Sunday, July 18, 2004
Widow Tells of Copp Ordeal
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
Pennsylvania widow Joanna House hoped she would never hear Doug Copp's name again.
But then she sat down at the computer in her home outside Philadelphia one night last week to check her e-mail. Her AOL newspage carried a story about the Albuquerque Journal's investigation of Copp's claim to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
House clicked on the headline and said, "Doug Copp! Oh, my God. That's the guy."
What she read in the Journal story freeloading, exalted claims to heroism and a dubious body-sniffing machine brought back memories of her brief encounter with Copp four years ago.
For House, that encounter was both disturbing and expensive. House contacted the Journal by e-mail after reading the story.
Copp, reached by telephone Friday, declined to comment and referred questions to a California lawyer who did not return a call.
House said she found Copp on the Internet in May 2000 at the lowest point in her life.
Her husband, Fred, and her 14-year-old son, Paul, had drowned in the Perkiomen Creek when their canoe was sucked under the water near a dam.
Paul's body was recovered within a week. But House, her family and volunteers had searched for more than a month for Fred's body.
House was left widowed, with five surviving children and no insurance payment because the body had not been found.
"It was a desperate time for us," House said in a telephone interview. She found Copp touting his body-detecting machine on the Internet and asked for his help.
Copp, a New Mexico resident most recently, was living in California at the time.
House said Copp agreed to travel to Pennsylvania as long as she paid his airfare, hotel, meals and expenses.
House gave this account of what happened after Copp arrived in Pennsylvania:
He attempted to show the grieving family how his body-finder worked by demonstrating it on some rotting meat. It didn't alert.
Copp told the family the machine had located victims of the Swissair crash off the Nova Scotia coast a claim Candadian authorities told the Journal wasn't true among other accomplishments.
He said the machine would find her husband within a day they just had to take it up and down the river in a motor boat and it would alert when it detected the gases given off by the decomposing body.
The machine, Copp said, could sniff out the body from a mile away.
It didn't alert on anything the first day. (Cliff Roach, Fred House's best friend, said in an interview there were dead cats and dogs and other decaying things in the river.)
Copp said the machine needed to be fixed and the family agreed to pay for the repair.
Then Copp told Roach he could take the machine on the river and Copp spent the day in the bar, Roach said.
When it didn't alert on anything after four days, Copp told the family that Fred's body wasn't in the creek, it had washed away.
Copp went back to California and Joanna House was out about $2,500.
House said she was glad to see Copp leave.
"He was just a devastating character to be brought into our lives at that time," House said. "He was so egotistical. He was so all about himself. He had us running around for him instead of doing what we needed to do. There was no sympathy. There was no empathy."
After Copp left, Roach and others kept looking for Fred's body in the river. They found it a few days later.
Copp had left the machine behind, but Roach and House said it played no role in finding the body.
They said that Copp had told them it was the only one in the world and to insure it for $150,000 when they shipped it back to him.
They sent it back "one week mail."
A couple of weeks after Copp left, House said, she started receiving phone calls and e-mails from him.
He demanded money for his time and trouble about $2,000.
House said she didn't have the money to pay Copp and wouldn't anyway because he had not found her husband.
"He said my late husband was a good man and would be very disappointed in me for not compensating Doug for his time," House said. "He wrote that my other children were going to think badly of me for not doing the 'right thing.' He did his best to intimidate, shame and harass me."
Copp's parting words to House after she again refused to pay him were, "What goes around comes around."
"I saw the story," House said, "and I thought that maybe that's true. I really hope he pays for what he did this time."
Upshot of Journal report
Publish Doug Copp's name in the newspaper and this is a sampling of what you get:
A phone call from an Albuquerque businessman who says Copp owes him about $2,000 for an unpaid backhoe rental bill.
A call from a Turkish newspaper concerned that Copp was wearing a patch from a Turkish rescue team in the laid-out-on-the-bed-in-the-red-jumpsuit-with-a-rip-down-there photo that ran on the Journal's front page and in the New York Post.
An e-mail from a member of the Fairfax, Va., urban search and rescue team who says he helped to remove Copp from the World Trade Center command center.
An e-mail from a woman in Pennsylvania who says Copp took advantage of her after her husband drowned four years ago.
A call from the Bernalillo County sheriff saying, "I'd like to kick his ass. Seriously, let me have five minutes alone with him."
A call from the man who said he, not Copp, really found JFK Jr.'s body.
A challenge from "the world's most outspoken investigator of the paranormal, the psychic and the just plain weird" to Copp to prove his body-sniffing machine works.
A call from firefighters at a firehouse in Pittsburgh to offer their support to the Journal, not to Copp.
Loads of e-mails and phone calls from angry search and rescue professionals and volunteers who said things like "... it makes me sick to read of the fraudulent actions of those like Copp." And, "Thank you for finally exposing Mr. Copp. His antics have frustrated and embarrassed legitimate SAR volunteers for years."
And e-mails from people angry at the newspaper for picking on Copp and wasting newsprint when there are many stories that are more important.