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Charleston Daily Mail (WV)
August 24, 1999
Author: STEVE MYERS
When Sally Dunbar departed for vacation last week, she left behind a cancer-stricken husband and a troubled 18-year-old grandson. But her trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Atlanta was cut short. Her grandson, Robert Dewayne Copen, an orphan who has been plagued by mental problems for years, had been jailed as a murder suspect.
Copen stands accused of lying in wait for Joan C. Moore on the roof of her beauty salon and shooting her several times with a 9mm rifle as she left work at 3 a.m. Saturday. “It’s still hard for me to believe that Robert could do something like this,” Sally Dunbar said. “I knew he had a problem, but not this kind of problem.”
Others in the Belle community, who know Copen as a local troublemaker, aren’t surprised by what happened. Police believe robbery was the motive for the shooting, but they found cash on Moore’s body at the scene. Others have speculated that Copen had a crush on the hairdresser. Kenny and Sally Dunbar have cared for Copen since his mother died in a car accident when he was 3 years old, Sally Dunbar said. No one knows who Copen’s father is, she said. Over the years, Copen has been in and out of trouble, she said. He usually was kicked out of school several weeks into the school year and was taught through homebound instruction, an alternative to regular school often used for students with disciplinary problems. He was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and started taking Ritalin when he was 8 years old, she said.
Moore started cutting his hair around the same time, Sally Dunbar said, and was understanding of Copen’s condition. His grandparents put him in counseling and even had him hospitalized, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disease, or manic depression. He was taking Depakote, an anticonvulsant medication often used to treat behavioral problems, and Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, Sally Dunbar said.
Copen received a $500 check monthly from Supplemental Security Income because of his mental problems. Since he turned 18 in February, Copen has butted heads with his grandparents more and more, Sally Dunbar said. He quit school after his last birthday, she said. They frequently had heated arguments over his activities, such as hanging out in Rand and whether he was using drugs, Sally Dunbar said. “I’d have him so mad,” Sally Dunbar said. “If he was going to hurt somebody, he would have hurt me.”
Others have described run-ins with Copen differently. Joshua Holbert, an 18-year-old from Rand, is a witness in a grand larceny charge pending against Copen. In late June, Holbert witnessed Copen driving a car belonging to someone else, according to court records. Holbert and Copen had been friends since they were kids, Holbert said. “We really was good friends for a few years, then he started messing up and I kicked him down the curb and said, ‘So long, buddy.'”
Copen wanted to emulate his favorite rap artist, Master P, Holbert said. “He has always wanted to live a gangster life,” Holbert said. Since the incident with the stolen car, Copen has threatened him, Holbert said. Jason Holstein, 18, said he got into a fight with Copen a few weeks ago on the Belle docks. Copen pulled a handgun on him but didn’t do anything, even after Holstein egged on Copen by telling him to shoot him in the back and then in the head, Holstein said. He didn’t report the incident to police and wonders if Moore’s shooting would have been prevented if he had. “If I’d have thought of the situation and the time that it happened, then she would’ve never gotten killed,” Holstein said. The chief of the Belle Police Department refused to say if officers have had previous run-ins with Copen. The Dunbars believe Copen’s mental illness lies behind whatever happened early Saturday morning.
They never knew Copen owned any guns, including the rifle he allegedly used in the shooting. They don’t understand how someone with mental problems can legally buy a gun. Once he turned 18, Copen was allowed to buy rifles or shotguns but not handguns. “I think it’s a damn shame that someone with a mental problem can walk in and buy a firearm,” Kenny Dunbar said. Sally Dunbar left $300 or $400 for Copen when she left on vacation, Kenny Dunbar said. He didn’t know if Copen used that money to buy the weapon. Copen cried when he talked to his grandmother after he was arrested, Sally Dunbar said. Copen is being held without bail in South Central Regional Jail. An unidentified 14-year-old Rand boy also was arrested in connection with the shooting.
“He said he would not hurt Joanie,” Sally Dunbar said, adding that Copen told her he loved Moore like he loved her – like a mom. “He said he was forced to do it,” she said. Copen asked his grandmother to sign a poster in Moore’s memory at her beauty salon. “He just is so hurt over this,” she said. Sally Dunbar expressed her grief for Moore’s family. She knows what it’s like to lose loved ones, having had a relative die each of the last three years. She cared for her mother as cancer took her life. Kenny Dunbar also is battling lung cancer himself. “Now, with Robert, even though Robert’s still here, it’s like he’s dead,” Sally Dunbar said. She’s 55 years old and her husband is 66, she said. “He’ll never be out to be home again.” Writer Steve Myers can be reached at 348-4842. Page: 1A