Deadly ambush in Stanton Heights claims the lives of 3 city police officers
Suspect wore body armor and was armed with two rifles
April 5, 2009 8:00 AM
Family members of shooting suspect Richard Poplawski -- including women identified by a friend as his grandmother, far left, and mother, second from right -- comfort each other along Fairfield Street in Stanton Heights yesterday.
Lt. Michael Scott receives a hug from Beth Pittinger, director of the Citizen Police Review Board, after a news conference yesterday afternoon about the officers' shooting.
By Michael A. Fuoco Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was a morning that shook a city to its core.
Even as the adrenaline began to subside, even as the danger ended, even as fear began to lose its grip, there was no getting back to normal. Police and public alike found themselves face to face with pain, sadness and loss -- three Pittsburgh police officers had been killed.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would say later at a somber news conference it was "truly a tragic and very sorrowful day" because of "a senseless and tragic, random act of violence."
As tragedy often does, the day began with the routine.
Pittsburgh police Officers Paul Sciullo II and Stephen Mayhle were about an hour short of ending their overnight shifts yesterday when 911 dispatched them to 1016 Fairfield St. in Stanton Heights at 7:05 a.m. The call, described as a domestic argument between a mother and son with no weapons involved, was also heard by Officer Eric Kelly, who had just finished his 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift.
Still in uniform but driving his own white SUV to his Stanton Heights home, he decided to swing by Fairfield to back up his fellow officers from the Zone 5 station in East Liberty.
With 14 years on the force, Officer Kelly knew domestic calls can be the most dangerous an officer faces. This call would underscore that sad truth.
Within minutes, all three officers were fatally shot by the subject of the domestic call, later identified as Richard "Pop" Poplawski, 22. A discharged Marine, he adhered to a number of right-wing conspiracy theories and expressed fears of a "Zionist nation" revoking his right to own guns.
Police said Mr. Poplawski knew his mother had called 911, knew officers would come to his house. He apparently lay in wait, armed with an AK-47 assault-style rifle, a .22-caliber rifle and a revolver and wearing a bulletproof vest.
Mr. Poplawski shot Officer Sciullo in the head when the officer reached the doorway, police Chief Nate Harper said. He shot Officer Mayhle, who was behind Officer Sciullo, in the head as well, the chief said.
Officer Kelly was shot just after pulling up to the scene. Gravely wounded and lying in the street, he used his radio to report that officers were down. Other officers risked their lives to get Officer Kelly out of danger. They succeeded, but he later died.
The shootings started a four-hour siege in which Officer Timothy McManaway was wounded in the hand while trying to help Officer Kelly. Officer Brian Jones broke his leg when a fence collapsed as he was trying to secure the back of the scene.
Mr. Poplawski also was wounded multiple times in the leg. He was in fair condition in UPMC Presbyterian.
Before surrendering, he exchanged hundreds of rounds of gunfire with SWAT officers from his bedroom window, while calling friends and telling them he was going to die, that he had been hit in his bulletproof vest and in his leg, and that he loved them.
The event transformed a once-placid neighborhood of well-tended homes and manicured yards into what resembled a war zone. Bursts of gunfire broke the morning calm. Hundreds of heavily armed, heavily saddened officers from numerous agencies flooded the area.
"We woke up at a quarter after seven and all I heard was 'boom, boom, boom!'" said Scott Bisceglia, 40, who lives a block away at Antoinette and Oglethorpe streets. "It was a war zone."
Drew Stadler, 34, who also lives on Oglethorpe, said he saw the gunman repeatedly firing an automatic weapon from a double window above the garage of the house. Gunfire pinned down several SWAT officers, who used shields for protection, Mr. Stadler said. A SWAT sharpshooter positioned himself on the roof across the street, targeting his rifle at Mr. Poplawski's house.
By late morning, one armored police vehicle had pulled in front of the house and another was on the hill overlooking Fairfield Street while officers attempted to negotiate his surrender.
Neighbors, including many who know Mr. Poplawski, said they were terrified and stunned. Mr. Poplawski's mother, with whom Mr. Poplawski had a strained relationship, was not hurt and hid in the basement of the ranch-style home until he came to the doorway, hands raised, and gave himself up.
"Today has been indeed a very difficult day," Mayor Ravenstahl said later. "This week no doubt will be a very difficult week. But I believe as Pittsburghers always do, we will get through this, we will be united, we will remain strong and we will always remember these officers and the ultimate sacrifice they made."
Chief Harper, his grief palpable, noted the dangers of police work and referred to the fatal shooting of four Oakland, Calif., police officers two weeks ago. But, he added, "You never would think this type of violence would occur in the city of Pittsburgh."
Indeed, never before in the city's history have three officers lost their lives in the line of duty during a single incident. The last line-of-duty death was in 1995.
That all changed yesterday. No one knew why.
Edward Perkovic, of Lawrenceville, a longtime friend and former classmate at North Catholic High School in Troy Hill, said Mr. Poplawski was opposed to "Zionist propaganda."
"He always said that if someone tried to take his weapons away he would do what his forefathers told him to do and defend himself. He never threatened violence. He preached self-defense."
Still, Mr. Perkovic was shocked by the day's events.
"I never knew him to be like this," said Mr. Perkovic, who was among the people Mr. Poplawski called during the siege. Mr. Perkovic said Mr. Poplawski told him he had been shot in the bulletproof vest and the leg.
"He said, 'Eddie, I'm going to die today. Tell your family and friends I love them. This is probably the end.' "
A burst of gunfire followed, ending the call, Mr. Perkovic said.
Mr. Perkovic and Mr. Poplawski recently hosted an Internet talk radio show on www.pirateradio.com titled "Eddie and PO," where they discussed "politics, girls, life, comedic things."
Another friend, Aaron Vire, 23, said Mr. Poplawski strongly opposed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's candidacy.
He'd had "very spirited debates" with Mr. Vire, who is black and an Obama supporter.
"He wasn't a racist. He was a cool person. He thought he was losing some of his rights," said Mr. Vire. He said he knew Mr. Poplawski owned an AK-47 assault-type rifle, a .357 Magnum revolver, a .380-caliber handgun and a .45-caliber handgun.
"He said he'd be ready if there's ever an invasion of the United States and that he had stockpiled foods and guns," Mr. Vire said.
A former neighbor said she twice had called police about Mr. Poplawski -- once because he was throwing rocks at someone he was fighting with in front of his house and another time for a bloody fistfight with a friend.
She said she heard from a friend that Mr. Poplawski had been out drinking at a party into the morning and had been bragging about his cache of guns.
Deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson also said Mr. Poplawski had been out drinking all night, then argued with his mother when he arrived home around 6 a.m. She called 911.
Former North Catholic classmate Jeff Loeffle said he recalled Mr. Poplawski as "friendly, happy, the guy you want to be around. He was very, very smart.
"I want to know what happened, why he lost his way in life to want to do this," Mr. Loeffle said. "What makes anybody snap? What went wrong in his life that he couldn't handle? I don't know."
Nor did hundreds of police who gathered last night to pay homage to the dead and wounded officers during the nightly shift roll call at the East Liberty station. Heads bowed in prayer, mourners stood quietly at 11:20 p.m. while a dispatcher called out the numbers that had been used by the officers to identify themselves during radio transmissions.
One by one, the dispatcher intoned the officers' numbers, names and badge numbers before declaring each man "out of service." A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."