'Not Surprised' : Professor's Widow Criticizes the Prosecution

Times Staff Writer

Klaaske Cooperman, wife of slain Cal State Fullerton biology Prof. Edward L. Cooperman, said Tuesday that she was "not surprised" that the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the trial of the Vietnamese student accused of murdering her husband.

Calling her husband of 22 years "one of the final casualties of the Vietnam War," Klaaske Cooperman criticized the prosecution for discounting a political motive for the shooting of Cooperman, a physicist who was internationally known for his efforts to aid the Communist government in postwar Vietnam.

'Very Confusing' for Jurors

For that reason, the 43-year-old widow said the prosecution presented a "less than adequate case" against the professor's former student, Minh Van Lam, 21, that may have baffled some of the jurors.

"It was very confusing for them, and a lot of things we know were not presented to them," she said in an interview Tuesday.

"For example, I don't think the death threats were brought out in any degree," she said, referring to the numerous death threats her husband had received in the last months before his death--threats that prompted him to purchase guns, take lessons on how to use them and to notify an FBI agent.

"We, of course, definitely believe it was a political hit--a political assassination. . . . Hopefully, in a second trial, the truth will come out, whatever it is," she said, adding, however, that she "hated to have people and myself going through with all this again."

While her husband's colleague and longtime friend, Cal State Fullerton philosophy Prof.Frank Verges, railed at the prosecutor's suggestion of a possible plea bargain, the slender, brown-haired woman remained composed, if not relaxed, as she has throughout the four-month ordeal.

"If I could cry buckets and buckets of tears and it would bring Ed back, I would do it," said the one-time nurse in her typically direct fashion, delivered in a clipped Dutch accent. "I learned very early in life not to get upset about things I can't change."

Born in the Netherlands during World War II, Klaaske Cooperman is no stranger to death, personal suffering and commitment to political beliefs.

One of her earliest memories is being in a cellar in rural Holland and "listening to the Germans march by," she recalled.

The next is of her father, a resistance fighter, being killed.

"My father was one of the last casualties of the war," she said. "It's ironic, because I consider Ed one of the final casualties of the Vietnam War."

Much Time in Hospital

After the liberation of her homeland by American troops in 1945, 4-year-old Klaaske spent the next half a dozen years in hospitals, undergoing seven different operations for a crippling bone-marrow disease, osteomylitis. In addition to the surgeries, in which diseased marrow was scraped away, the young girl underwent painful penicillin shots every four hours for four years.

When her mother and other child patients, who, like herself, had been malnourished and kept underground for all of their formative years, would cry, Klaaske Cooperman said she would ask, "Why are you crying? It's not going to change anything."

Bitter Toward Lam, May

Still, she remains bitter toward the defendant and his attorney, Alan May, a former liaison between the U.S. Justice Department and the CIA during the Nixon Administration.

She complained that May has suggested publicly without a shred of evidence that Ed Cooperman was a homosexual with a fetish for leather-clad Vietnamese youths, that he was a Communist and that he was an embezzler who stole funds from the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam, which he headed.

"The second I heard about (May's) background, I just knew that his tactic would be not so much to defend Lam, but to slander Ed's memory and maybe even stop the scientific cooperation with Vietnam," she said.

But she reserved her harshest criticism for Lam, who stunned her with what she calls his "lack of remorse" when he telephoned her from the Fullerton City Jail three days after her husband was found dead in his campus office.

'You . . . Shot My Husband'

In that conversation, Lam gave his name and asked if she knew who he was. Klaaske Cooperman answered, "Yes, you're the one who shot my husband."

Lam said only that it was an accident and that they had been playing around, then asked for a photograph of the professor. At the end of the brief conversation, he told her, "I'm sorry." But Klaaske Cooperman said it was flat and unemotional, not the reaction she expected from someone who described her husband as "like a father to me."

During her testimony as one of the last prosecution witnesses, she said, Lam stared at her unblinking for a long while.

"He didn't show any expression at all," she said. "If he were that close to my husband and if it really were an accident, don't you think he would show some feeling?"

Worried About Daughters

The widow said she was most worried about the impact of the shooting and subsequent trial on the couple's two teen-age daughters and on her husband's parents in Allentown, Pa. Both parents are in their seventies and quite ill, she said.

As for their daughters, she said neither seems to talk much about it. She said she worries that, as a result, they will have problems in a few years.

Her main aim, and that of Cooperman's many friends and colleagues, she said, is to "vindicate my husband's dedication to his life's goals."

Cooperman was one of the leading researchers on the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange on the people and soil of Vietnam. He promoted scientific cooperation with his counterparts in Vietnam and aided Vietnamese refugee students in their transition to the world of higher education in a foreign language and culture.

"We can't bring him back, but we can definitely find out what happened--not for me, but for the girls," she said. "But I know it was not some kind of accidental shooting.

"It might take years, but we'll find out the real truth."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World