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The Curious Case of Dojo Pizza 

Accused of human trafficking, Loren Copp is under fire -- and in legal limbo

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Dojo Pizza had always been a strange, if sort of charming concept. The idea of a grizzled sensei taking an unlikely band of young students into his home and teaching them the karate and life skills they'd need to survive in a tough neighborhood seemed like the plot of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knockoff. (But get this: They'll live in a vacant church and support themselves by making delicious pizzas!)

"The thrill of eating at Dojo Pizza comes from knowing that the place probably couldn't exist anywhere outside St. Louis," wrote St. Louis Magazine.

The allegations of human trafficking, however, cast a sinister tint onto what had once seemed like oddball fun. At the center is Loren Copp, who has not been charged with any crime, although the investigation remains open. Whether you think there's a case against him hinges on how you feel about Copp. Is he a big-hearted champion of hard-luck kids? A deviant who preys upon the vulnerable? Or maybe just a bad businessman who made some mistakes, but is still getting a raw deal?

Copp had at first planned to help operate a K-8 school in the former home of Christy Memorial United Methodist Church on Morgan Ford Road. He was the pastor of Southwest Christian Church at the time, and the congregation wanted to set up its own education system, funneling the south-city students into a new $1.4 million high school it was building next to church headquarters in Fenton.

It was an ambitious plan, but Copp is an ambitious guy — sometimes prone to bite off more than he can chew. A 2011 front-page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered two decades of lawsuits and fraud allegations targeting Copp and his failed construction ventures.

It wasn't long before the high school plan began to falter too, and follow-up stories in the Post-Dispatch detailed a new round of lawsuits between contractors and Southwest. 

Copp now says the coverage scared off investors. "This article came out, and it tanked us," he says.

Southwest dissolved under the financial pressure, and Copp split off to run his own operation at the Morgan Ford facility. He attributes his previous construction troubles to the overconfidence of a younger man.

"I thought I could do more than I could do," he says. "That's exactly what happened."

click to enlarge Dojo Pizza sits empty after a St. Louis building inspector filed 38 code violations. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Dojo Pizza sits empty after a St. Louis building inspector filed 38 code violations.

Dojo Pizza was a refuge for Copp. He was teaching karate classes and slowly working on the aging building. A donor supplied a high-end, spring-loaded floor for martial arts practice. A church donated used computers to set up a lab, and a former pupil passed along an inherited pizza oven. 

At first, Copp made pies just to feed the ten or twelve students who continued to take online classes after plans for the high school folded. Kids from the neighborhood soon figured out they could drop by the karate school for a meal, and their parents started to follow.

"The name stuck because everybody kept saying, 'I'm going to get some dojo pizza,'" Copp says.

He played along, sending the kids dressed in karate uniforms to serve customers. Diners saw it as lovable schtick, and the back-story of a nonprofit pizza shop supporting free karate lessons for poor kids was a heartwarmer. Dojo Pizza's Yelp reviews — four stars overall — were peppered with praise for the restaurant's "wonderful mission" and "good works."

Copp proudly introduced his teenage "daughters" to customers as he explained the operation. He wasn't their biological dad, or even their stepfather, but he had raised them for most of their lives and considered them his girls.

They had started living together as part of a temporary arrangement. Copp and his wife at the time, Julie, met Tauna Cowin at a school event. Cowin had six kids but not much money. When her family's apartment was condemned, she scrambled to find places for everyone. The youngest kids stayed with her; an older son moved in with his grandparents. Copp and his wife agreed to take in two of the sisters and an older brother.

The boy eventually moved on, but the girls (whom the RFT is identifying only by their initials), A.E. and K.S., stayed. Over time, they began to think of Copp as their dad. They stayed with him even after his divorce in 2013 and moved with him into the old church.

The building, if unconventional, turned out to be a perfect hangout for bored teens. Karate classes were free. Dance instructors took over the floor a couple of times a week, and there were concerts some weekends.

"It was like, 'Come in here, play basketball,'" says Heath Cowin, an older brother to A.E. and K.S. "'Come in and do karate. Come in and talk.'"

The girls quickly made friends with other teens in the neighborhood. Many of their new buddies went home to families at night, but in others they recognized a familiar sadness: children with fathers they never saw, mothers who made endless, empty promises. A slumber party with girls who had nowhere else to go might turn into a week, and then months. Some of the mothers even signed documents giving Copp power of attorney while they served jail sentences or searched for long-term housing.

But with four or five girls living at the dojo, and other teens dropping by during the day, things could be chaotic.

Copp ran the school under a nonprofit incorporated in 2007, Ma-ji Ryu Christian Karate Association Inc. He was an admittedly sloppy bookkeeper, installing one of the teens as a board member for a time to complete his mandated filings.

Recently, he received an $18,000 property tax bill. (He says he shouldn't have to pay because he runs a nonprofit.) The state notified Copp in May it planned to "dissolve or revoke" the corporation because he failed to notify authorities of a registered agent.

Through the school, he was granted government funds for breakfasts, lunches and snacks to feed the students. The payouts totaled $14,121 for the 2014-'15 school year, according to Missouri Department of Education records. They were also provided some government-issued food, Copp says.

The kids frequently ate pizza for dinner. Sometimes Copp sprang for McDonald's hamburgers.

It wasn't two parents and a white picket fence, but it also wasn't foster care or the streets.

"We took them in from a troubled situation," Copp says. Of the first two sisters who came under his care, he recalls, "That was supposed to be the summer. It ended up being nine years."

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