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Poplawski's statement, police reports detail Stanton Heights shootout

| Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When Richard Poplawski learned the fourth victim of a deadly encounter at his Stanton Heights home survived with a wound to his hand, he callously responded, "Oh, I thought I got that one, too," investigators said Tuesday.

During interviews with police, Poplawski, 22, described how he fired extra bullets into the motionless bodies of Officers Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II "just to make sure they were dead," detectives said.

He thought about going out in "a blaze of glory" after fatally shooting a third officer, Eric G. Kelly, and exchanging gunfire with SWAT officers for nearly four hours, police say. But he surrendered so he could go to jail and "possibly write a book one day," detectives said.

He remains under "extremely close supervision" at the Allegheny County Jail, confined to an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell 23 hours a day with no access to newspapers, television or magazines, Warden Ramon Rustin said. He is allowed one hour out of his cell to shower and exercise.

Officials conceded yesterday that the suspect's mother told a part-time county 911 call-taker Saturday morning that there were weapons in the Fairfield Street home, but that information was never relayed to Kelly, Mayhle and Sciullo.

"I think that's one reason we have such a deep sense of loss: That one little comment would have changed the entire response," said Sgt. James Vogel, a police trainer and former instructor at the academy. The officers would have requested additional backup and asked for more details about the weapons, he said.

"That's sad news. We followed protocol. We did what we were supposed to do."

Police say Poplawski had a cache of weapons inside the house and used them on police. Investigators said they believe Mayhle, 29, on the job fewer than two years, got a couple shots off and wounded Poplawski in the legs.

County officials offered counseling to the 911 dispatcher. According to a recording, Margaret Poplawski reported in her 7:03 a.m. call there were weapons in the house, but the dispatcher failed to relay the information about weapons to a police dispatcher.

"There's no excuse. We are just so, so saddened by the manner in which this call was handled, and so sorry," said county Emergency Services Chief Bob Full. "I can't tell you how bad we all feel. ... If you could just take it back."

Rick Grejda, business agent for Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents about 200 fellow dispatchers, said the case highlights a concern over using part-time employees.

"Any time you're dealing with part-time employees, you have to worry about what I just said — can they keep up?" he said.

The dispatcher was hired in November. She went through 320 hours of training, which took about 13 weeks to complete since she worked 24 hours a week. That means she started taking calls in late February or early March.

"This is our worst nightmare," said Grejda, a former 911 dispatcher.

Reviewing the case

The incident began with the 2-minute, 15-second 911 call from Richard Poplawski's cell phone. During the call, Margaret Poplawski complained her son was "intoxicated" and must have returned home from a night of drinking while she was sleeping.

"Does he have any weapons or anything?" the call-taker asked.

"Yes," the mother said, pausing. "They're all legal."

"OK, but he's not threatening you with anything?" the operator said.

"Look, I'm just waking up from a sleep," she replied. "I want him gone."

"OK, we'll send 'em over, OK?" the dispatcher said.

"Sounds good," the mother said.

Bob Harvey, 911 manager for the county, said he interviewed the dispatcher Monday morning. She did not recall Margaret Poplawski saying there were weapons in the house, Harvey said.

"I thought, this is bad. She does not even recall," said Harvey, who determined she might be suffering from post-traumatic stress. "I thought professionals need to handle her at this point.".

Harvey said she has been meeting with counselors while on paid administrative leave.

A man who answered the door at the dispatcher's home declined to answer questions and shut the door. A small, blue ribbon was tied to the mailbox in front of the home.

Deadly encounter

Police said Sciullo and Mayhle walked into an ambush at the home.

Poplawski and his mother gave conflicting accounts of what happened before the officers walked in.

Margaret Poplawski told investigators she answered the door, let the officers in and said, "Come and take his ass," according to a police affidavit. She said once Sciullo and Mayhle got about 10 feet into the living room, she heard gunshots and turned to see her son about 6 feet away with a rifle in his hand. She said she screamed "What the hell have you done?" and ran into the basement.

Richard Poplawski told detectives that he put on a bulletproof vest and got a shotgun, AK-47 and handgun before his mother opened the door to admit the officers and that she knew he was armed, investigators say.

Ballistic testing on the officers' weapons and Poplawski's AK-47 — as well as weapons used by other officers during the standoff — are not complete. But several investigators said they believe Mayhle shot Poplawski in the legs.

Poplawski told police his AK-47 jammed while SWAT officers were rescuing Kelly — who responded a few minutes after Sciullo and Mayhle — and Officer Timothy McManaway, who was shot in the hand. He switched back to using a shotgun, police said.

Poplawski surrendered about 10:45 a.m. He struggled with SWAT officers during the arrest, police said.

Detectives said they are investigating whether they can file charges against Margaret Poplawski.

Separately yesterday, District Judge Ron Costa issued a warrant for Margaret Poplawski's arrest for failing to pay a fine stemming from a 2005 offense, said Lt. Jack Kearney, of the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office. She was found guilty of summary harassment for spitting on her son's former girlfriend, Melissa Gladish, in 2005 and was fined $238.50, according to court filings.

The warrant was issued because she had only paid $138, according to court records. However, Kearney said last night that when deputies went to serve the warrant, Margaret Poplawski's mother paid the outstanding balance so that she would not be arrested.

Allegations of abuse, theft

Poplawski's relatives told reporters they believe police beat up Poplawski and stole money. Margaret Poplawski said police stole "$3,000 from the wallet in the purse." She said she was worried she might lose her job and needed the money.

Her mother, Catherine Scott, told relatives she feared officers beat her grandson after his surrender because his face appeared bloodied and bruised as he was carted off on a stretcher, an image she caught on a television broadcast.

"She just wanted to know how his face got that way," said Margaret Poplawski's cousin, Jean Devine of Harrison.

When told about the family's allegations, Pittsburgh police Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said he wouldn't "dignify this accusation with a response."

Investigators said they believe Poplawski was squatting down and shooting out a window while holding the AK-47 above his head and was injured when the gun recoiled and slammed into the right side of his face.

Devine evicted Margaret Poplawski from her Meadow Street home Monday after an argument.

"If I saw my child buying guns, trading guns, stockpiling food and all that in my house, I would have some issues with it," said Devine, who wears a black ribbon on her blouse in honor of the slain policemen.

"What it came down to was that my heart is with the police officers who were killed, and not Richard."

Harrison police reported responding to a domestic disturbance call at Devine's house about 4:15 p.m. Monday. Authorities say Margaret Poplawski left peacefully after the altercation.

Changes in procedure

County Council's Public Safety Committee scheduled an April 15 hearing to discuss 911 procedures.

"We have to look at the policies and procedures that are currently in place in order to have a better understanding of how and why this happened," Councilman Jim Burn said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said changes to the dispatch center's procedures must be made.

"While no system can account completely for human error, what is clear is that the 911 center did not work as it should have and now must take a very hard look at itself," Ravenstahl said.

County Executive Dan Onorato, who oversees county employees of the center, said he would reserve comment until Monday out of respect for funeral services for the officers.

Full, the emergency services chief, said he took steps to prevent another mistake, instructing dispatchers to ask specifically about what types of guns or other weapons are in the homes of 911 callers.

Additional Information:

Timeline

Saturday's deadly police standoff:

7:03 a.m. • Margaret Poplawski calls 911 and requests that police remove her son, Richard Poplawski, 22, from her Fairfield Street home in Stanton Heights. 'He must have come in intoxicated last night. I don't want him here,' she tells the call-taker.

7:05 a.m. • The call ends after 2 minutes, 15 seconds. A few moments later a police dispatcher broadcasts 'mother and son domestic.' One of the responding officers double checks the street address and asks for a cross street, which the dispatcher gives as Antoinette Street. No mention is made of weapons in the house.

7:11 a.m. • Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, 36, and Stephen J. Mayhle, 29, radio to dispatchers they have arrived at the home. It's their last transmission.

7:15-7:16 a.m. • Officer Eric G. Kelly, 41, a 14-year veteran who lives a few blocks away, arrives at the scene and summons backup. He reports shots have been fired and officers are down.

7:17 a.m. • Officer Timothy McManaway, a 15-year veteran, arrives. After exchanging gunfire with Poplawski, a bullet or shrapnel injures McManaway's hand. He pulls Kelly behind an SUV, but Kelly later dies of his wounds.

7:50 a.m. • Members of the SWAT team begin to arrive in personal vehicles.

8:30 a.m. • A full contingent of SWAT officers arrives, as does a heavily armored SWAT vehicle, which sustains heavy damage from gunfire.

About 10:45 a.m. • Poplawski surrenders. According to a police affidavit, Poplawski says, 'I'm standing down, come in and help me.' Poplawski is taken from the house strapped to a gurney because of wounds to his legs.

Source: 911 tapes, police affidavit, police officials

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