A farewell salute to fallen officers

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This story was written by staff writer Michael A. Fuoco based on his reporting and that of staff writers James O'Toole, Ann Rodgers, Mackenzie Carpenter, Rich Lord, Jerome L. Sherman, Paula Reed Ward and Dan Majors.

The sounds, the sights, even the weather yesterday morning were hauntingly, painfully reminiscent of five days earlier.

Sirens wailed unrelentingly. Red lights flashed as police cars sped to a Pittsburgh neighborhood. Sunshine and blue skies belied an unimaginable tragedy that had been visited upon the city.

But yesterday, respect, dignity and order had supplanted the violence and chaos of Saturday.

The lights and sirens activated yesterday were not to hasten aid to fallen comrades but to honor slain Pittsburgh police Officers Eric G. Kelly, 41, Paul J. Sciullo II, 37, and Stephen J. Mayhle, 29.

The three, gunned down as they responded to a domestic disturbance in Stanton Heights, were memorialized with words, music and tears as selfless heroes during a 21/2-hour service at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center.

Thousands of officers from across the country and Canada, wearing black bands over their badges, joined hundreds of Pittsburgh officers in mourning the three, who were killed after answering the domestic call at 1016 Fairfield St.

A mother wanted her son, Richard Poplawski, 22, out of the house. He is charged with three counts of homicide and is being held in the Allegheny County Jail.

The outpouring of support, grief and appreciation began much earlier than the service. Thousands of people, some having to wait in long lines, paid last respects to the officers during the 20 hours that they lay in repose Wednesday and yesterday at the City-County Building.

And yesterday morning, as the coffins were removed from the City-County Building and placed into hearses, thousands more lined the procession route to Oakland to honor the victims of the city's first line-of-duty deaths since 1995.

Men and women, young and old, cried, held hands over their hearts and waved American flags as the hearses passed. Everywhere there was a stillness, the silence of respect and grief. At one point on Grant Street, the crowd gently broke the silence with spontaneous, respectful applause as each hearse drove by.

The day was full of extraordinarily moving tributes in reaction to an extraordinary event: Never before had three Pittsburgh officers been killed in the same incident.

At the memorial service, the procession of police officers was as meaningful as the words of tribute and comfort that followed. They filed to their seats to the sad notes of requiems played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's string quartet.

The service was slated for 1 p.m., but it took until 2:20 p.m. for the officers to be seated, accounting for most of the estimated 10,000 people present.

When the color guard entered, the music stopped. The officers stepped forward in utter silence, the rhythm of their martial steps muffled by padding on the arena floor.

Bagpipers and drummers preceded each casket and family into the arena. Officer Mayhle's daughters, Jennifer, 6, and Brooklynn, 3, were dressed in Easter pink as they held hands with their mother, Shandra, for the procession down the aisle.

The stage had been decorated with greenery, which was colored by purple stage lights, mingling the hues of mourning, Lent and eternal life.

Speaking of and to the fallen officers and to their families, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl described his awe for them and for the work their colleagues continue to perform.

"How can words possibly speak loudly enough -- profoundly enough -- when measured against the brave sacrifice laid down for us all?''

Standing before the trio of flag-draped coffins, the mayor offered capsule biographies of each of the officers, recalling that two years ago, he swore in Officers Mayhle and Sciullo and their class.

"Few among us have the opportunity to do what we truly love,'' he said of Officer Sciullo. "Paul loved nothing more than being a Pittsburgh police officer, improving the lives of the people of his neighborhood, his city.''

Officer Mayhle, he said, "sought Pittsburgh to live out his dream, recently buying his first house in Brookline with his wife and two young daughters. What a beautiful family he built. What a commitment he had to his family, with whom he shared a birthday dinner on the night of April 3rd. What a commitment he had to the community in which they lived and our children live.''

He described Officer Kelly's final call, noting that he had just finished his shift but decided to back up his fellow Zone 5 officers anyway.

"Officer Kelly made his way to Fairfield Street -- only blocks away from his own home -- to protect his colleagues and his community. He rushed to the aid of his brothers.''

The mayor appeared to fight back tears as he predicted the emotions their memories would continue to stir.

"We will remember Officers Sciullo, Mayhle and Kelly. Our breaths will catch. Our eyes will well with tears. Knots will form in the pit of our stomach. Paul, Stephen and Eric brought the true meaning of 'Protect and Serve' to life.''

He said the men would not be forgotten, and asked those in attendance that Pittsburghers remember the officers whenever they hear sirens on Liberty Avenue, Stanton Avenue or Brookline Boulevard, the main streets in each of the officers' neighborhoods.

The mayor spoke before a hall dotted, like an Impressionist painting, with patches of light and dark blue, whites, khakis and blacks, the hues of the uniforms of the men and women paying their final tribute.

While recalling "the darkest day in the history of the Pittsburgh police,'' Chief Nate Harper united the officers' fate with those from across the country who had come to honor them. He pointed to Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif., as communities that have suffered through similar police tragedies in recent months, other instances of "shining beacons of light ... suddenly extinguished much too soon.''

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who has had to attend similar rites for Philadelphia police officers four times in the last two years, was among the listeners. He sat with an array of dignitaries, including FBI Director William Mueller, Gov. Ed Rendell, and Sen. Bob Casey. Near them were Attorney General Tom Corbett, Auditor General Jack Wagner, County Executive Dan Onorato, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan and scores of judges, legislators and other officials. Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the ambassador designate to Ireland, was there with his wife, Patricia.

According to a White House official, an aide to President Obama had hand-delivered a letter from the president to each of the three victims' families. The president extended the nation's gratitude for the officers' service and dedication and offered his and Michelle Obama's sympathy.

At one point during the ceremony, a man dressed in civilian clothes walked into one of the back hallways of the Petersen Events Center. He stopped and dropped to his knees, tears streaming down his face. A young female Pittsburgh police officer came over and spoke softly to him before helping him to his feet and into a nearby office, where she shut the door.

The Rev. Dan Mayhle, a Wesleyan pastor from Knoxville, Tenn., and Officer Mayhle's uncle, urged the mourners to forgive the officers' killer even as Jesus had forgiven those who crucified him.

"We are seeking to follow the example of Christ and feel as though it is the most fitting response to this tragedy," he said. "While we hope that justice will prevail, and we have no reason to believe it will not, we are asking God to give us a compassionate heart that would offer hope to the soul of the one who has taken these three very precious lives."

The impending celebration of Easter gives the family hope that it wants to share, he said.

"We believe Stephen's life had divine purpose," he said. "Death is not final. God's word promises that we can each share in the victory of life over death."

The Rev. John Dinello, pastor of Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph parish in Bloomfield, where Officer Sciullo faithfully attended Mass, said that the officer had told his parents he was entering police work as a second career because "he wanted to be in a profession that made a difference."

His cousin, Steve Sciullo, provided the only levity at the service when he said the officer's golf game was so finely honed that "now we are hearing that he is already giving strokes to God."

His cousin, who was engaged to be married, was exemplary in all that he did, Steve Sciullo said.

"If we follow in his footsteps and learn from the things he did, this will be a much brighter world."

Officer Kelly, survived by his wife, Marena, and three daughters, Tameka, 22, Autumn, 16, and Janelle, 11, told his eldest daughter he wouldn't be long on the domestic call.

"He told Tameka 'I'll be right back,'" said the Rev. Lorraine Williams, pastor of Stanton Heights United Methodist Church. "We are numb today, and there is a dull ache in our hearts and souls and spirits because we know that is a promise he was not allowed to keep."

She told the mourners that tears are a gift from God.

"They release us not only from sadness but from anger, guilt and loneliness. Use this gift of God."

Officer Kelly's uncle, Melvin Paul, said his nephew was known for his persistence, even in adversity.

"I believe he would not want us to be sad, but to move on with living," he said.

Catholic Bishop David Zubik gave a final blessing.

"Let us now go forth in peace to build a more peaceful world," he said.

With that, the bagpipes began playing "Amazing Grace," and thousands of officers saluted.

From there, the three caskets were driven past the Zone 5 police station in Highland Park for a "final salute." Officers lined Washington Boulevard and saluted in silence as the hearses drove beneath two raised ladders on Pittsburgh Fire Bureau aerial trucks.

Officer Sciullo was buried in St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Lawrenceville. Officer Kelly was buried in neighboring Allegheny Cemetery. The rifle salutes for the two men echoed over the hillsides only a half-hour apart shortly before sunset.

Among those attending the burial of Officer Sciullo was Joanne Zacharias, 43, of Bloomfield, who brought her two young children, one of whom carried a sign that said, "We love you Paul."

"I knew him to see him," Ms. Zacharias said. "He was a wonderful, good-hearted guy. Always cheerful."

The last time she saw Officer Sciullo, she said, was Feb. 2, when he arrested her for assault.

"He was doing his job. I was the one in the wrong," she said. "He was very professional, very courteous. He gave me two warnings to settle down, and I continued [fighting]. As he took me Downtown he told me, 'Joanne, all you had to do was settle down and you would never have gone to jail.'"

Ms. Zacharias served three days in jail and paid a fine. Asked why she would bring her children to the burial of the officer who arrested her, she said it was to teach them.

"To show them that Officer Paul and these other gentlemen put their lives on the line every day for us," she said.

Officer Mayhle will be buried tomorrow in Indiana, Pa.

Earlier in the day, by 11 a.m., crowds already lined sidewalks on both sides of Grant Street near the City-County Building, where police motorcycles, the three hearses, and a line of limousines and squad cars faced north.

Annie Grice, an employee with the state attorney general's office, had to turn and walk away as tears welled up.

"I feel so badly for the children who are not going to be raised by their fathers, and the officer who never had a chance to become a father," said Ms. Grice.

Minutes later, Mr. Onorato walked down Forbes Avenue. "This is a tough week for everyone," he said. The gathering of officers from across the country, he said, made it clear that the region wasn't alone in its grief.

John Anderson, retired as a police officer for Wilkinsburg and Forest Hills, came Downtown from his Penn Hills home with his wife, Linda.

He called the sight of officers from all over "very touching, for their busy lives, to take time out to make the trip to Pittsburgh. You just see how people come together in a tragedy."

His wife said she "can't imagine" the feelings of Officer Kelly's and Officer Mayhle's wives and Officer Sciullo's fiancee, but she has some sense of the challenges they faced before their men died on Saturday.

"You just never know when they walk out the door if they're going to come back that night."

At 11:59 a.m., officers saluted and bagpipes began to play. At noon sharp, a white-gloved Pittsburgh police officer exited the City-County Building holding a framed photograph of Officer Mayhle. Directly behind, six officers likewise wearing white gloves, bore the slain officer's flag-draped casket to a silver hearse as another honor-guard officer walked behind.

Mayor Ravenstahl, Chief Harper and other members of the police bureau's brass and rank-and-file, standing on the building's steps and along Grant Street, saluted their fallen comrade. Pipe and drum corps from Pittsburgh and other cities, hundreds of musicians in all, played their mournful tunes as the public, gathered along Grant Street, looked on silently.

Next came the portraits, honor guards and caskets of officers Sciullo and Kelly. And then, in the order in which the caskets were borne from the building, the families of the fallen officers exited.

At 12:20 p.m., hundreds of motorcycles, followed by cruisers, all with their emergency lights flashing, moved out, leading the hearses, a line of limousines carrying the families, police cruisers and sheriff's vans.

Bells of First Lutheran Church tolled "How Great Thou Art."

As the procession reached the entrance to the East Busway, applause from the crowd farther up Grant Street rolled like a wave. Some in the crowd saluted as the hearses passed. Others held their hands over their hearts while still others stood quietly, tears streaming down their faces.

Members of Officer Sciullo's family waved out of the open windows of their silver limousine as a sign of appreciation to the large crowd that curved across Grant Street at the busway entrance.

Michelle Ogden, of Castle Shannon, waited for more than an hour for the procession to pass by Grant Street and Liberty Avenue.

"As a resident, it's almost like a duty to pay your respect," she said. "The whole city feels it. We're just as sad as if we worked side-by-side with them."

Three men who work at the Westin Convention Center Hotel used their lunch break to honor the fallen officers.

"That's the least we can do," said Steve Shannon, who brought three American flags for him and his friends to hold. "They gave up their lives for us."

Andy MacIntyre, of Shaler, said he believes that the gathering along Grant Street will show the police department how much the public cares.

"It will help start the healing process, too, for the whole community," added Ronald Shealey, of Swissvale.

Throughout the morning in Oakland, police vehicles from places as far-flung as Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and as close as Bethel Park drove along Fifth and Forbes avenues with their sirens blaring. They then turned Oakland's two main roadways into parking lots as scores of officers stopped their cars and headed toward the events center.

The size of the police presence amazed both officers and civilians.

"It's outstanding to see this level of support," said Bethel Park police Sgt. Cliff Snitzky, whose department sent six cars and 20 officers.

"It's a shame that it's happening for this reason, but it's incredible," said Judy Meyer, who works in computer services at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. She used her lunch break to stand on Fifth Avenue and watch the procession.

By noon, the avenue was filled with people -- doctors and nurses, Pitt staff and students, and many more Pittsburghers who wanted to pay their final respects.

At 12:45, the three hearses arrived, making a slow ascent up DeSoto Street. At the top of the street, more than 100 officers -- including Detective Marc Pontenier of the Canadian National Railway Police -- saluted.

The officers had streamed up steep DeSoto Street all morning long. They came on foot, on motorcycles, in police vans, winding up the hill to the Pete's north entrance. And across the hilltop's sunny plaza, a group of them crossed in a wave of dark blue -- Boston's police officers, more than 130 of them, marching somberly in rows of four.

Students with backpacks, men in suits and ties toting briefcases, elderly men in jogging suits all watched silently as the Boston contingent marched, stopped, and stood perfectly still at the arena entrance, white-gloved hands clasped behind their backs.

Shortly after that, a limousine containing the first of the three caskets came up Sutherland Street. Not a sound could be heard except for flags flapping in the breeze, the thrum of motorcycle engines and three helicopters buzzing overhead.

On the arena's plaza, hundreds of officers stood frozen in salute. A young man in the crowd hugged his girlfriend. A member of the Mt. Lebanon police department fainted, and emergency paramedics tended to him quietly. A few minutes later, people emerged from the arena with large cups of water and began offering them to the crowd. "We don't want anyone passing out," one said.

As the officers stood at attention, the caskets were gingerly carried into the center, officers still bearing the framed photographs of their slain comrades. Family members, many of them clutching red roses, followed. One older man shook his head, seemingly in disbelief, as he was escorted inside.

Darrell Whiteside, of Turtle Creek, was awed as he looked upon the visitors from Boston, who were joined by officers from Toronto, Cleveland, Manchester, N.H., and many other cities.

"Wow. That they would come all this way."

Mr. Whiteside said he had come into Pittsburgh to view the caskets Wednesday and returned yesterday for the memorial service.

"It was something I needed to do," he said. "We owe them this."

Standing nearby, Betty Barley recalled that when she first saw television reports about the shootings Saturday, she immediately grabbed the phone and called her daughter, Christine Bradley, 35, a Pittsburgh police officer and her only child.

Mrs. Barley, 65, of Ross, said: "I just needed to hear her voice."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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