abortionists were dangerous people and, in his words, he had "put my life on the line."

That may well be the case. Steele received the $500,000 U.S. reward and now lives in hiding under an assumed name under witness protection legislation. He remains bitter about his failure to receive the Canadian reward and has been quoted as saying that anyone "should think twice before co-operating in Canada."

Shootings of doctors and clinic assistants of the kind described here remain a threat, encouraged by a political climate in the U.S. in which the pressure to eliminate or lessen women’s choice appears to be increasing.

 

Copyright (2011) Jack Fainman and Roland Penner. Reprinted with permission from They Shoot Doctors, Don’t They, published by Great Plains Publications.

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