A portrait of contrasts emerges from those who knew Poplawski
Accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers in an incident that shook the city's sense of security, Richard Andrew Poplawski was sometimes described as intelligent and thoughtful, but he was prone to violence in relationships and racism in his writings that he hid even from those who had long known him.
A shifting set of goals -- life as a Marine, dental school, computers, business -- ended in failures and frustration directed at society, rather than himself.
That's what records and personal accounts suggest about the 22-year-old man arrested after the April 4 shootout at 1016 Fairfield St. in Stanton Heights that left officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II dead.
"I didn't know of his beliefs that have come out. I wasn't aware of it, that he had guns," said his father, Richard Alvin Poplawski, who last saw his son two years ago, after an on-again, off-again relationship. "There was no indication of any animosity towards anyone."
That was around the time, though, that the younger Mr. Poplawski started posting on racist Web sites, writing about favorite guns and describing non-white people as "putrid."
"That's not the Richard that I knew," said Debbie Devine, Richard Andrew Poplawski's great aunt. "Richard was totally different. He was a good kid."
Born Sept. 12, 1986, to parents of mismatched age who had been married six months, he would not know stability.
His father and mother, Margaret, married when he was 32 and she was 17 and were fighting when their son was just 5 months old, according to divorce records. He threw her against a wall, kicked her in the ribs and dragged her across the floor, her accusations in court filings say.
The mother was arrested for driving while intoxicated, as the father would be in later years. She got custody, he got visiting rights.
The divorce, finalized in 1989, was followed by 15 years of sporadic court fights over unpaid child support.
Ms. Poplawski became a licensed registered nurse in September 1990, working at, among other places, Lifecare Hospital on Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg. Her license is still valid.
She enrolled her son in Catholic schools in Bloomfield. His father, who lives in East McKeesport, was periodically involved.
"We went to the zoo, you know. And he loved to go bowling," said Richard Alvin Poplawski. "We went to places, like a kid!"
Richard Andrew Poplawski was close to his grandmother, Catherine Scott, and was embraced by the extended family.
Ms. Devine said her great nephew attended all of the children's birthday parties. "He came to all the family functions we had," she said. "We talked. We had fun."
Her 9-year-old granddaughter -- who is Mr. Poplawski's second cousin -- often went shopping with him and played in the park. "He just adored her, and she adored him," Ms. Devine said.
As a teenager, he enrolled at North Catholic High School but would not graduate.
"He attended North Catholic, and the administrators here talked to his parents his junior year and suggested that he leave North Catholic, which he did," said North Catholic President Frank Orga. "In terms of grades, discipline or things of that nature, we cannot comment on that."
Unlike most 18-year-olds, Mr. Poplawski registered to vote almost as soon as he was legal. His party affiliation was Republican. He voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential general elections.
He joined the Marines, effective Dec. 13, 2004, and attended boot camp but was discharged three weeks later. The Marine Corps had not responded by Post-Gazette deadline to a request for records of his tenure there.
Family friend John Orlando, who knew Mr. Poplawski for most of his life and called him "Popa," said the experience of failing at becoming a Marine "turned him the wrong way," making him angry.
After Mr. Poplawski's discharge, his reunion with his girlfriend, Melissa Gladish, did not go well. She got a protection-from-abuse order against him six weeks later, alleging that he grabbed her hair, threatened her and spoke of a buried gun. He was found in contempt of the order after he showed up at her workplace and proposed marriage.
His writings later would indicate that a soured relationship with a woman -- it's not clear who -- colored his attitude.
Researchers at the Anti-Defamation League have pieced together what they believe, based on screen names and photos, to be postings by Mr. Poplawski, largely on www.stormfront.org, a "White Pride" Web site.
He posted what purports to be a picture of the woman he's writing about with "her next boyfriend," who is black. He also wrote of trying to chase down "groids," whom he accused of stealing his mother's car.
He moved to Florida in 2006 because, according to Ms. Devine, he liked warmth and beaches.
"He moved away from his family. He later said he had problems with his family," said Dana Kaufman, who rented him a room in a house she owned.
She had no reservations about renting to the polite, well-dressed young man who said he would go to dental school. "He was like a smart, really smooth kind of person. I did see mail from a dental school, so I thought he was on the road to doing that."
But he ended up working for a glass company. It was dirty work. "The carpets were all muddy and black," Ms. Kaufman said.
When she left for a few days, Mr. Poplawski offered to watch her white German shepherd, and she returned to find the dog gone. When her boyfriend confronted him about it, Mr. Poplawski reported the loss to the Palm Beach County sheriff's office, "due to the fact that if things escalate, he wanted this situation documented," according to the sheriff's report.
Ms. Kaufman told him to leave, and he moved next door, sharing a house with Gerard Carrano, now a respiratory therapist.
"He was very polite, he was very well-spoken and a well-groomed young man," Mr. Carrano said. He spoke lovingly of his grandmother, Mr. Carrano said, but seemed disappointed in his mother.
Mr. Poplawski's scholarly ambitions shifted from dentistry to computers. Mr. Carrano said he didn't pick up on any racism, though Mr. Poplawski did refer to the Haitians with whom he worked as "dirty people."
Mr. Carrano did not interpret the large eagle tattoo on his housemate as a sign of fringe thinking. In online writings in February of this year, the author believed to be Mr. Poplawski called the tattoo "a deliberately Americanized version of the iron eagle" -- a Nazi symbol used by domestic racist groups -- and "symbolic of freedom and nationalism."
"Something bad happened to his mom, and he had to go back to Pittsburgh," Mr. Carrano said. Mr. Poplawski wasn't happy about returning home. The night before he left, he swam into the middle of Lake Wellington, Mr. Carrano said, despite warnings of the alligators there.
"He told me he left Florida because he was tired of just working to live," said the elder Mr. Poplawski, who went bowling with his son after his return to Pittsburgh. "He talked to me like a man who was like, 'Dad, I'm going to make some money, I'm going to make a lot of money, I'm going to find a way to succeed.' And with his intelligence, I thought he would. I knew he would."
Instead, the online postings attributed to Richard Andrew Poplawski became angrier.
In early 2007, the writings dealt with tattoos and favorite firearms. Late that year, a racist tone emerges, including criticism of what is referred to as "the black attitude," including "head bobbing and the lip smacking and the ebonic bubonic slurring." He begins to refer to "ultimate victory for our people."
He insulted one Stanton Heights resident who is African American with a racial slur to his face, according to the man, who asked not to be named. One of Mr. Poplawski's close friends became the subject of police interest for alleged drug dealing, neighbors said.
Mr. Poplawski began buying firearms online and from Braverman Arms Co. in Wilkinsburg. He lauded his AK-47 in a December 2008 Web posting.
By February of this year, he was wondering whose side the police would be on in a conflagration he predicted. An online account of post-Super Bowl revelry included an effort to talk with the police deployed to prevent disturbances.
"Me (from the sidewalk): 'Hey! When the • • • • really hits the fan, I hope you guys are on our side....!!'" he wrote. "I can only hope that at least some [of] our men and women in uniform have their heart in the right place."
"One thing I will say is, he didn't have any animosity toward police," said Roman Lawniczak, a friend of Mr. Poplawski. He called the online writings "really kind of creepy. That's a side none of us knew."
By mid-March, he was writing about "the eventuality of a collapse of economic and social order in this country. All signs seem to point to a once great nation in the midst [of] its last gasp, suffocating under the weight [of] fiscal irresponsibility.
"If a total collapse is what it takes to wake our brethren and guarantee future generations of white children walk this continent, if that is what it takes to restore our freedoms and recapture our land: let it begin this very second and not a moment later."
Eddie Perkovic, who described himself as Mr. Poplawski's best friend, said his friend moved out of the Stanton Heights home Ms. Poplawski bought in 1999 and went to Greensburg to get away from his mother. But then Mr. Poplawski's grandfather had a seizure, and Ms. Scott had to take care of him.
Mr. Poplawski "moved back [to Stanton Heights] to take some of the burden off his grandmother," Mr. Perkovic said. That was about a year ago, he estimated.
A woman who lives on Fairfield Street said that after she had a baby, he shoveled her walk and driveway and offered to take out the trash.
The neighbor said that Ms. Poplawski and her mother, Ms. Scott, who lived in the house during the week, would argue frequently.
During one fight, the neighbor saw Ms. Poplawski throw a television and a kitchen chair out of the front door. "They woke me up at night screaming and fighting," the neighbor said.
Mr. Orlando said Ms. Poplawski "basically did the best she could" raising her son but "got stressed out over time and didn't want to deal with it anymore."
About a year ago, Mr. Poplawski stopped working to have knee surgery, according to Ms. Devine. Later he took to walking two pit bull mixes, now 7 months old, that the family adopted from the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania. After the shootings, city Animal Control returned them to the shelter. Charlotte Grimme, the shelter's executive director, described them as healthy and good-tempered.
But it was one of those dogs urinating on the carpet that apparently prompted the argument between Mr. Poplawski and his mother that spawned her 911 call and brought unsuspecting police into an apparent ambush.
In the hours after the standoff ended and during interviews with detectives, Mr. Poplawski bragged about his actions, telling them he thought he might have killed as many as five officers.
The tragedy has left those close to Mr. Poplawski empty of answers and divided.
On Monday, Harrison police were called to Ms. Poplawski's cousin's home on North Meadow Street in Natrona Heights for a domestic disturbance. Ms. Poplawski "was fighting with her relatives over what happened," said Officer Jim Austin. "Everybody was giving their opinions, and she didn't like what they were saying."
It ended with Ms. Poplawski leaving peacefully.
Ms. Devine said she feels terrible about the officers and their families. "They shouldn't have lost their lives," she said. "I can't comprehend a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old growing up without their father over an argument about dog urine," she said in an apparent reference to the two young daughters Officer Mayhle leaves behind. "The only ones that can are Richard, God, and his mother."
"No one can understand what my son's going through, what the families of those officers" are going through, said Richard Alvin Poplawski.
On Fairfield Street on Wednesday, Catherine Scott pulled up in a white Chevy and stood silently before the house as police boarded up its windows and doors, then continued their days-long examination of the premises.
After a while, she struck up a conversation with Detective Cynthia Smith. Before they embraced, the breeze that kept the American flags and black ribbons fluttering carried her sobs, the word "sorry" and the hard-to-fathom claim: "He was a good boy."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 21, 2009)
GunBroker.com said it has never sold any guns or other weapons to Richard Poplawski, who is accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers April 4, 2009. This story about Mr. Poplawski as originally published April 12, 2009 included incorrect information about the source of his weapons.
First Published April 12, 2009 12:00 am