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Rescue or rip-off?

Did the 'world's most famous rescuer' defraud the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund? Doug Copp, the chief of the American Rescue team, is either a misunderstood do-gooder or a crafty perpetrator of fraud. 
Doug Copp (center) used his casualty-locating machine as soon as he arrived at ground zero without credentials, demonstrating it for police and firefighters. But did his machine really work?
Doug Copp (center) used his casualty-locating machine as soon as he arrived at ground zero without credentials, demonstrating it for police and firefighters. But did his machine really work?Courtesy of The Albuquerque Journal
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Out of the ashes of Ground Zero emerged the faces of heroes. They were tear-stained faces, soiled faces, and scarred faces of the fearless.

For a time, Doug Copp seemed to be one of those heroes.

As chief of the American Rescue Team International for the past 16 years, Doug Copp had been circling the globe, offering his services in disaster zones from from El Salvador to Turkey.

The people who met him were given hope in the most dire of circumstances. But that hope would soon turn to doubt. Believers would be asking themselves questions about the man who calls himself "the world’s most experienced rescue worker."

Meeting Doug Copp
Albuquerque Journal Reporter Leslie Linthicum first met the then 51-year-old Copp shortly after 9/11. Linthicum was looking for a way to get to New York to cover the story, but her paper had a plane on standby. Since the nation's airspace had been shut down, she had no way to get it in the air.

Then her boss told her about Doug Copp, a rescuer who said he had the kind of high-level connections that could clear the plane for take-off. 

A few phone calls later, that's exactly what happened. “I thought he must be pretty good at what he does and a pretty big wheel if he's going to get that kind of clearance for us,” said Linthicum.

Copp said he had that clout and was working with the White House to secure a fax that would give them unfettered access to Ground Zero.

Listening to Copp's confidence about his friends in high places were three other people: A writer working on a screenplay about Doug Copp, and filmmakers Mike Miller and John Grace. 

Miller and Grace learned about Copp in the summer of 2001 when they came across dramatic video of Doug Copp appearing to pull a little girl out of the rubble after an earthquake in Turkey.

When the filmmakers set out to learn more about Copp, they came across an impressive resume that began in 1985. Copp, a demolitions expert, offered his services after the Mexico City earthquake. In the years that followed, he claimed trips through 892 collapsed buildings at 100 disasters around the world. Where Copp went, there were cameras. He appeared in numerous documentaries and news reports, including a 1999 appearance on MSNBC news after the Egypt air crash. 

After a brief meeting, Miller and Grace decided enthusiastically to produce a documentary about Copp. The themes, the producers thought, would center around rescue, danger and heroism.

The 9/11 tragedy
Grace and Miller thought they would travel to catastrophes all over the world for their film —but then disaster struck right here at home. Their project was suddenly overtaken by a much bigger story.

“The world-famous American rescue team leader is right here,” says Miller. “And we've got to get him to New York, so he can start doing some stuff to do some good.”

As they flew toward New York, Copp warned that when it came to staying alive in the smoldering ruins, there was no higher authority than his word. Copp had also led them to believe that they had a faxed approval from the White House to go directly to Ground Zero.

"He waved a paper at me one day before that I assumed was the fax," says Miller. "I didn’t have any reason to challenge him at that point." 

But things began to go awry the moment they went to pick up their credentials. They called the White House, but no one they spoke to knew anything about Copp or that paper. Copp's request was denied.

At the time, they just chalked these setbacks up to just the general chaos and confusion.

Eventually, Copp flagged down a police officer and told him that he had a special invention he called “The Copp Casualty Locator” that could detect gases given off by decomposing flesh and find bodies trapped in the rubble. The police officer led them to Ground Zero. And there, with the filmmakers cameras rolling, Copp put the sniffing machine to work.

“It began beeping like there was something going on. And these fire people are scrambling like crazy trying to get to where they believe a body might be,” says Grace. “They wanted to believe too.”         

But the beeps were just that — nothing more. 

“Doug wrote it off as, ‘Well, it must have been just a little blood left in the dirt,” says Grace.

With that, Linthicum had seen enough. She decided to move on. “I thought, ‘I'm never going to hear his name again.’”

But the filmmakers stayed on, hoping the setbacks were temporary. 

After a few minutes of sifting through the rubble, Doug Copp changed tactics. It was time, he said, to go underground to look for survivors.

Copp/jp2/metro/sept 13,2001
Doug Copp at the Marriott Marquis in New York City.
Copp/jp2/metro/sept 13,2001 Doug Copp at the Marriott Marquis in New York City.Mike Stewart

Once he reached the ramp of the parking garage beneath the collapsed towers, Copp heard some banging that he thought was coming from trapped survivors. The noise turned out to be merely the heavy equipment removing the rubble above. But Copp continued to search this ramp area, all the while documenting his exploits on videotape.

Then after about 15 minutes, as the tape and battery for the video camera ran out, Copp headed back up to the surface. There was to be no more shooting that day, and their time on the rubble at Ground Zero that night was about to run out.

“We were there for probably three hours before we were escorted out,” says Miller. 

Testing the 'Copp Casualty Locator'
The next day, on September 14, the filmmakers went to a fire station on their own. They were hoping to convince firefighters that machine could help them find their fallen brothers. They put the sniffer in a jar of rotted meat Copp used for such demonstrations, and much to their relief, it seemed to work.

The firefighters were convinced and brought the filmmakers back to Ground Zero.

But once again, the machine failed.

They say that when they told Copp that the machine did not work, he accused the filmmakers of ruining the device. And when Copp learned that they had thrown away the jar of rotted meat he kept for testing the machine, Copp “went off like a bottle rocket.”

“He was so mad about that sample of meat being discarded that you thought the world had ended for him right there on the spot,” says Miller. “That was one of the things that started me to thinking there's something wrong here.”

By September 15, two days after they arrived in New York, the filmmakers had seen enough. They pulled the plug on their documentary and headed home.

“At that point, I was done with it. I wanted out. We felt like posers. We felt like total frauds. And it's a terrible time in our nation's history. And to be in the spotlight at Ground Zero, at that time and place and to not deliver on something that gave those guys so much hope. It was emotionally horrific,” recounts Grace.

The filmmakers, too, thought that would be the last they would hear of Doug Copp.  

A few days later Copp also returned to his home in New Mexico.

And before long, the rescuer claimed to be in need of rescuing himself, complaining of debilitating health problems.

Copp asks for compensation
Copp then petitioned the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, taxpayer money set up to help victims of the terrorist attacks. Copp says in the course of his dangerous work at Ground Zero, he got sick and needed money.

In the spring of 2004, the fund awarded Copp $649,000 for his troubles. 

And that would've been the end of this story. But shortly after he received the check, Copp made a plea to a local television station asking for even more money.

To a TV report, Copp said: “Let’s see something real here. I want some medical treatments so I can stay alive.” 

The news of Copp's award eventually reached those who'd been with him at Ground Zero. 

“I laughed out loud that — that it was even conceivable that he could get that money,” says Miller.

Reporter Leslie Linthicum smelled a headline when she found out that Doug Copp received $649,000 from the U.S. Treasury — money set aside for those injured and grieving families who had suffered the most as a result of the terrorist attacks.  

"This just didn't square at all with anything that had been my experience with him in New York. I thought, 'I'm going to need to call Doug Copp and find out what's going on,'" says Linthicum.

Linthicum called Copp and he provided her with copies of his petition to the 9/11 fund. In it, he claimed that for six days he waded in a "toxic soup" in the caverns of Ground Zero searching for survivors  — work, he said, that had left him permanently disabled.

"He said he was in perfect health before this and that he was now dying," says Linthicum. 

On the surface, everything seemed to be in order: There were doctors' reports describing medical problems like breathing difficulties, chest pains, dementia and a fractured spine. There was videotape of Copp at Ground zero. There was even a letter from a congressman, requesting prompt consideration of his case. 

‘Larger than life’ claims?
But Linthicum also found some dubious claims and outright errors. The date of Copp's arrival was wrong (the 12th when it was really the 13th). Copp claimed that he had gone as deep into the rubble as any other rescuer and that his team had recovered the remains of 40 bodies. 

"In every component, it was larger than life and incredible," says Linthicum.

Try as she might, Linthicum couldn't square the Doug Copp she remembered at Ground Zero with the one the 9/11 compensation committee heard about. Then again, she hadn't been with Copp for the duration of his time at Ground Zero.

So Linthicum began tracking down the people who'd spent the most time with Copp, beginning with the filmmakers who'd been shooting a documentary about him.

Mike Miller and John Grace couldn't believe Copp's award. Recalling their time with him at Ground Zero, they couldn't imagine what he might have done to deserve it. 

“We didn't see him doing any real rescue work," says Miller. "We didn't see any body being saved. We didn't see the machines working. What we saw was a guy running around, waving his arms and shouting at people.”

Linthicum also tracked down the screenwriter who stayed on with Copp after Grace and Miller went home. The screenwriter had submitted an affidavit with Copp's petition, backing up many of his claims, but, surprisingly, he didn't act like much of a friend to Copp when Linthicum talked to him.

"He said, 'I got to tell you, though, we went to these places, but he wasn't really looking for victims. And we weren't really finding any victims. And it was a lot of acting for television,'” says Linthicum.

And indeed, on two occasions that week, Copp did appear on television, selling video of his exploits to the TV program “Inside Edition.”

Next, Linthicum turned to the officials in charge of the search efforts at Ground Zero. Surely, they would remember someone who'd recovered as many bodies as Copp claimed.

“[If] anybody that had found 40 people at one time, I think I would have known about it,” says FDNY special operations chief John Norman, who was the search and rescue manager of Ground Zero. 

He spent months searching the rubble and wonders why no one from the victim compensation fund called the fire department to check out Copp's claims. 

"I'm not of any doubt that he was at the scene," says Norman. "But I saw no documentation that he worked in the conditions that he described."

Courtesy Of The Albuquerque Jour

With each phone call, Copp's story seemed to unravel more. 

Copp’s "Casualty Locator," Linthicum discovered, was a commercially available machine — a simple gas detector that anyone can buy.

"Dateline" spoke with the company that manufactures the device and it said there is no evidence that it could, as Copp claimed, find bodies trapped in rubble.

Trail of rescues or lies?
When Linthicum found scant evidence of Copp's Ground Zero claims, she began to wonder about his entire 16-year history of rescue work.

Take for example the scene in Turkey where Copp appears to be pulling a little girl to safety: When Linthicum tracked down the French rescuer, whose team organized the effort, she said Copp showed up late just in time to be on camera and merely got in the way. 

When Linthicum confronted Copp, he provided her with clips from two documentaries that he said backed up his version of events. When Linthicum contacted other rescuers from California to Japan, a pattern began to emerge. 

Copp seemed to have a reputation — not good. A former official at the international arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency recognized Copp immediately.

He told Linthicum: “That guy — who gets airlines to fly him places for free.  Gets hotels to put him up for free. Goes to disaster sites, hangs around the fringes. Takes videotape of himself there. And then uses that videotape, either to sell to TV stations or to just sort of show himself to be more than he is,” says Linthicum of what the former official told her.

Linthicum turned her attention to the long list of illnesses laid out in Copp's claim — everything from glaucoma and hypothyroidism to cerebral edema, or brain swelling caused, Copp says, by exposure to toxins at ground zero. Linthicum says her newspaper also got a couple of doctors to review his health records — records they obtained from Copp voluntarily.  "They both pretty much agreed that he had a mild asthma and that he needed to lose some weight," says Linthicum.

And what was laid out in a four-day series in the Albuquerque Journal concluded that Copp had "taken advantage of well-meaning people in a time of national grief," and that there was little evidence that Copp had performed real rescue work at Ground Zero or that he deserved any money from the victim compensation fund. 

"The way I was raised, you tell the truth and you don't take things that don't belong to you.  He told a story that wasn't true. And he took taxpayer money that isn't his," says Linthicum.

The congressman who once supported Copp has now asked the Justice Department to look into Copp’s claims. Though it declined to comment on Copp’s case, the Department of Justice confirmed to “Dateline” that it is conducting an active investigation into the facts of Copp’s petition to the victim compensation fund. 

Copp blames his current troubles on the Albuquerque Journal. He says the paper’s publisher is out to get him because he didn’t get the paper that credential to visit Ground Zero. Copp says he’s looking for a  lawyer to sue the paper for defaming his character. 

But Linthicum says that that’s not what they did. “We were part of a long list of people who were taken in by him. The list included congress people, the Justice Department... you know, on and on and on,” she says.

So just who is Doug Copp? A misunderstood do-gooder or a crafty perpetrator of fraud? Copp’s former colleagues Grace and Miller say Copp’s personality is the key to a perplexing tragedy surrounding this man.

“Either the guy’s a fraud or he’s a burnout. And at some point, he was more interested in getting media attention than he was in doing any serious rescue work,” says Miller.

However much good he says he has done, in a sense Doug Copp, they say, is a victim mostly of himself.

Doug Copp told "Dateline" recently he is feeling a little better. In fact, he says he is no longer suffering from many of the problems that he claims were caused by his experience at Ground Zero. The Justice Department’s investigation continues.