'Tell my wife and kids I love them,' dying officer said
Richard Poplawski is led through the hall of the Allegheny County Courthouse for the start of his trial.
More than 100 officers from Pittsburgh and surrounding areas stood at attention as the families of Pittsburgh Police Officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II arrived at the Allegheny County Courthouse.
Law enforcement officers from around the region were on hand for the start of Richard Poplawski's trial.
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As Officer Eric Kelly lay on the sidewalk in front of Richard Poplawski's home, he raised his arm three times to try to get the attention of his fellow officers.
Both Officers Wade Sarver and Tim McManaway saw the movement.
Officer Sarver, who was returning fire at the Poplawski home, watched as Officer McManaway got to Officer Kelly and dragged him to cover behind the white SUV the fallen officer had driven to the scene. The man had already lost a lot of blood and was going into shock.
"What was he saying to you?" Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli asked Officer McManaway during direct examination this afternoon.
Officer McManaway paused to compose himself.
" 'Tell my wife and kids that I love them,' " he remembered.
"I said, 'You're going to have to tell them yourself. You're going to have to fight and get through this.' I was trying to get him to fight and be angry.
"There was nothing I could do."
When Officer Kelly told Officer McManaway it was hard to breathe, he tried to loosen the man's bulletproof vest. He saw the bullet points from an assault rifle sticking out of Officer Kelly's torso.
They had gone through his vest, into his chest and were coming out of his back.
After a rescue operation by several SWAT officers to get the men out of the street, Officer Kelly was taken to UPMC Presbyterian, where he was pronounced dead.
Officer McManaway's testimony came on the first day of the trial for Mr. Poplawski, who is charged with killing Officers Kelly, Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle as they responded to a domestic dispute call on April 4, 2009, between Mr. Poplawski and his mother, Margaret.
Prosecutors said Officers Sciullo and Mayhle were already shot when Officer Kelly arrived.
One of the most powerful witnesses this morning was Tameka Kelly, Officer Kelly's daughter.
Ms. Kelly, who works as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home, told the jury that her father picked her up from her shift that morning about 7:15 a.m. As they pulled up to their home -- just two blocks away from that of Mr. Poplawski -- she said she heard gunshots through her father's open window.
He had gotten a call on his radio -- Officer Kelly had just finished his shift that morning, as well -- and told his daughter he'd be back.
"I was shooken up," she said. "He told me 'just go in the house, lock the door. It'll be fine.' "
Her father left the house in his white Chevy Trailblazer at a high speed.
"The last time I saw my dad was when they put his picture up on the news and said he was murdered."
The prosecution opened its case by calling Shannon Lyn Basa-Sabol, the 911 dispatcher who took the original call from Margaret Poplawski.
In the recording, Ms. Poplawski could be heard saying that she wanted her son removed from the house, and that he had shown up there while she was sleeping. She told the dispatcher that her son had weapons, but that they were legal.
The dispatcher did not pass the information about the weapons along, she testified, because they weren't involved in the dispute, and Mr. Poplawski was not threatening anyone with them. Officials later apologized for not relaying that information.
A gasp came from the courtroom as jurors also were shown a photo of Officers Sciullo and Mayhle lying in front of the house, one of them in a pool of blood.
The witnesses followed opening statements.
Mr. Mark V. Tranquilli said Mr. Poplawski fatally shot the officers in an ambush on "a day of cowards and of heroes," Mr. Tranquilli said.
The coward, he said, was Mr. Poplawski, who he said strapped on a military-grade ballistic vest and awaited the officers' arrival.
He had been stirred from sleep by his mother, who was angry that his dogs had urinated in their house. Their argument accelerated until she called 911.
Officer Sciullo was the first to respond "with no thought of his own safety . . . He was going to help a fellow member of his community, because that's what police officers do," Mr. Tranquilli told jurors.
After Officer Sciullo was shot, he said, Officer Mayhle engaged Mr. Poplawski "in a gunbattle he had no chance of winning because he was so badly outgunned" by the assailant, who had an assault rifle.
"Fallen heroes and potentially fallen heroes," Mr. Tranquilli said. "That's what this case is about."
Defense attorney Lisa Middleman told the jury that Mr. Tranquilli was simply playing on their emotions by repeatedly referring to the slain officers as "fallen heroes, fathers and grandfathers."
"This case is about one thing: does the commonwealth have enough evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt?" she said.
She told the jurors that they should expect to hear her client take full responsibility for his actions that day. But, Ms. Middleman continued, his statement will not match the evidence or the eyewitness statements.
"What on earth would motivate him to take full responsibility for what happened in that house?" she asked. She did not provide an answer, but then referenced Mr. Poplawski's mother, who initiated the 911 call that morning.
"What part did she play in this tragedy?"
The trial is being held in the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Manning, which is packed with family members of the officers, along with media and trial watchers. Closed circuit television coverage of the trial was being shown in a nearby courtroom to accommodate the overflow spectators.
Early in the day as Judge Manning gave the jury its opening instructions, Mr. Poplawski's mother walked into the room. She was quickly escorted back out by the defense team investigator.
Before the trial started, officers from an array of departments donned uniforms and came to attention outside the Allegheny County Courthouse as the families of the officers entered the building.
Dozens of officers lined Ross Street as a show of respect, said Deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson, who stood out among them in his white shirt.
"It'll bring the past back up," he said of the trial, "but it's also part of he process."
First Published June 20, 2011 10:36 am