Vets get heartbreak instead of museums

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Kyle Kopitke never amounted to much as a politician. So after unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate, Salt Lake County assessor and county clerk in the early 1990s, he found a new calling: collecting money to build a national Korean War Museum.

His effort started in Utah, but when that failed, he took the idea on the road, perhaps to as many as eight states where he collected memorabilia from enthusiastic war veterans and money from a string of small towns wanting to boost tourism with the promise of a national museum.

Now, Kopitke, whose nonprofit National Korean War Museum project was incorporated in 1998 in Taylorsville, is in a rural Nebraska jail, serving a 90-day term for breaking into a museum he helped create there. He's also under investigation by the Nebraska Attorney General's Office. And veterans advocates are warning former service members against donating money or memorabilia to Kopitke or anyone representing themselves as a member of his organization.

Kopitke's effort started with promise. The Chicago native, a resident of West Valley City who served in the Army in the 1970s but was never in a war zone, wanted to build a museum in central Utah that would honor the nation's "Forgotten War," fought between 1950 and 1953 and resulting in more than 50,000 American deaths.

His polished delivery and unbridled optimism won Kopitke the support of several prominent Utah politicians, Hollywood actors and even astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who flew fighter jets for the Air Force during the Korean War.

He managed to get Rep. Chris Cannon and Sen. Orrin Hatch to ask for $2 million in federal funding for his project, which was to stand on 50 acres in central Utah near Beaver.

When those plans fell through - former associates say he had the support of plenty of vets and community members but couldn't convince any banks that his museum model would ever work - Kopitke began scouring the United States for a new home for his planned museum.

Those who scoured his records - Internal Revenue Service officials in Salt Lake City said Tuesday that Kopitke's purportedly nonprofit organization never filed proper documentation - opted not to deal with the former Utahn. But in the past six years, the former computer specialist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found plenty of people willing to take him at his word.

Among those was David Higley, who is listed as a co-director in Kopitke's nonprofit group on Utah Department of Commerce records.

Higley said on Tuesday he was unaware that federal tax forms had never been filed, explaining that Kopitke told him there hadn't been any income.

"As far as I know, there hasn't been that much money coming in," said Higley, who insists he was never paid for his services. "A lot of it went back into expenses of the museums."

Higley said he filed registration forms on the organization's behalf under the belief that Kopitke would return to Utah and resume his efforts to build a museum.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control accountant said he never asked for documentation of how Kopitke was spending the money he collected, saying he trusted Kopitke, as as friend, to do what was right.

He wasn't the only one. When Kopitke arrived in Hawaii, where a resident had offered him land to build his museum on the Big Island, Steve Kalnasy jumped aboard to help out. Kalnasy, a young, part-time publishing executive, helped Kopitke locate two stars from the television show "M*A*S*H," Jamie Farr and Mike Farrell, who recorded public service announcements in which they called for support for Kopitke's project. An August 2001 fundraiser - keynoted by Linda Lingle, now the state's governor - garnered thousands of dollars for the cause. But Kalnasy could never get Kopitke to tell him how much had been placed in the museum's account at the Bank of Hawaii.

Kopitke eventually opened a museum in Oahu, though Kalnasy says it was a shoddy production. "Everything was out in the open air, there was no protection or anything," he said. "There were a couple of uniforms, some busts of Korean War figures, but nothing significant."

Kalnasy said Kopitke told him that other, more important items were locked away in storage, but the young publisher was suspicious.

"A lot of this stuff is worth a lot of money," he said. "But more than that, it's priceless in terms of sentimental value to many people."

Working with a group of Korean War vets, The Chosin Few, Kalnasy did his best to warn others about Kopitke. Soon thereafter, the Utahn left for the mainland.

Even as Kopitke's past began to catch up with him on online message boards and veteran newsletters, he still managed to earn the trust of patriotic communities desperate for the tourist draw he pledged his museum would be.

City officials in Oxford, Neb., reported giving the former Utahn a truck, free utilities and an army of volunteers to help him convert an old nursing home into a new museum. But town leaders say that when they asked him to provide documentation of his organization's financial status, Kopitke instead packed up his collection of war artifacts and left town.

Judy Schott, city clerk in Nelson, Neb., said her town spent more than $30,000 - including $10,000 in cash - when the former Utahn showed up in the summer of 2005, pledging to bring a Vietnam War museum to her community of about 600 people.

"For a small town, that's a lot of money," Schott said. "But the veterans of the community were convinced he was going to build and keep a museum here."

Kopitke promised Schott and others that he would turn the city's former schoolhouse into a high-trafficked stop on a "trail of museums" stretching through the Midwest.

"A trail of museums is, to me, a bunch of empty buildings left behind," Schott said. "I don't know of a single museum that was ever left open."

Kopitke was arrested in June after trespassing on the property of the Oxford facility. Found guilty on criminal trespass last week, he was sentenced to 90 days in the Furnace County jail.

Hal Barker doesn't think Kopitke's alleged cons will end with the recent incarceration.

"This guy is the Music Man," said Barker, founder of the Dallas-based Korean War Project.

Barker has found records, in newspaper clippings and city council reports, of Kopitke's efforts to open museums in Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, New York, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Nebraska. He believes at least one veteran lost his home after funding Kopitke's project in Hawaii.

Those communities that did buy into Kopitke's plans found his operations - mostly collections of photographs, many left unframed, and war memorabilia - to be "trashy and tacky," Barker said. "And they paid royally for it."

John Kurtenbach of Kearney, Neb., said he fell for Kopitke's pitch "like a sucker," donated his old photographs, newspaper clippings and, most painfully, his uniforms.

When Kurtenbach, who served in Korea from 1950-51, finally recovered one uniform coat, it was covered in mold and mildew.

"I guess I've just trusted people too much," he said.

Lynnita Brown, a Tuscola, Ill., historian, said vets like Kurtenbach are a trusting lot, making them easier to con.

"These are men and women who were in a war that nobody cared about," said Brown, who on her Web site - - warns vets against associating with Kopitke. "Those war veterans wanted so badly for someone to understand their war that they couldn't see he was preying upon their sentimentality."