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Start of trial revives horror of Poplawski shootings

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The 60-something gentleman was sipping coffee and perusing the newspaper as he sat on the steps outside his home on Fairfield Street.

Prominently located on the front page was a large photo of his former neighbor, Richard Poplawski.

As soon as the man saw me approach, notebook in hand, he held up a hand and began slowly shaking his head. For the next few minutes, he politely resisted my attempts to get him to discuss the notorious individual who etched into infamy this Stanton Heights street.

"It doesn't do anyone any good to talk about this," he said.

About five miles away at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Poplawski, 24, was on trial for the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers on April 4, 2009. He is accused of killing Officers Eric G. Kelly, 41, Stephen J. Mayhle, 29, and Paul J. Sciullo II, 36, as they responded to a domestic disturbance call at his mother's house at 1016 Fairfield.

Twenty-six months later, that awful event has resumed its grip on residents of a street familiar even to people who've never set foot on it, a street that still hasn't returned to normal.

One reason is the house where the officers were ambushed.

Uninhabited, it was to be auctioned at a sheriff's sale in April. But the bank that holds the mortgage canceled the proceedings and has not divulged its intentions for the property.

The house stands as a constant and decrepit reminder of the day being recounted in graphic, painful testimony in the courtroom. The front door and windows remain boarded up, and the unkempt vegetation in front has grown to roof-level.

It's a sight Don Devinney, 76, views every day from his home directly across the street.

"I'm following the trial, sure," he said. "But I really can't say too much more than that because of (Judge Jeffrey Manning's) gag order. My wife's a witness."

On Monday, JoAnn Devinney testified that when she opened her door that morning to investigate the sound of objects -- bullets -- hitting her house, she saw two of the slain officers lying across the street.

Maysaa Chok, 32, a native of Lebanon who lives next to the Poplawski house, still recalls having a SWAT team in her kitchen that day.

"I heard (Poplawski) has a good lawyer," she said. "I hope she doesn't get him freed. I don't want him to come back."

"Don't worry. He's not coming back," her husband, Tarek Chok, reassured her.

They sat at a table in their flower-laden backyard, their view of the Poplawski house obscured entirely by a tall privacy fence the couple erected after the killings.

"It was expensive. Cost several thousand dollars," said Tarek Chok, the owner of a Lawrenceville pizzeria. "But it was worth it. We didn't want to keep having to look at that place."

I asked him if seeing Poplawski convicted might bring closure to the Fairfield Street residents who have been unable to put the rampage behind them.

Chok shrugged, glanced at his wife.

"I hope so," he said. "But who really knows?"

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