Richard Andrew Poplawski was a young man convinced the nation was secretly controlled by a cabal that would eradicate freedom of speech, take away his guns and use the military to enslave the citizenry.
His online profile suggests someone at once lonely and seething. He wrote of burning the backs of both of his hands, the first time with a cigarette, the second time for symmetry. He subscribed to conspiracy theories and, by January 2007, was posting photographs of his tattoos on white supremacist Web site Stormfront. Among his ambitions: "to accumulate enough 'I punched that [expletive] so hard' stories to match my old man."
"Crazy to me is going through the motions," he wrote on his MySpace profile three years ago. "Crazy to me is letting each day slip past you. Crazy is being insignificant. Crazy is being obscure, pointless."
No longer obscure, the 22-year-old is charged in the worst police shooting in the modern history of Pittsburgh. No one is calling his actions anything but pointless.
"He was really into politics and really into the First and Second amendment. One thing he feared was he feared the gun ban because he thought that was going to take away peoples' right to defend themselves. He never spoke of going out to murder or to kill," said Edward Perkovic, who described himself as Mr. Poplawski's lifelong best friend.
Mr. Poplawski's view of guns and personal freedom took a turn toward the fringes of American politics. With Mr. Perkovic, he appeared to share a belief that the government was controlled from unseen forces, that troops were being shipped home from the Mideast to police the citizenry here, and that Jews secretly ran the country.
"We recently discovered that 30 states had declared sovereignty," said Mr. Perkovic, who lives in Lawrenceville. "One of his concerns was why were these major events in America not being reported to the public."
Believing most media were covering up important events, Mr. Poplawski turned to a far-right conspiracy Web site run by Alex Jones, a self-described documentarian with roots going back to the extremist militia movement of the early 1990s.
Around the same time, he joined Florida-based Stormfront, which has long been a clearinghouse Web site for far-right groups. He posted photographs of his tattoo, an eagle spread across his chest.
"I was considering gettin' life runes on the outside of my calfs," he wrote. Life runes are a common symbol among white supremacists, notably followers of The National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group linked to an array of violent organizations.
"For some time now there has been a pretty good connection between being sucked into this conspiracy world and propagating violence," said Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center and an expert on political extremists. She called Mr. Poplawski's act, "a classic example of what happens when you start buying all this conspiracy stuff."
Mr. Perkovic said Mr. Poplawski's parents had split when he was young.
"His dad's totally out of the picture," said Mr. Perkovic.
According to his MySpace profile online, Mr. Poplawski lived in Stanton Heights, was an avid Penguins fan, considered Mario Lemieux his hero, and held his grandmother, Catherine Poplawski, whom he called "Cukie," in warm esteem.
Mr. Perkovic said his friend essentially dropped out of North Catholic High School. Officials there would only say he was asked to leave.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- a day before Mr. Poplawski's birthday -- he decided to join the military, stopped going to classes and pursued a general educational development certificate.
"In boot camp he had missed his girlfriend so he had to make a decision ... he got himself dishonorably discharged so he could come back," Mr. Perkovic said.
According to Mr. Perkovic, Mr. Poplawski tossed a lunch tray at a drill instructor.
The relationship with his girlfriend, Melissa Gladish, went sour after Mr. Poplawski returned to Pittsburgh.
Court records show that on Sept. 14, 2005, Mr. Poplawski attacked Miss Gladish outside 1016 Fairfield St., the same address at which he would later be accused of killing the three police officers.
Miss Gladish said she had gone to Mr. Poplawski's house "and he began to argue with me and call me names. When I argued back he grabbed me by my hair and said, 'Do you think I'm going to let you talk to me like that? I don't let anyone talk to me like that."'
He threatened to kill her, the records show. In a form asking Miss Gladish to list all weapons Mr. Poplawski had used, she listed "gun that the defendant says is buried in the park near his house."
Less than a month later, police sought Mr. Poplawski for violating a protection-from-abuse order after he went to Miss Gladish's workplace, a King's Restaurant, and asked her to marry him. He then moved to the West Palm Beach, Fla., area. Mr. Perkovic said he worked there as a glazier for two years.
Two years later, back in Pittsburgh, Mr. Poplawski wrote on MySpace of the episode: "She's lucky I didn't kill that broad myself. Hahaha."
Dennis Roddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1965.