911 call set battle plan in motion

Accused killer put bulletproof vest on and armed himself


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Richard Poplawski warned his mother that she shouldn't call the police.

He was surprised that she'd do so, knowing that he had so many loaded weapons in his house.

They had been arguing after she woke him to complain that his two puppies had made a mess on the floor. When he heard Margaret Poplawski call 911 that morning from the basement of their Stanton Heights home, he went into his bedroom and put on what he called his "suit for battle."

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First he layered his bullet-proof vest over his chest, and then pulled on a Mario Lemieux Penguins jersey. Last, he strapped on an ammunition belt for his .357 Magnum revolver.

Mr. Poplawski recounted the events of April 4, 2009, in a three-hour statement given to Detective James R. Smith, who interviewed him at UPMC Presbyterian the day after the shootings. He is charged with homicide in the deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers.

Mr. Smith was the last of 41 prosecution witnesses called during Mr. Poplawski's trial this week. On Friday evening, the government rested its case.

During his lengthy testimony, Mr. Smith told the jury that he first encountered Mr. Poplawski when he was handcuffed to his hospital bed in a secure unit.

The suspect called the officer over and eventually walked him through the shootout step by step.

Mr. Poplawski told the detective that after his mother called 911, he grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun from the corner of his room. Then he heard Officers Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle arrive at the house at 1016 Fairfield St.

"The police arrived much quicker than I expected," Mr. Poplawski wrote in his statement. "I was caught off guard. This led to a snap decision to shoot. [I] just believed police were going to kill me."

Mr. Poplawski strode out of his bedroom and fired a single shot from his hip, he told the detective.

"He called it 'point and click,' " Detective Smith testified.

Officer Sciullo went down in the threshold.

Officer Mayhle, who was directly behind him, entered the house, and Mr. Poplawski tried to fire again.

But the shotgun jammed, he told detectives, so he ran into the kitchen to clear the round.

He chambered another and heard Officer Mayhle shout into his police radio, "He's shooting at us."

Then, Officer Mayhle returned fire, striking Mr. Poplawski in the chest near his heart.

But the vest stopped the .40-caliber round.

Had he not been wearing it, Mr. Poplawski later said, the whole thing would have ended.

Instead, it continued for 31/2 hours and only concluded after officers Sciullo, Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly, who arrived to help his colleagues, were dead, and a fourth officer was wounded.

Mr. Poplawski recounted that he discarded his shotgun in favor of an assault rifle and started firing at Officer Kelly's white SUV when he arrived at the scene.

He also told Detective Smith, who had to pause to compose himself at this part of his testimony, that had he seen the rescue operation city officers led to recover officers Kelly and Tim McManaway, he would have shot at them.

He didn't see them because he was "surveying the rear," of the house, Detective Smith testified.

Officer Mayhle tried to retreat from the house, but only got to the front walkway before he fell to the ground. Mr. Poplawski told the detective he shot the fallen officer several times because "he could have been playing possum."

The defendant told Detective Smith at one point he tried to take Officer Sciullo's duty weapon out of his holster, but he couldn't figure out how to get the restraining strap undone.

While city officers were trying to figure out how to get to their fallen colleagues, Mr. Poplawski went into his mother's bedroom in the front of the house. He was assessing his leg wound -- Officer Mayhle had shot him -- when the city's armored SWAT vehicle arrived.

Mr. Poplawski fired at it and thought he killed both the driver and passenger. He didn't learn until after the shootout that the bullet-proof glass in the windows wasn't penetrated.

While he was holed up in the room, Mr. Poplawski said he was in severe pain. He used his own blood to write the word, "Cuckie," -- his nickname for his maternal grandmother -- on the wall.

"He said he was cold and woozy and felt defeated," the officer recounted. "He said he felt like he was dying."

Mr. Poplawski also contemplated committing suicide when he was pinned down and felt like he couldn't win, Detective Smith testified.

He worried about the idea of going to prison and losing his freedom, but then Mr. Poplawski rallied himself, the detective continued, by remembering that in prison he could read, lift weights, have visitors and maybe even write a book.

During the shootout, he told the detective, several of his friends called him, and Mr. Poplawski made one outgoing call to an old girlfriend he considered "his first love." He told Detective Smith he hung up on the woman after she "gave him an attitude."

At another point during an active part of the gun battle, Mr. Poplawski said a Mastercard debt collector called him looking for payment.

"He told Mastercard, 'I'm in a shootout with police. You're out of luck,' " Detective Smith testified.

After Mr. Poplawski finished his statement at the hospital, Detective Smith gave him the opportunity to review his notes. Mr. Poplawski made numerous changes and corrections -- fixing the detective's grammar and spelling.

He also crossed a few things out, believing that they "didn't sound good for him," Detective Smith testified.

In the hours after the shootout, Mr. Poplawski's attitude at the hospital shifted repeatedly from cocky to contrite, according to several witnesses.

He commended Officer Mayhle's actions to one of the officers who were guarding him.

" 'That one officer was brave today,' " Mr. Poplawski told Officer Thomas Duffola, who also testified on Friday. " 'He shot me in the chest, but I had a vest on. They all did very well. Those officers didn't deserve this.' "

Mr. Poplawski also remarked to the officer how impressed he was by a sniper who shot his assault rifle out of his hands.

But later, when Mr. Poplawski was apparently frustrated by the lights in his room being left on, he shouted at Officer Duffola, " 'That's why I kill guys like you.' "

And still later, Officer Duffola testified, " 'I wish that was you that came to my door today.' "

To Deputy Troy Garrett, who guarded Mr. Poplawski overnight into April 5, 2009, he apologized and said he had always considered himself a "fighter for liberty and a supporter of police."

To a nursing assistant, he said "You know, I didn't wake up wanting to kill people," Stephanie Reichert testified.

But then he continued, "How many cops did I kill?"

She answered, "I don't know."

He replied, " 'Not enough, I bet.' "

Ms. Reichert, who had to help bathe and feed Mr. Poplawski, described his attitude.

"I think it was very nonchalant."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published June 25, 2011 4:00 AM


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