September 2, 2014

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Blast from the past

Former county coroner’s old hand grenade causes some new problems

LORAIN — Two seemingly unrelated events Thursday — a hand grenade recovered from a cistern in Lorain and scholarships doled out at a local high school — turned out to be loosely connected in the most remarkable of ways.
The strange events began about 2 p.m. Thursday, when Lorain police received a phone call from someone saying there was a hand grenade inside a cistern buried next to a Cooper Foster Park Road home.
Lorain Police Lt. James McCann responded to the address: 710 Cooper Foster Park Road, a cozy cut of land that holds a two-story brick home, a detached two-car garage, an underground shooting range and a grenade-laden cistern.
“We don’t get too many calls like this,” McCann said later.
McCann said he called the utilities department, which showed up with an underwater camera so workers could look inside the cistern’s nine feet of water. And sure enough, there it was: an altered hand grenade that Karl Yost of the county bomb squad labeled “highly explosive.’’
Yost was one of about 22 emergency officials — from the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency, Lorain firefighters and LifeCare paramedics — who swarmed the property after the device’s discovery. Officials say it probably had been in the cistern for a few weeks, maybe as long as a month.
Luckily, the retrieval of the device came off without a hitch. Emergency crews snagged the grenade, secured it in a container, and cleared the scene by 5 p.m.
But the grenade’s story was only just beginning.
As it turns out, the home where the cistern is located is the former digs of Paul Kopsch, Lorain County coroner from 1958 to 1972. Kopsch, 82, donated the property to his alma mater, Swarthmore College. The college recently looked to sell the property, so Kopsch — who moved to an assisted living facility on Detroit Road in Avon recently — said he had to take care of a few things at the Cooper Foster Park Road home in recent months.
Among them: Getting rid of the hand grenade.
You see, Kopsch is something of a mythical figure among the law enforcement community.
When asked about him, county Sheriff Capt. Rich Resendez was among the first to point out that Kopsch was among three inventors who created the now-outlawed KTW round, a Teflon-coated bullet capable of piercing bullet-proof vests.
According to the Swarthmore College Web site, Kopsch and two other men invented the bullet in the 1960s because police were looking for firepower that had a little more oomph than the typical .38-caliber rounds that bounced off fleeing cars driven by unsavory characters.
The bullet — later dubbed by some as the “cop-killer” — eventually was taken off the market because of its lethal power, Resendez said, though Kopsch still made his mark on firearms history.
Kopsch, contacted at the assisted-living facility, had a simple explanation for the hand grenade.
An avid firearms collector, mostly antique pistols, Kopsch stored the guns — which he said numbered in the hundreds — in a gun room on the second floor of his Cooper Foster Park home. But there were burglaries all along the East Coast some 30 years ago in which criminals were targeting large gun collections, Kopsch said.
So Kopsch figured out how to booby-trap a wooden box that held his most-prized pistols: He used a hand grenade.
Kopsch said he altered the grenade slightly, so that it would explode if anyone opened the box. Of course, no one ever opened it.
“The police knew about it,” Kopsch said, chuckling. “They always said they didn’t have to check the house to see if it was broken into; they just had to drive by and see if the wall was blown out.
“I didn’t want any of the good guys to get hurt,” he said. “It was just there for the bad guys.”
So where did the hand grenade come from? In addition to a storied career in the medical field, Kopsch spent 24 years in the military. He’s a World War II veteran who eventually acquired the rank of brigadier General in the U.S. Army.
The long and the short of it: He collected a few things along the way, including a hand grenade.
When Kopsch began selling off his gun collection some years ago, he used the money from the gun sales to fund scholarships for Lorain County students headed to college. Since 1982, Kopsch said he’s given more than $514,000 in scholarships to local high school students.
And as it so happened, he was at a Clearview High School scholarship ceremony Thursday night handing out college money from his “Challenge for Tomorrow Scholarship.”
Clearview High School is about a mile from his former Cooper Foster Park Road home, where the bomb squad and police were plucking the hand grenade from the cistern.
These days, Kopsch is an entirely likable guy with an easy chuckle followed by an occasional cuss word.
He said he only recently worked up the nerve to deactivate the booby trap on that old gun box, but in turn was left with a dilemma: How to get rid of a highly explosive grenade that packs enough blast and shrapnel to tear a man apart?
“I wasn’t about to put it in the trash and leave it for the trash man,” Kopsch said. “So I dropped it in the cistern where it can soak up the water.”
He dropped the grenade in the cistern “a week or so ago,” and told the Realtor about it when Swarthmore College was looking to sell the house.
“Swarthmore said, ‘You gotta get that doggone grenade out of the cistern,’” Kopsch said.
That finally happened Thursday.
“I’m glad they got professional help,” Kopsch said of the bomb squad, firefighters and police retrieving the device.
Resendez said he wasn’t sure if there were any laws against booby-trapping one’s home with an explosive device — basically an ordinance against ordnance.
“I can’t tell you if we are or aren’t going to charge him,” Resendez said. “Basically … it’s like putting up an electric fence and a kid gets shocked.”
For now, Resendez said law enforcement officials may look to Kopsch for restitution to pay the cost of securing and disposing of the grenade.
Of course, that means a lot of scholarship money could be taken away from a lot of students.
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.

An interview with former county Coroner Paul Kopsch, owner of the home where the bomb squads responded on Thursday.
060107funeral.jpg STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE
Lorain police and the bomb squad responded to this house on Cooper Foster Park Road.