Slain officer's father: 'I'm very proud. He's a hero'
Richard Poplawski, 24, shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers who responded to a domestic dispute at his Stanton Heights home on the morning of April 4, 2009. Officers Eric G. Kelly, 41, Stephen J. Mayhle, 29, and Paul J. Sciullo II, 36, died in the shootout.
The jury brought in from Dauphin County last week convicted Poplawski of 28 counts related to the shootings, including three counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors have asked the jury to sentence Poplawski to death, and defense attorneys will argue that he deserves only life in prison without possibility of parole.
Tribune-Review staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Bob Bauder are providing updates from the Allegheny County Courthouse throughout the trial.
Stephen Mayhle is buried in Oakland Cemetery along a main road in Indiana, Pa., where he was born and raised.
His father, Ronald Mayhle, said he and his wife often pass the cemetery during their daily routines. He never fails to speak to his son, out loud if he's alone, and to himself if he's with someone.
"Hey Stephen. It's your dad. I love you buddy," he says.
Among his three sons, Stephen -- the oldest -- was the leader and mediator of arguments. He was outgoing and very personable, "everything that I tried to be," Ronald Mayhle said.
Ronald Mayhle said his son wanted to be a police officer from a young age, and the family was proud of him when he graduated from the Pittsburgh Police Academy. Ronald Mayhle is particularly proud of his son's actions on the day of the shootings.
After Paul Scuillo II was shot, Mayhle engaged Poplawski in a gun battle inside the house despite being outgunned, and managed to wound Poplawski in the leg.
"I'm very proud. He's a hero," his father said. "He could have turned and ran. He went in and showed his true colors."
The prosecution rested its case today in the penalty phase of the trial.
The defense will begin calling witnesses tomorrow morning. In a surprise move, Poplawski's lawyer told the judge they would not use any type of psychiatric testimony. Brennan said the defense was concerned that evidence that had been barred during the guilt phase would make it into the penalty phase if they introduced mental illness reports.
The judge had barred evidence from the guilt phase of the trial detailing Poplawski's racist rants both in person and online.
Richard Poplawski appeared to cry this afternoon as Stephen Mayhle's widow, Shandra, detailed how her daughters – now 8 and 6 – miss their father "because the bad guy killed him."
Poplawski has shown no emotion during the heart-wrenching testimony from relatives of the men he killed.
He stares straight ahead as mothers, fathers, wives and children take the stand and tearfully related their memories of the slain police officers.
The proceedings prompted tears from many members of the courtroom audience and jury.
Marena Kelly said she can still smell her husband's scent on the pillows they shared in their bedroom.
She still hears his laughter. She still wakes up at 4 a.m. every night, thinking he will be home soon.
"I not only lost my husband, but I lost part of myself," she said, reading a statement she prepared for the Poplawski trial. "He was my husband, my lover and my best friend."
She said her husband always treated her daughter, Tameka, as his own, even though he was not her biological father. He was the only father Tameka ever knew, she said. He meant the world to their two other daughters, Autumn and Janelle, and all three miss their dad every day.
Since the murder, she said, she has lost 60 pounds, and she can't sleep at night.
Several weeks before he died, Eric Kelly told his wife that if anything ever happened to him on the job, police in a white car would come to the house, and it would mean bad news.
The Kellys lived in Stanton Heights, two blocks from the Poplawski home, and the family could hear the gunshots the day Eric Kelly was killed. But Marena Kelly said she wasn't worried. She had news on the television, and she thought she saw her husband standing safely near a tree.
But then came a loud knock at the door.
"I looked out the window, and there it was, the guys with the white car," she said, breaking down into tears.
She said she wishes she could have kissed her husband one last time, hugged him one last time and cooked his dinner one last time. She blamed Richard Poplawski for making that impossible.
"Despite all the things he took away from me, he will never take away the fact that I am Mrs. Marena Kelly, proud wife of Officer Eric Kelly," she said.
Tameka Kelly, who took the stand before her mother, said her father will never know his two granddaughters, or be able to walk his daughters down the aisle at their weddings. She said he is now her "angel in blue."
"Though I know my dad is in a better place, it still doesn't patch the holes," she said.
Margaret Poplawski, Richard Poplawski's mother, is sitting on a bench outside the courtroom with other family members. She is wearing a necklace with an "R" on the pendant.
Frances Kelly, the mother of slain Officer Eric Kelly, broke down in tears and sobbed on the witness stand when prosecutors displayed a picture of her son when he was 5 years old.
"I miss the word ‘Mom.' I miss how he would call me all the time, and I miss him walking into the house," Frances Kelly told the jury. "I miss hearing, ‘Mom, it's me,' when he walked through the door. I miss his laughter and smile. When I hear a car pull up, I think about my son. When I hear the phone ring, I think it's him."
Kelly read to the jury from a few pages that she had written about her son. She described how, for the first 22 years of his life, it was just the two of them together. Eric's dad was not a part of his life and she had no other children until Eric's sister was born.
Kelly took a deep breath before telling the jury about her son's life. She said he was a standout athlete and played football, basketball and baseball. He stayed out of trouble when he was young despite growing up in rough parts of the city. When she worked for the city parks department, Eric would sometimes come along to neighborhood recreation centers.
"A lot of times, Eric would be my little protector and would try to put the kids in line when they were disrespecting me. He would say, ‘Don't talk to my mother like that. How would you like it if I disrespected your mother?'" Frances Kelly said.
Her son attended college at the University of Utah and the University of Tennessee before joining the U.S. Marine Corps, where he worked as a military police officer.
After serving a stint in the Marines, Kelly returned home and took the civil service test to become a police officer. He failed the first time and instead took the test for the fire department. He also retried the test for the police department. He passed both but chose to become a police officer, Frances Kelly said.
Kelly's younger sister, Danyelle Cheatham, also testified. She told the jury that her older brother acted as a father figure in her life. She carries his driver's license around in her wallet.
"My brother suffered for hours, lying there dying. All I can think about is, what was going through his mind while he was dying?" Cheatham testified.
She said she and her mother visit Eric's grave often. Her mother will often sit there for hours, she said.
"(He) was the glue to our families," she said.
The testimony of the slain officers' families left many members of the jury in tears. Poplawski looked straight ahead for most of the testimony, showing little emotion.
"Dear Paul: What a fine man you have become. You are everything in life I wish I was. Thank you for being a good son. Happy Birthday. I love you, Dad."
Paul Sciullo, the father of slain Pittsburgh police Officer Paul Sciullo II, read the message that he wrote in his son's last birthday card for the jury. Sciullo cried during parts of his testimony as he detailed his son's athletic accomplishments and the time the two used to spend together hunting and fishing. His testimony came as part of the penalty phase for Poplawski's trial.
"We'd be hunting and he'd say, ‘Dad, if you get cold, call me and we'll go home,'" Sciullo, 72, testified.
He said his son wanted to become a police officer because he felt like he wasn't making a difference.
"This was his home. He loved everything about it," Sciullo said.
He said the death of his son has shattered his life. He recounted his recollection of April 4, 2009. He went to the scene at Fairfield Street that morning because he knew his son had been working. He didn't know at the time that his son was already dead.
"I was stopped by a police officer and they said I couldn't go any farther. They asked my name and I said, ‘I'm Paul Sciullo. My son's working 11 to 7. The officer said, ‘Come with me,'" Sciullo testified.
He said he and his wife eventually were taken to the Zone 5 station and then to police headquarters on the North Side.
"That's when I said to Sue, ‘If Paul was injured, we'd be going to the hospital,'" Sciullo said through tears.
Sciullo's mother and sister testified their lives changed dramatically after the murder of their son and brother. Once happy and carefree, the family now faces pain and heartache every day, they said.
"We will never kiss or hug our beautiful son again," his mother told the jury. "He was truly the love of our lives."
Julia Sciullo, known to family members as Sue to distinguish her from a daughter, also named Julia, said her son quit a lucrative job in computers to become a police officer, because he wanted to make a difference. She said he made a difference in the lives of everyone who knew him.
Several jurors cried as she testified, as did courtroom spectators.
Sciullo, who grew up and continued to live in Bloomfield, was captain of the ice hockey and golf teams at Central Catholic High School. He attended Duquesne University where he majored in psychology, making the dean's list four years. His mother said he decided one day to become a police officer. She tried to talk him out of it because of the danger, but he convinced her that it was something he had to do.
"I didn't want my son to be a hero," she said. "I just wanted him to be my beautiful son."
Paul Sciullo came home for dinner every night, even though he had his own house about three blocks away from his parents. His parents maintain the house to this day, paying the mortgage and bills because they cannot bear to sell it, his mother said.
"How do you pack away such a dynamic existence?" she said.
She vowed that the family would never again think of Richard Poplawski after the trial concludes, because he already took up too much of their lives.
Sciullo's sister said her brother was a father-figure for her son, David Paul, after she and her husband divorced. David Paul has been in therapy ever since the murder, she said. Julia Sciullo said her life will never be the same without her brother.
"The mother that I had April 3 (2009) is not the mother that I have on this day," she said. "She is not the same woman. It's just sadness and pain, and we never had that in our lives."
The judge broke for lunch after Julia Sciullo finished. Testimony is set to continue at 1:30 p.m.
In an opening statement to the jury in an attempt to save his client's life, Poplawski's attorney William Brennan admitted Poplawski deserved to be convicted of murder.
"I assumed it was going to come to this. I'm not an idiot. I have all the same evidence you have. I believed there was sufficient evidence to convict my client of killing three police officers," Brennan said. "You dispassionately looked at the evidence and, quite candidly, reached the proper verdict."
Brennan urged the jury to compare his reasons why Poplawski should be spared a death sentence; to compare the rest of his client's life to that one "grotesque, devastating day." He talked about a rough home life where Poplawski was raised at the hands of an alcoholic, abusive grandfather.
"When I present mitigation evidence, please do not think it is an excuse. There is no excuse for what occurred on April 4, 2009," Brennan told the jury during his 20-minute introduction.
Brennan talked about Charles Scott, Poplawski's grandfather, and called him hateful and "an out-and-out racist."
"He liked guns. Every corner of that house was filled with guns, rifles, handguns. (Charles Scott) sat down at the breakfast table with a handgun next to him," Brennan said. "Mr. Scott liked to threaten people; threatened to take their lives."
Brennan said that Scott beat Poplawski's grandmother, Catherine Scott, and pointed a gun at her on one occasion, playing Russian roulette. Other times Scott simply blew phones off the wall inside the home with guns, Brennan said.
"You're going to hear about his effect on that family unit," Brennan said. "You're going to hear about Margaret Poplawski and her relationship with her father. You'll hear about her intense hatred for her father; her alcoholism and psychiatric care; and her repeated attempts to take her own life."
Richard Poplawski, seated at the defense table, stared down at the table as Brennan recounted his client's family history. Brennan also said nuns who taught Poplawski in school would testify that he was a bright, good student.
"Family history is part of who we are," Brennan said. "All I'm going to ask is that you consider everything."
Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli began laying out his case this morning as to why the jury that convicted Richard Poplawski of three counts of first-degree murder should now place him on death row.
Tranquilli repeatedly told the jury to give Poplawski what he "deserves."
"It is for you to decide – what does he deserve for what he did?" Tranquilli asked during his 30-minute opening statement. "In Allegheny County, we save the death penalty for the worst of the worst – people like Richard Poplawski."
Tranquilli explained to the jury that they must consider three factors as to why Poplawski deserves death – that victims are police officers, he's been convicted of multiple killings and that he placed others in deadly danger. He told the jury that there could have been three more dead police officers.
"Richard Poplawski got a taste of what it was like to murder somebody and then he did it two more times," Tranquilli said. "He's like a dog that's bitten once and will bite again."
Prosecutor Mark Tranquilli and William Brennan, Richard Poplawski's attorney for the penalty phase, finished their opening statements to the jury this morning to start the penalty phase hearing.
Tranquilli said he plans to call 10 family members of the slain officers today.
Among the people in the packed courtroom were U.S. Attorney David Hickton and Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Michael Machen.
Richard Poplawski was found guilty of all charges in the slayings of three Pittsburgh police officers.
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