Poplawski ends silence from his jail cell

Accused killer of 3 policemen describes himself as mentally ill

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In his first interview since he was charged with the slayings of three Pittsburgh police officers, Richard Poplawski complained about his accommodations at the Allegheny County Jail, described himself as mentally ill, but refused to talk about the April 4 crimes for which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In a clear and steady voice, interrupted twice by automated warnings that the call could be monitored, Mr. Poplawski, 22, spoke for an allotted 15 minutes yesterday from the jail, where he is isolated from other inmates.

"We're not going to delve into the events of April 4 or anything like that," Mr. Poplawski said. Discussing the fatal shootings of officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly, he said, would go against the advice of his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Lisa G. Middleman.

"First and foremost, the reason I wanted to reach out here is because I want the community to know what an individual may be faced with if they find themselves faced with some serious charges," he said. "I want to improve my condition down here."

Mr. Poplawski faces 28 criminal charges in connection with the deadly ambush in Stanton Heights, including three counts of homicide, nine counts of attempted homicide, two counts of discharging a firearm into an occupied structure, four counts of reckless endangerment and one count of possessing unlawful body armor.

Police say he wore a bulletproof vest, armed himself with an AK-47 assault-style rifle, and waited for the officers to respond to his mother's request that he be removed from her home.

During the interview, Mr. Poplawski calmly offered glimpses into his imprisonment, saying he spends his days in "an observation cell with a very large front window that doesn't afford me any privacy."

"I've been locked in isolation 24-slash-7 underneath large light fixtures that never switch off," he said, which aggravates "issues with my Circadian rhythms."

Mr. Poplawski's statements could not be verified. Jail Warden Ramon Rustin declined to comment, citing an April gag order from Judge Jeffrey Manning that blocks police investigators, attorneys, court and jail personnel from discussing the case with the media.

He also cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) Act, which protects the confidentiality of health information, saying Mr. Poplawski is under "medical supervision." That means "his stay is being overseen by two entities, medical and operations," Mr. Rustin said, but he declined to comment further. Ms. Middleman also declined to comment.

Mr. Rustin would not disclose Mr. Poplawski's current restrictions yesterday, but in an April interview before the gag order was imposed, he said Mr. Poplawski was being kept in administrative custody -- essentially solitary confinement -- for 23 hours a day, taking showers and meals alone.

Mr. Rustin said at the time that there were 25 other cells in Mr. Poplawski's unit, and a guard sat in the middle of them, watching Mr. Poplawski through a window in case he tried to kill himself. He was being kept in isolation so officials could decide whether he was suicidal or stable.

Since his incarceration, Mr. Poplawski said, "I have been denied a viable psychiatric treatment plan, I have been denied access to legal counsel, access to religious services, access to social services, access to privileges such as commissary and visitors, access to gym equipment, the library."

He was granted phone privileges on Wednesday, he said.

"This is all with my behavior being very good," he said.

Mr. Poplawski said he has "undergone psychological abuse, egregious verbal harassment and humiliation since the beginning of my incarceration."

"I've had a [jail] captain tell me that he was going to pop a bottle of champagne off upon my lethal injection," Mr. Poplawski said.

Another guard, he said, called him "a piece of garbage" and said he hoped Mr. Poplawski wouldn't "make it" to his lethal injection; still another guard, he said, told him he would be raped in prison. Yet, Mr. Poplawski added, two guards "tasked with most regularly handling me ... are consummate professionals."

"I want to remind the Allegheny County Jail staff that I am unconvicted," Mr. Poplawski said. "I am to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. No man who is a sinner himself is worthy to judge me."

Among other complaints, Mr. Poplawski said "the Allegheny County Jail is neglecting my mental health" by not conducting what he called a "full psychiatric evaluation."

He described the jail's medical staff "worthy of high praise," but said, "I see a doctor only a few minutes each week. He prescribes a host of different medications, he has never done a full psychiatric evaluation on me."

"I've considered myself mentally ill for as long as I can remember," he said, but added that he has never been officially diagnosed with any particular ailment.

Mr. Poplawski described a May 8 incident in which he became disturbed and began pounding on a glass window in his 8-by-10-foot cell -- "nothing too out of the ordinary" -- prompting guards to restrain him and strap him to a table, he said.

Aside from that, he said, "my behavior since I have been down here has been exemplary. There is no way I could be any more cooperative."


Correction/Clarification: (Published June 17, 2009) The first name of Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin was incorrect in this story as originally published June 16, 2009.

Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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