That’s why, three weeks before he drove to her house and tried to “blow her brains out,” he wrote her a letter saying, “I will always love you and I wish you the best in life.”
That’s why, before he sent his brother to shoot her and before he tried to hire a hit man to kill her, he wrote, “I will always be a friend to you.”
That’s why, as he tried to destroy her career and reputation by sending out pornographic e-mail messages under her name, he wrote, “I will keep you in my prayers.”
Love: That’s why.
But love is not entirely the reason Randy Cope wanted Sarah Jackson dead. There are other complex, disjointed, tangled reasons that have to do with rejection and pride, anger and retaliation, upbringing and honor—reasons buried deep in Randy Cope’s psyche. But none of them truly explains why Randy was willing to give up everything to assassinate the woman he professed to love.
What makes this love-story-turned-to-hate different from so many others, though, isn’t so much the events but the couple involved. Sadly, retaliation for spurned love happens daily, but it happens to other people, not people like these. Sarah, who was recently named Teacher of the Year by a national foundation, was not someone who’d stayed in an abusive relationship too long; she tried hard to get out. And Randy was far from the stereotype of a frustrated, undereducated man. He has two engineering degrees, an MBA and earned more than $100,000 annually.
“I’m at a complete loss,” says Randy’s attorney, Harry Hellings Jr. “It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. It escapes me how someone that intelligent could do something like this. I asked him why he did these things, and he just rolls his eyes and shrugs. It just adds to the mystery. I’d hate to think that this was just about a woman, but I think it was. I don’t know. If you can come up with an answer, give me a call because I’d like to know.”
Sarah herself will never understand, either. Instead, all she knows is that this sordid affair—which started innocently enough at a high school reunion, turned into a four-year relationship and eventual engagement, and ended with three murder attempts—has derailed her life.
“All I want is for him to leave me alone,” she says, “but I don’t think he will. I don’t think this is going to be over until there’s blood spilled and he wins.”
As soon as she stepped in the door at the convention center where it was being held, her eyes met Randy Cope’s. The two had gone to the Marshall County High School senior prom together back in 1976 but had lost touch after graduation, when Randy entered the Air Force Academy and she attended Murray State University. But at the reunion, it was as if the years between meant little. They spent most of the reunion together, reminiscing about the old times and catching up on the new. Randy was living in Denver and working as director of business development and technology for Celestial Seasonings, the tea company. He was in the process of getting a divorce. Sarah had moved to Northern Kentucky in 1980 and was now teaching business at Ryle High School. She herself had gotten divorced five years earlier and counseled Randy on what to expect. “Go back to your wife and daughters,” was her advice.
As the reunion ended, Randy asked Sarah if he could call her sometime. She said no. “I don’t date married men,” she said, “and until your divorce is final, in my mind you’re still married.” He gave her his phone number anyway, but she never called. A year later, her phone rang. It was Randy. His divorce was final, he said, and he wanted to know if she would like to come to Colorado to visit. She said no again. She didn’t know him well enough to go all the way across the country.
Finally, business took Randy through Cincinnati. He called Sarah and asked if they could meet. She agreed, and the time was right. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “It was really exciting.”
For two years, they carried on a long-distance relationship. She would fly out to Colorado when she wasn’t in school, and he would arrange business flights through Cincinnati. They called and wrote and e-mailed. In 1995, Randy asked Sarah to marry him. She said yes. A few months later, he moved back to Kentucky so they could be closer.
He tried to find a job in Cincinnati, but couldn’t—at least not a job at the level he wanted, an executive position with a six-figure salary. While he searched, he bought a piece of land in their hometown of Benton, Ky., about two miles down U.S. 68 from her father’s farm. He put a trailer on the site and went to work for BF Goodrich, which has an industrial products plant in the area. The relationship was still a long-distance one, but now they were 300 miles apart instead of 3,000. Besides, Sarah and her son, Kirk, went back frequently to see her family, so it wasn’t bad. They now saw each other at least once a month.
But as Sarah began to spend more time with Randy, something began to shift. She gradually began to realize he wasn’t that boy from high school—the one she had dreamed he was. This person was demanding, controlling, manipulative, egotistical.
“I realized he was not the person I wanted,” Sarah now says. “He turned out to be something I didn’t think he was. I know I’m a different person, too—I’ve been single since 1987 and have become very independent. But I don’t need someone telling me what to do, where to buy my gas or where to go to the grocery. I’m old enough to decide that on my own. I wanted a partner, not a boss.”
The relationship slowly died, and in November 1997 she broke it off completely. Randy’s reaction mixed sadness and anger, heartbreak and outrage, and for the next six months, he refused to let go. He sent flowers to her five days in a row at school. He showed up at her door, unannounced. He wrote a Cinderella story about them with two endings and asked her to pick which one she wanted. He was tearful at first, she says, but then he became annoying. He e-mailed almost daily. He sent so many cards it created a stack six inches high. He called so often she finally started hanging up as soon as she heard his voice. He just wouldn’t—couldn’t—let go.
On the morning of April 12, 1998—Easter Sunday—he tried again. Sarah was back in Benton visiting her father during spring break, and Randy noticed her car in the driveway. He called. “If you give me five minutes,” he said, “we can work this all out.” She hung up. She thought that meant no.
But in Randy’s mind, it meant something else. The anger overtook heartbreak, and that meant that it was now time for revenge. Where he came from, men make the decisions regarding relationships, and if he couldn’t get her back by being nice, then he would get even. At 8:15 a.m., as Sarah got ready for church, Randy sat at his computer, breaking into her Internet account for the first time.
“Sarah,” Regan said, “did you send me an e-mail?” Jackson was confused. “Susan, I’m at my dad’s. I don’t have my computer with me.”
“Sarah,” Regan interrupted. “Let me ask you again: Did…you…send…me…an…e-mail?”
Regan paused. “Then you won’t believe what Randy just did.” Regan had no doubt as to who sent the e-mail. A few weeks earlier she’d given Sarah a book on identifying obsession because she thought the patterns it outlined matched Cope’s behavior. The e-mail fit perfectly as well: it was a “confession,” ascribed to Sarah, that she’d had sex with her students. There were attachments of similar confessions made to her principal and superintendent. Susan started to read them to Sarah.
“Stop,” Sarah shouted. “I don’t want to hear any more.” She hung up and immediately called AOL and cancelled her account, as well as the police and the Secret Service, which handles Internet crimes. She tried calling her superintendent and principal to explain what was going on, but they both were out of town during the break.
Her vacation was ruined, but it was about to get worse. Over the course of the week, she began to discover the extent of Randy’s revenge. Five other members of her Sunday School class got e-mails, as did coworkers, her pastor, the football coach, acquaintances, even a total stranger. Some of the messages were written to look like the author was Sarah’s ex-husband, who was gravely ill, wishing to expose this double life she was supposedly living before he died. Others were written to look like confessions from Sarah, claiming she had been having sex with her students, both male and female, for the last 10 years and she was now pleading for forgiveness. Still others were written as X-rated sexual propositions. Randy went into chat rooms and pretended to be her, carrying on lewd conversations with strangers.
She and a friend intended to go shopping in Nashville, about 100 miles southeast of Benton, Ky., and planned to meet a male friend for dinner. He, too, received some of the pornographic e-mails, detailing what he should do and say at dinner. It was, she says, humiliating.
When another friend told Sarah she’d just sent her an e-mail and it wasn’t retuned, Sarah called AOL again to find out why that happened. She was told her account had been reactivated. All it takes, the AOL employee told her, is the last four digits of her credit card number. Her heart sank. Not only did Randy have her password, he had her credit card numbers as well. She immediately canceled her cards, but Randy had already racked up $7,187.09 purchasing computer equipment on one card, and had used another to access pornographic web sites and order her a subscription to Playgirl magazine.
Monday, when she returned to school, she walked into the principal’s office to explain. Randy Cooper, the principal, was standing amid printouts of e-mail messages and attachments. “This is the most entangled mess I’ve ever seen,” he said.
For three weeks, she says, something happened every day. After the e-mail account was permanently closed, Randy started sending packets through the mail. He sent one to the Milken Foundation, which a year earlier had awarded Sarah $25,000 and named her Teacher of the Year. He drove to Frankfort and hand-delivered a packet to the commissioner of education.
“Anyone he thought would have an influence on my future, he sent something to,” she says.
In late April 1998, she contacted an attorney, Phil Taliaferro, who attends her church. The police and Secret Service were investigating and wanted her to wait until they could trace the e-mails and credit card purchases back to Randy’s computer so that criminal charges could be brought against him. But she couldn’t wait. She felt she needed to do something—a lawsuit, a restraining order, anything—so he would stop.
As she and Taliaferro sat discussing her options, the phone rang. It was the police. They had gone to AOLs security office and combed the records. The trail of e-mails and Internet activity led straight to Randy Cope’s computer. He was behind it all, and they had the proof. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
As his career led him all around the country, he and his wife, Sandy, built themselves a family. She was from Colorado and met Randy during the two years he attended the Air Force Academy before transferring to Vanderbilt. Together they had three daughters. Randy eventually took the job at the Denver-based Celestial Seasonings to be closer to her family.
Their marriage, however, slowly deteriorated, and in 1992 Randy filed for divorce. As Sarah began dating Randy, she would overhear Sandy’s and Randy’s heated telephone arguments, which continued long after the divorce. Mean, harsh things were said. Sarah just brushed them off as anger or hyperbole.
One comment, though, stuck in her mind. “You’re the only reason Sandy’s still alive,” Randy said to Sarah after one argument. She just stared at him. He wouldn’t really kill Sandy. Would he?
She called the police, grabbed Kirk and left. A few miles from Sarah’s condo the police spotted his maroon Ford Windstar minivan and arrested him for the fraudulent e-mail and credit card crimes. When the police searched the van, they found several pictures of Sarah scattered about the floor and a .38 caliber gun under the seat. He was on his way to Sarah’s, he confessed to a cellmate shortly after being locked up, according to court transcripts, not to pick up his stuff but to “blow her brains out.”
“I was elated,” says Sarah, “because I thought maybe he’d leave me alone.” Randy also began spending more time with his brother, Terry. The two weren’t particularly close as brothers go, but during this brief period in time they came to share some common ground. Just a few weeks after Sarah ended her engagement with Randy, Terry’s wife, Liz, divorced him.
For most of their lives, Randy and Terry had been rivals, constantly competing against each other, carrying their sibling rivalry into adulthood over issues like who made more money or who was more successful. Sarah testified that Randy always referred to Terry as “an asshole.” Liz testified that Terry always referred to Randy as “an arrogant asshole.” Now they both felt rejected, and neither liked it.
Randy, younger by two years, was the more polished of the two—expensive suits, trim, neatly combed hair. Terry preferred the rugged look—cowboy boots, corduroy pants, hat to cover his balding head. He was bigger, bulkier, more physically inclined than Randy. He also made more money. He had graduated from the Air Force Academy and spent more than six years flying jets. After he was discharged, he flew for the National Guard, including stints in Desert Storm and transporting the president’s cars around the world for the Secret Service. He later became a pilot for Northwest Airlines, earning around $150,000 a year. He lived in a $400,000 home in Hendersonville, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, and had another house in nearby Jackson, worth $350,000.
But in 1998, Terry’s life took a major, unexpected dive. He lost his job with Northwest and had to resort to working at a Coke bottling plant for $17 an hour. And then his ex-wife Liz remarried. He snapped. In August 1998, he broke into Liz’s new home, zapped her with an electric cattle prod and shot her new husband, Ron Nimmo, five times—four in the stomach and once in the head.
The problem was, Ron lived. He identified Terry as his assailant, and Terry was arrested for attempted murder.
He was furious. First she’d left him, then had him arrested on the e-mail charges, and now rearrested. The more she did to protect herself, the more an affront it seemed to him, and the angrier he became. It became a vicious cycle. As he sat in his cell once again, he plotted his next move. He would have Sarah killed one way or another, and according to court records, he confided this to his new cellmate.
They weren’t alone, though. Outside, a man huddled in a dark nook between the condo’s front steps and the outside wall of the garage, trying to stay dry and out of sight.
As they walked into the garage, Sarah hit the button to open the garage door, while Kirk put his bags behind the driver’s seat of their new white Pontiac Grand Prix. He walked around the back of the car and got in on the passenger side, while Sarah tossed her bags into the back. this all took two minutes, total.
As they put on their seat belts, the man outside stirred. It was Terry Cope. After he had been arrested in Tennessee for attempted murder in August, the judge had only ordered a $30,000 bond for his release, and Randy posted it for him. Terry was free.
As Sarah started the car and prepared to back out, Terry walked out from hiding. He stepped over some low bushes that lined the front walk, turned the corner and crept onto the driveway. Then the garage exploded in a flash of gunfire.
For the briefest of moments, Sarah froze, unsure what was happening.
“What was that?” she asked.
“A gun,” Kirk screamed.
A flash caught her eye in the rear view mirror and she dove to the floor. As she was diving, she reached up onto the visor and clicked the garage door remote, closing the door. She covered Kirk. He grabbed the cell phone and shoved it at her. “Dial 911,” he said. She did. For two terrifying minutes, until the police arrived, they lay motionless on the floor of the car.
“Randy Cope is somehow behind this,” Sarah said immediately. Even though neither she nor Kirk had seen their assailant, she had no doubt. The police checked on Randy at 7:15 a.m., but he was still in his cell.
Sarah suspected, specifically, that the shooter was Terry. She made her argument to the police. They checked on Terry Cope, too, but he appeared to have an alibi. He said he was in Jackson, Tenn., that morning, inspecting tornado damage to his house there—the same place he said he was when Ron Ninmlo was shot.
Police determined five shots were fired from a .38 caliber revolver from about three feet away. Two of the bullets entered the car’s taillight; three others entered the top of the trunk. Four were recovered. Ballistics tests comparing the bullets to five .38 caliber revolvers confiscated from the homes of Terry Cope and his father, Wayne Cope, proved inconclusive. There was nothing they could do about Terry. Not yet, anyway.
On Monday, Sarah wanted to go back to school and return to her normal life. But that, of course, was impossible; her life was now forever changed. Cooper, Ryle High’s principal, told Sarah she should consider herself on leave until further notice. The Secret Service told her it was no longer safe for her to live in her condo, that she had to put it up for sale and either live in a women’s shelter or become part of the Federal Witness Protection Program. She asked if she could live with friends instead. They relented, but only after she promised to move every few days. As long as the Cope family knew where she was living, they told her, she wasn’t safe.
She packed a suitcase and headed to a friend’s. It was the last night she’d spend in her home.
In April 1998, for instance, when he was busy tapping into Sarah’s AOL account and was sending out all of the e-mails, he traveled to Canada on business. While he was there, he wrote Sarah the “I’ll always love you” letter on hotel stationary. He’d left his computer at home because it crashed, he wrote, so he was writing her the old fashioned way. He also had the on-line connection charge from the hotel billed to a separate account so it couldn’t be traced to his room. But Randy didn’t take into account that every e-mail can be traced back along its return path, and that each time someone signs on to AOL, the company records the time and place of the connection as well as the identity code of the specific computer that is used. All of his actions left a neat little trail right back to his computer.
When he sent the e-mails under the name of Sarah’s ex-husband, he didn’t know that the man was in the hospital the entire time. When he went to Frankfort to send out packages under Sarah’s name, he mailed himself one so it would appear he was just another person on the list. “What’s this about?” he asked Sarah. But he didn’t consider that Sarah could prove she wasn’t in Frankfort on that date and didn’t mail the packages.
Perhaps, though, he just didn’t care about any of those things. Perhaps it was just a case of “I’ll show you,” and he didn’t think Sarah would call the police. Or that she would be too afraid of him to call the police. Or that there wasn’t anything the police could do. Or that he wasn’t breaking any laws.
“I used to tell him all the time he didn’t have a lick of common sense,” Sarah says.
“We’re not talking about someone who was on drugs or alcohol, or was part of a hate group, or was mentally disturbed like Ted Kaczynski,” says Sarah’s lawyer, Phil Taliaferro. “This is a highly educated person. And his course of conduct goes way beyond a single act of trying to kill somebody. The escalation of it was amazing. I’m 62 years old and I’ve never heard of a case like this.”
Every step he made, though, Randy left footprints. He had his family put up the money so his first cellmate could post bond (they held the cellmate’s baseball card collection as collateral), but told him, “I may need you to do me a favor when you’re out.” That cellmate told the police everything Randy said while they shared the cell.
Randy sent mail to his brother or sister with his cellmate’s name on the return adress, or wrote “attorney at law” after their names to make it look like it was legal correspondence, which can’t be read by prison officials under attorney-client privilege laws. What he didn’t know, though, was that the letters could still be read with a search warrant. And since Sarah Jackson was a witness in an Internet crime case—a federal case—the Secret Service easily obtained the search warrants. They opened his letters as they went through the prison mailroom, read them, resealed them and sent them on their way.
What agents found when they read the letters was quite revealing: the specific details of murders Randy was plotting. One involved hiring a hit man known as “The Hungarian” to kill Liz and Ron Nimmo. Another involved hiring a different hit man, “Bill, the drywall contractor,” to kill Sarah, according to court transcripts.
In his letters, Randy was particularly anxious to take care of Sarah, who was fueling his anger by filing a civil suit against him. “Boy, do I want Sarah to go away permanently,” he wrote to his brother on March 31. “She’s becoming a major pain in the ass.”
Randy’s plots were expanding. His hit list now included attorney David Bunning, the son of Senator Jim Bunning and the federal prosecutor in the e-mail case. A few days earlier, Randy had told his cellmate that Bunning was the reason he couldn’t get out of jail, and that he would “take care of David Bunning in due time.” “That son of a bitch will get his,” he said. “I never forget anything.”
Terry decided to start there. He drove across town to the U.S. Attorney’s office and told the receptionist he would like to see Bunning. The receptionist said he couldn’t see him. Terry pulled out a knife with a four-inch blade. She still wouldn’t let him in. He became frustrated and left. He jumped in his pickup truck and headed south on I-75 to Florence. If nothing else, he could at least arrange for the murder of Sarah Jackson. He found a pay phone and paged “Bill,” the “drywall contractor” hit man. The two agreed to meet at 6 p.m. at the Florence Kmart on Kentucky Route 18.
The Copes had decided to hire Bill upon the recommendation of Randy’s second cellmate, James Hiatt Jr. On March 5, after Randy’s bond was revoked because of the harassing photos, he and Hiatt were sitting in their cell and Randy asked him if he knew of any hit men. Yeah, Hiatt said, he had a friend, Bill. “Bill took care of the guy who sent him to prison,” Hiatt told Randy. The guy had a bad car accident. Randy quizzed Hiatt to make sure he was telling the truth. He was legit, Hiatt said. So Randy took down Bill’s pager number and mailed it to Terry. Bill was to handle “all our jobs,” Randy wrote to his brother.
What Randy didn’t realize, though, was that Hiatt was an FBI informant, and “Bill” was actually Bill Birkenhauer, an undercover police officer. When Birkenhauer arrived at Kmart, he and Terry stood around the vending machines by the store’s front entrance and purchased a couple of sodas, arranged the killing. People walked by. Cars drove past.
“I got a situation here,” Terry said, according to the transcript of the taped conversations. “I’ve had this dream about this problem...[and] this person has an accident.”
“What kind of accident you talking about?” Birkenhauer asked.
“There’s a lot of ways to have accidents.”
“I know it. Uh... my dream doesn’t go that far, as far as involving car accident or whatever.”
“In this area?”
“Yeah. Right up the road. Since she’s here, but she had a little incident a couple months ago and she has gotten gun shy, literally gun shy. And, uh, so she has this condo up for sale. I don’t know if she is staying there, or what.”
“If I knew the name and what you know about her, I can track her down.”
“I figured that... I just wanted you to know there’s a difficulty involved.”
As they drank their sodas, they talked specifics about the deal. Terry handed him $2,500—half of the cost of the “drywall job.”
“Do a good job on the finish,” Terry said as Birkenhauer pulled away, “ ’cause I don’t like that shit where the seams come through and everything... And if all goes well, perhaps there’s more houses to remodel. I got quite a list.”
Terry got back in his truck and started toward the exit. Within seconds, FBI agents staked out in the parking lot swarmed his truck. “Don’t move, Terry Cope, or we’ll blow your f---ing head off.”
Randy will appeal, says Hellings, his attorney. (Terry’s lawyer, Steven Howe, did not return calls regarding this story.) Randy will spend two years in prison for sending the e-mails, though. He pleaded guilty or no contest to the 13 charges. In his defense on these counts, prior to the pleadings, Hellings argued, “This case reads like a bad Harlequin romance novel. Both parties got their hearts broken. And neither party liked it. However, none of the actions on the defendant rise to the level of criminal activity. Petulant? Perhaps. Criminal? No.” It was, he added, a “childish attempt to mend his broken heart.”
When asked by the judge why he did it, Randy answered, “I don’t have a good answer other than stupidity.”
Both Randy and Terry also stand to lose all their possessions. Sarah was awarded more than $5 million by the Boone County courts from Randy. She also won more than $1.3 million from Terry, but how much she’ll actually see from him is still up in the air. Terry’s possessions are tied up in two lawsuits in Tennessee, one by Ron Nimmo and another by his parents, who sued their son for failing to repay a loan they made to him. The question of Randy’s assets is even more complicated. He transferred his property in western Kentucky into Lisa’s name. He claims in court documents that this was so she could sell the land to pay his lawyers. Sarah’s lawyers—Taliaferro, along with 14 others who volunteered their names in support of Sarah—are contesting the transfer. (Randy and Lisa, who gave birth to a daughter in March 1999, later divorced. He gave her all of their possessions uncontested.) Since he couldn’t sell the land, Randy’s been forced to represent himself in order to save money. “As long as they have money to hire hit men, my life is in danger.” Sarah says of the award, “It’s self-preservation. I really don’t care about the money, and I doubt I’ll ever see it.”
In his civil case court motions, Randy argues that the whole thing was “a case of a love affair gone sour…. After the breakup of the engagement, [my] dates infuriated [Sarah]. When I started dating the woman who became my wife, the plaintiff, Sarah Jackson, became incensed and emotionally volatile. She became the epitome of ‘Hell hath no fury such as a woman scorned.’ The plaintiff turned into a vengeful, vindictive woman….”
Sarah scoffs at such remarks. Randy always upends a situation, she says, doing something to someone then telling people the other person did it to him. “He has to be the person in charge.”
“People ask me how I could stay with someone like this for four years,” she says, “and it didn’t seem hard. He was very attractive, well educated, interesting. And when he told you something, you believed him. He’s the most convincing liar I’ve ever seen. You believe him when he tells you something. It took me four years to figure out what Randy was really like, and I think I’m a fairly intelligent person.”
Some things, though, remain shattered. A car backfires, a firecracker explodes and she goes running into a closet. She hasn’t been back to Benton to see her father in three years because the Cope family still lives there. The families used to get along, Sarah’s father and Wayne Cope worked together for 30 years, and when Randy and Sarah dated, the families would have dinner and Christmas together. All of that’s changed.
“It’s a mystery to me why all this happened,” she says. “Why would he give up his new wife and new baby to do this? He’s a sad, sad person. Do I still love him? No. He’s taken and destroyed my quality of life.
“But there’s no reason for me to hate him. I just look at it like God has a master plan for all of this and someday I’ll see a reason behind all of it. Right now I don’t. Right now I just live by the faith of God and try to make the most out of my life. I keep telling myself something my neighbor told me when all of this first started. She said, ‘Ya know, Sarah, life could be worse.’ And you know what? She’s right. A lot’s happened to me, but I really believe that: life could be worse.”
Originally published in the June 2000 issue.
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