Many mysteries remain in strange case of Air Force veteran strangled with a zip tie in California
Michelle Silva believes her kid brother would want her to stop trying to learn the details of his death in La Grange seven years ago.
“I am thinking he is up there (in heaven) saying, ‘I’m gone, don’t go through this effort,” Silva said of her brother Robert Kope.
But Michelle can’t shake the alarm she felt when she learned her brother died in the same fashion as his girlfriend seven years before, with a zip tie around his neck.
She can’t stop wondering whether his killer was someone he knew, or a desperate stranger her brother stopped to help on the side of a rural country road.
And as the oldest sister who helped her disabled mother raise her siblings, Michelle can’t help but feel she somehow could have protected her brother.
On Oct. 7, 2015, Kope, 53, was found lying in the fetal position in the tall dry weeds along the side of La Grange Road. His motorcycle was on its side about a quarter mile away.
His possessions were scattered near his body; a pair of pants, a phone charger, gloves, a broken cellphone, a disposable camera and the bag they’d been in. Kope’s driver’s license lay right next to his head, atop a red coin purse, according to a witness.
When Silva learned her brother was strangled with a zip tie, she immediately thought of the woman he was dating in 2008, who also was found dead with a zip tie around her neck.
The night before her death, the woman asked Kope to stay over but he declined because he had to get up early the next morning.
“He felt terrible, thinking, ‘If I had only stayed’ …. and her family kind of treated him as persona non grata,” Silva said. “Being the last person who saw her, the police looked at him quite in depth.”
Ultimately Kope was ruled out and the girlfriend’s death was classified a suicide.
After her brother’s death, Silva questioned if detectives in the former girlfriend’s case got it wrong and if her death and Kope’s could be connected.
“That was one of the things that really stood out for us,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jesse Tovar. “It did raise some red flags for us.”
But after detectives read reports in the former girlfriend’s case, it appeared to be a coincidence, said Tovar, who investigates cold cases and took over Kope’s case last year.
He said the former girlfriend had a history of mental health issues, including previous suicide attempts.
Investigators concluded Kope’s death couldn’t have been a suicide due to several factors, but primarily how tightly the zip tie was cinched around his neck. It would have been very difficult for Kope to achieve that on his own, Tovar said.
Also, there was no indication he was in any kind of mental distress. He was on his way to his home in San Jose when he died. He’d checked in with his current girlfriend several times throughout the trip. And he had plans scheduled: a job interview the following day, a dentist appointment the day after that, and a family reunion a few weeks later.
Kope, an avid motorcyclist, was on one of hundreds of rides he took in his lifetime, Silva said.
An ‘easygoing … go with the flow’ guy
She said her brother’s love of travel and adventure started at a young age in Texarkana, Texas.
“We had one of those normal childhoods of the ’60s,” she said. “We got up in the morning and ran out and played and didn’t come home until dark.”
The middle child, “Robert was an easygoing personality; he was adaptive, he could go with the flow,” Silva said.
He knew his way around an engine. One of his first jobs was as a mechanic at a Ford dealership. After that, he joined the Air Force and served as an airplane mechanic for four years, Silva said.
Following his service, Kope began work as a facilities engineer, which gave him the opportunity to move to the Bay Area in the late 1990s.
“He was at one with the place,” Silva said. “He said he had never been anywhere he enjoyed more.”
Kope met dozens of other motorcyclists, went on rides with them throughout the state and participated in races.
He would take solo trips, too.
He’d travel back roads whenever possible and keep a camera and portable fishing pole in his bag so he was prepared whenever he came across beautiful scenery or a good fishing hole.
He was riding alone the day he was killed, on his way home from Oroville, where he’d stayed with a racing buddy.
A text, a photo of blackberries and a final call
Kope’s girlfriend of two years provided The Bee an account of her last contacts with him in the hours before he was killed.
She’s still too distraught to be interviewed for this story and asked to remain anonymous, but she provided answers to questions from The Bee in an email via Silva.
At 6:27 a.m. Oct. 6, Kope texted his girlfriend that he was packing up and planned to stop at a Starbucks before he hit the road.
Four hours later, he texted her a photo of a blackberry bush, a fruit they both loved.
Sometime between 11 and 11:30 a.m., Kope called his girlfriend to say he was near Grass Valley and planned to go fishing at a lake. Kope told his girlfriend he didn’t know if he’d stay there overnight but texted shortly after they hung up that he’d remembered an appointment he had the next day and confirmed he planned to come home.
It was the last time she would hear from Kope. At 7:30 p.m., she sent him a text asking him to call her and let her know when he would be home.
“Rob had a different idea about time when he was out on his bike, so it didn’t seem too out of character (for him) to be late,” the girlfriend said.
But as time passed with no word from him, she began to worry. By midmorning Oct. 7, she was frantic.
She started calling hospitals and law enforcement in the areas she thought would be on his route, even a campground near Grass Valley, on the off chance Kope had decided to stay after all.
Around the same time, a man went into the La Grange market and told the clerk he saw what he thought was a dead motorcyclist along La Grange road.
That clerk called her mother, who was driving with another woman in the area.
The women, who spoke to The Bee in 2015, said they found Kope on the side of the road, saw the zip tie around his neck and called 911. Medical personnel responded to the scene and pronounced Kope dead. Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched at 10:53 a.m.
Silva, whom Kope’s girlfriend had contacted, eventually called a niece who worked for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and provided her with the license plate number for Kope’s motorcycle. Several hours later, the niece called Silva. She didn’t tell her what happened but gave her the name of the lead detective, who broke the news of Kope’s death.
“His phone was found in the off position … something I think about a lot,” Kope’s girlfriend said. “Before we hung up, I reminded him to turn his phone off to save battery in case he had an emergency on the road. Normally, Rob would turn his phone off while riding anyway, but I wonder: If his phone had been on, would it have made a difference? It was both preventative and prophetic in hindsight.”
Credit card activity, a stop in Sonora
Detectives got a credit card statement for Kope. There wasn’t a lot of activity but there was a charge in Sonora, Silva said.
Kope’s girlfriend told police everything she knew, like Kope’s usual route back from Northern California and the communication they had, and she did everything she could to help.
She, along with Kope’s friend from Oroville, hung posters with Kope’s photo in the places he’d been or might have gone, hoping it would generate clues.
They posted them at businesses between Sonora and La Grange, including a motorcycle repair shop, a saloon, a Harley-Davidson dealership store and several convenience stores.
At a Valero gas station in Sonora, they talked to a manager who recognized Kope from the picture. She told Kope’s girlfriend she didn’t remember what time he came in but it would have been after her shift started at 3 p.m.
“She didn’t remember any issues and didn’t recall seeing anyone around him,” the girlfriend said.
Silva believes her brother was killed sometime after dark Oct. 6.
A number of motorists likely passed Kope before the man told the cashier at the La Grange Market that he’d seen his body.
That man didn’t stick around the market, so detectives released his photo to the public in order to locate him.
Tovar said detectives found the man and he, along with several other people, remain persons of interest, primarily because there’s nothing to rule them out and no suspect has been identified.
Also a person of interest is a woman who stopped at the scene and took Kope’s helmet. After seeing reports of Kope’s death, she contacted detectives and returned his helmet. She told them she never saw Kope’s body and didn’t take anything else, Tovar said.
Tovar said it appeared, by the way they were scattered, that someone had rummaged through Kope’s belongings. He said it’s unknown if anything other than the helmet was taken.
Detectives interviewed other close contacts of Kope, but Tovar thinks it unlikely his killer is someone he knew. If he’d been killed in the same manner at or near his home, Tovar would have thought differently.
But Kope was 115 miles from home, on a remote county road, in an area to which he had no connection.
Someone known to him would have had to follow him on his entire route to find him on that road, Tovar said.
He said there are puzzling aspects of the case, like the quarter-mile distance between Kope and his motorcycle, which he said “makes no sense.”
Speculation on motive
As far as motives, Tovar said it could have been road rage, it could have been a robbery.
It’s unknown how much cash Kope had on him but Silva said he’d sometimes carry hundreds. That leads to the question of why someone knew or believed he had cash. There wasn’t a lot of activity on Kope’s credit card so it’s possible someone saw him with cash or just assumed he had some.
Tovar said that a few months before Kope was killed, an older man was run off the road and robbed of a “significant amount of money” that he’d just won at one of the casinos in the area. But there was no indication Kope had gone to any casino.
“There are definitely scenarios, it is just trying to figure out which one fits our crime scene with the evidence we have,” Tovar said.
For Silva, every possible scenario has gone through her mind.
She said her brother was the type of person who would stop without a second thought to help someone in need. She wonders if someone flagged him down intent on robbing him or ran him off the road. She imagines he ended up so far from his bike because the killer chased him or tried to steal the bike afterward but couldn’t figure out how to ride it.
She still wonders whether there is any connection to the girlfriend who died by suicide or to someone else he knew. Because they are evidence, Silva was never permitted to see any of Kope’s belongings collected at the crime scene. But she said she and Kope’s girlfriend never knew him to have a red coin purse, the item near his head that had his ID on it. She wonders if the killer or someone else who rummaged through Kope’s belongings placed the purse and ID there, and why.
Photos from Kope’s camera were developed but provided nothing of evidentiary value, Tovar said. Items were sent to a lab for DNA testing, but the results didn’t generate additional clues.
“Cases become cold because there’s no more leads,” Tovar said. “I need people to come forward and try to resolve this for the victim, as well as his family.”
Silva said she shared her brother’s story in hope that it will help solve his killing and give her some peace.
“If I can keep one other person from losing a loved one in a terrible fashion like this, then it’s worth it,” she said.
She pleads to anyone with information, “What if this happened to your brother or sister or child, and all this time you don’t know what happened to them? … Some resolution would help us sleep a little better at night.”
Anyone with information on this case is asked to contact Tovar at 209-525-7080.
Information also may be provided to Stanislaus Area Crime Stoppers at 209-521-4636. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward. Tips also can be submitted via www.stancrimetips.org.
Kope’s family is also offering a reward of $12,000 for information leading to a conviction in the case.
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