A Nightmare in Pittsburgh


Observations

  • Dangers of Domestic Disputes
    • Domestic Disputes are incredibly dangerous situations for police officers since emotional states are elevated and the officer may or may not have the relationship back story of the parties involved
    • Even with a back story, there is a risk of complacency on the call since this may be the 10th. 20th, or 30th time the cops have been called to this particular residence.
      • Anger removes hesitation
        • Conjecture
          • It is possible that Richard Poplawski’s mother calling the police to ostensibly evict him was basically the “last straw” in his mind and he decided then and there that he was going to murder police officers as a way of lashing out at his mother.
          • One of the worst things about this case is that the officers were most likely just going to tell Margaret Poplawski and Richard Poplawski that court eviction procedures would have to be followed.
            • Most places in the United States do not allow “self-help evictions” and/or impromptu evictions without a civil proceeding or court hearing.
            • Margaret Poplawski had also indicated to the 911 dispatcher that her son had not threatened her or had done anything that would merit being arrested.
    • Police Officers and 911 dispatchers should have training on what their state’s eviction procedures are.
      • An eviction decision tree would be useful.
        • Conjecture
          • This tragedy could have possibly been averted if the 911 dispatcher had informed Margaret Poplawski that she would have had to follow state civil eviction proceedings to boot her son out of her house.
  • Shotguns
    • Devastating up close and when used in an ambush up close
      • Officer Paul Sciullo was killed in the “fatal funnel” of the front door and initial entryway to the house by a single shotgun blast aimed at the upper torso.
    • Pump Action Shotguns can be a bit slow in terms of follow up shots
      • Conjecture:
        • Richard Poplawski had to immediately “Get Off the X” and move after his initial ambush and shooting of Officer Paul Sciullo and retreat when Officer Stephen Mayhle engaged him.
        • One could argue that a semiautomatic shotgun would have allowed Richard Poplawski to more quickly conduct follow up shots on Officer Stephen Mayhle.
  • Gunshots do not always have a “one shot stop” effect
    • Richard Poplawski ended up shooting two of the officers multiple times as they were on the ground.
  • One of the most dangerous places for someone to approach a building is a short raised staircase leading to a front door, here is why:
    • The entryway can be easily monitored or observed by the defender
    • The handrails force the approaching party to retreat in a single direction if forced to retreat under heavy fire.
    • Diving over the handrails is an option, but it does carry a risk of injury which can hinder mobility to retreat from the kill zone.
    • It is easy to place heavy weight stone flower pots on the patio landing and on the steps to further box in the approaching party and make a horizontal retreat off the line of attack even more difficult than it already is.
  • Gunfights are not static affairs after an initial ambush.
    • The fight between Richard Poplawski and Officer Stephen Mayhle became a literal running gun battle
  • Body Armor
    • John Murphy was right when he said “If a bad guy has a long gun, then assume he is wearing body armor.”
    • Body armor allows an assailant to stay in the fight longer and makes the assailant much harder to kill
  • Vehicles
    • Transitioning out of a vehicle is one of the most dangerous moments in a tactical situation since you are in a fixed position with limited personal mobility.
    • It appears that Richard Poplawski shot Officer Eric Kelly multiple times as he was getting out of his SUV.
  • Equipment Notes
    • Richard Poplawski’s AK-47 pattern rifle was disabled when a police sniper’s bullet struck the gas tube.
    • Richard Poplawski was able to make hits on the front windshield of the SWAT team’s  BearCat vehicle.
      • The BearCat’s front windshield stopped the rifle fire at the expense of lost visibility from the spalling on the glass.

2009 Pittsburgh police shootings

Pittsburgh police shootings
Location Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Date Saturday, April 4, 2009
7:03 a.m.-c. 11:03 a.m.
Attack type
Shootout
Weapon(s)
Deaths 3
Non-fatal injuries
3 (2 by gunfire, including the perpetrator)
Perpetrator Richard Poplawski

The 2009 Pittsburgh police shootings was a shootout that took place on Saturday, April 4, 2009, at 1016 Fairfield Street[1] in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, stemming from a mother and her 22-year-old son’s argument over a dog urinating in the house.[2] At approximately 7:11 a.m. EDT, 22-year-old Richard Poplawski opened fire on two Pittsburgh Police officers responding to a 9-1-1 call from Poplawski’s mother, who was attempting to get the police officers to remove her son from the home.[2] Three police officers were ultimately confirmed dead, and another two were seriously injured.[3]

Area Where Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo were killed

Area Where Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo were killed

According to Pittsburgh Police ChiefNathan Harper, Poplawski was armed with a semi-automatic AK-47-style rifle, a shotgun and three handguns (a .357 Magnum revolver, a .380-caliber handgun and a .45-caliber handgun), protected by a bulletproof vest, and had been lying in wait for the officers.[3] According to police and witnesses, he held police at bay for four hours as the fallen officers were left bleeding nearby, their colleagues unable to reach them. More than 600 rounds were fired by the SWAT teams and Poplawski.

BearCat windows shot up

BearCat windows shot up

The victims were the first Pittsburgh city officers killed in the line of duty in 18 years.[3] The incident was the second-deadliest attack on U.S. law enforcement since the September 11 attacks, following aMarch 2009 shooting in Oakland, California.[4][5]

Richard Poplawski

Background

Richard Andrew Poplawski (born September 12, 1986)[6] lived with his mother and grandmother in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Poplawski had previously enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, but he was discharged from boot camp after throwing a food tray at a drill instructor.[3]

According to friends and former acquaintances, Poplawski was first married when he was 17. His first wife was a young woman whom he had encountered whilst detained in a juvenile correctional center. The marriage lasted for almost two years. His divorce troubled him emotionally until he found a new girlfriend. This new relationship was also very unsteady and on September 14, 2005, Poplawski allegedly assaulted his then-girlfriend outside his home. A month later, Poplawski allegedly violated an order of protection by showing up at the woman’s place of work. Poplawski had recently lost his job at a glass factory, and was reportedly quite upset over the job loss.[7] Neighbors also reported that Poplawski was involved in several arguments with neighbors, including a couple of fistfights, and one incident in which he insulted a black Stanton Heights resident by shouting a racial slur in his face.[3][8]

Poplawski moved to Florida in 2006, and rented a room in a woman’s house. However, she later evicted him after her German Shepherd disappeared while under Poplawski’s care. He later moved in with the woman’s neighbor, who said that he spoke lovingly about his grandmother but seemed disappointed in his mother.[9]

After he returned home, he adopted two pit bull mixes from a local animal shelter, one of which would later urinate on his mother’s carpet, triggering the April 4 shootings.[8]

Political views

Edward Perkovic, a friend of Poplawski, said the gunman feared “the Obama gun ban that’s on the way” and “didn’t like our rights being infringed upon”. Perkovic also stated that Poplawski “didn’t like the Zionists controlling the media and controlling, you know, our freedom of speech” and that “He didn’t like the control of the guns that was about to happen. He believed everything our forefathers put before us and thought that it was being distorted.” Another longtime friend, Aaron Vire, said that Poplawski feared President Obama was going to take away his rights.[10]

Poplawski posted that he believed that “the federal government, mainstream media, and banking system in these United States are strongly under the influence of — if not completely controlled by — Zionist interest. An economic collapse of the financial system is inevitable, bringing with it some degree of civil unrest if not outright balkanization of the continental US, civil/revolutionary/racial war . . . This collapse is likely engineered by the elite Jewish powers that be in order to make for a power and asset grab.”[11][12]

On March 13, 2009, Poplawski wrote on a white supremacist website that “ZOG (Zionist-occupied government) is… One can read the list of significant persons in government and in major corporations and see who is pulling the strings. One can observe the policies and final products and should walk away with little doubt there is Zionist occupation and — after some further research & critical thinking — will discover their insidious intentions.”[13]

Mark Potok, a representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which had reviewed Poplawski’s internet postings, stated that “he believed the Jews were coming, the Jews controlled society, you know, we’re all under the thumb of Zionists and so on.”[13] A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that Poplawski had expressed frustration that “not enough attention was being focused on the evil of Jews.”[12]

Poplawski was a member of Stormfront, a white supremacist website, where he was a frequent visitor and poster.[14][15] Poplawski had reportedly posted a picture of his tattoo, a “deliberately Americanized version of the iron eagle” to the website, as well as a link to a YouTube video of Congressman Ron Paul discussing with Fox News host Glenn Beck the rumored existence of FEMA-managed concentration camps.[14][16] Poplawski last logged into Stormfront at 3:32 a.m. Saturday, only hours before the shootings.[17][18] Poplawski also frequently visited and occasionally posted on Alex Jones‘ Infowars website. One of his frustrations with the site, though, was that it supposedly didn’t focus enough on the nefarious roles played by Jews in all these conspiracies. “For being such huge players in the endgame,” he observed in a March 29, 2009, posting to Infowars, “too many ‘infowarriors’ are surprisingly unfamiliar with the Zionists.”[14][18] Among Poplawski’s “last few links from MySpace” were aMyers-Briggs personality test, and a psychotherapy chart.[11]

Shootings

At 7:03 a.m. EDT, Officers Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police responded to a 9-1-1 call from Poplawski’s mother over a domestic disturbance. When the officers arrived at the scene, the mother answered the door, explaining that she wanted Poplawski out of the house. As the two officers entered the home, Poplawski was reportedly wearing a bulletproof vest and “lying in wait”. Sciullo was immediately shot in the head. Almost immediately thereafter, Officer Mayhle was also shot in the head.[3]

Officer Eric Kelly, on his way home after completing his overnight shift, heard the call for help and arrived at the scene. Poplawski then shot Kelly as he was attempting to aid Sciullo and Mayhle. Officer Timothy McManaway arrived at the scene and was shot in the hand while attempting to pull Kelly to safety, after he saw Kelly wave at him. McManaway sought cover and returned fire. Another officer, Brian Jones, suffered a broken leg when a fence he was climbing collapsed. A short time later, more officers, SWAT team members, and other law enforcement officers arrived and were fired on as well.[3]

A neighbor who witnessed the incident reported “They couldn’t get the scene secure enough to get to them. They were just lying there bleeding, by the time they secured the scene enough to get to them, it was way too late.”[3]

The standoff with police lasted for approximately four hours. Poplawski’s friend Edward Perkovic said he got a call at work from Poplawski during which he said, “Eddie, I am going to die today. … Tell your family I love them and I love you.” Perkovic said “I heard gunshots and he hung up. … He sounded like he was in pain, like he got shot.”[19] According to the sources, Poplawski was shot in the leg before surrendering to authorities.[20] Poplawski was transported to UPMC Presbyterian after the shooting where he was treated under custody.[21] On April 5, Poplawski was moved from the hospital to the Allegheny County Jail.[22]

Victims

Paul J. Sciullo, Eric Kelly, and Stephen Mayhle.jpg

The three deceased officers were:

  • Officer Eric G. Kelly, age 41, a 14-year veteran of the force, survived by his wife, three daughters, mother, and sister;
  • Officer Stephen J. Mayhle, age 29, a two-year veteran of the force, survived by his wife, two daughters, parents, and two brothers;
  • Officer Paul J. Sciullo, II, age 37, a two-year veteran of the force, survived by his parents, two sisters, and fiancée.[19]

The two wounded officers were:

  • Officer Timothy McManaway, age 46, a 14-year veteran of the force; and
  • Officer Brian Jones, age 37, a three-year veteran of the force.

A final radio roll call for the three officers killed was held following the shooting on Saturday night, April 4.[23] On April 6, Governor Ed Rendell announced that flags at all state buildings would be flown at half-staff until the end of the week.[24]

Aftermath

Investigation

Police cars along Forbes Avenue near the Cathedral of Learning during the funeral ceremony.

Police cars along Forbes Avenue near the Cathedral of Learning during the funeral ceremony.

Police motorcycles along near theSoldiers and Sailors Memorial.

Police motorcycles along near the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial.

Afterward, it was revealed that although Poplawski’s mother had told the 9-1-1 operator that Poplawski owned guns, the operator typed “no weapons” on her computer screen, relaying the information to the police dispatcher. When the operator asked Ms. Poplawski if her son had weapons, she responded yes, and stated that they were all legal. When asked to confirm that she was not being threatened with the guns, Ms. Poplawski did not answer, instead repeating that she wanted her son out of the house. Management in the Allegheny County response center contend that the dispatcher meant to relay that no weapons were involved in the dispute. The county’s Chief for Emergency Services stated that the 9-1-1 operator had been on the job for less than a year, including training, and was placed on administrative leave and offered counseling.[25]

According to police interviewing Poplawski while imprisoned, he believed Mayhle to be faking his death, and so shot him again. He told police that he planned for police to kill him, but changed his mind and surrendered, hoping he could write a book in prison. Interviewers described Poplawski as unremorseful with a “cold demeanor”.[26] In the hours after the standoff ended and during interviews with detectives, Poplawski bragged about his actions, telling them he thought he might have killed as many as five officers.[27]

Ceremonies

Officers Kelly, Mayhle, and Sciullo lay in repose at the Pittsburgh City-County Building from April 8 until 10:00 a.m. April 9. Thousands of citizens and law enforcement officers visited the caskets, including representatives from the DC Metro PoliceMontgomery County, MarylandCobb County, Georgia police, and 49 Troopers from the New Jersey State Police.[28][29] Beginning at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, April 9, the caskets were carried to three hearses, and a procession of an estimated 1,000 police vehicles travelled, along with the Pittsburgh Firefighters Memorial; Cleveland Police and Pittsburgh Police Dept. Pipes and Drums; Pittsburgh Fire Dept. Pipes and Drums; NYPD Emerald Society Pipes and Drums; Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums; Camden County NJ Emerald Society Pipes and Drums; Union County NJ Pipes and Drums; Washington D.C. Regional Pipes and Drums; Cleveland Pipes and Drums; Atlantic County (NJ) Pipes and Drums; and many more pipe bands, from the City-County Building along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to the University of Pittsburgh‘s Petersen Events Center. Hundreds of officers had been standing at attention outside the center for nearly two hours. Guests at the ceremony includedFBI Director Robert MuellerAllegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala; county executive Dan Onorato; Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell; state Attorney General Tom CorbettU.S. Senator Bob Casey; former Pittsburgh Police Chief Nathan Harper;and former chief Robert McNeilly.[30][31]

Criminal proceedings

On April 21, 2010, a spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala announced that he would seek the death penalty for Poplawski, whose formal arraignment took place on June 1. A county judge ordered police investigators, attorneys, court and jail personnel to not discuss the case with the media.[32]

Although Pennsylvania has the death penalty on the books, and has hundreds of convicted murderers on death row, the last time the state actually executed anyone was in 1999. Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, only three people have been executed, and all three had waived their appeal rights. Pennsylvania has never executed anyone who has taken full advantage of the appeal process. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, if Poplawski chooses to take full advantage of the appeal process, then even if he is sentenced to death, “it may not happen”.[33]

Weapons used by Richard Poplawski

Weapons used by Richard Poplawski, The shotgun was used in the initial ambush to kill Officer Sciullo and the AK47 was used to kill Officer Mayhle in the running gun fight. The bullet resistant vest allowed Poplawski to stay in the fight longer and stopped the shot that Officer Mayhle landed on him.

During the first week of June 2009, the case was officially assigned to Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. On June 5, Manning ordered the attorneys to exchange discovery materials immediately, and scheduled an August 13 hearing to “address any outstanding discovery issues.” Afterward, a date was to be set to hear pretrial motions, followed by a trial date.[34] Although cases are usually assigned to judges at random, an exception is made for cases that could possibly involve the death penalty. Manning was assigned to this case because during his 20 years as a judge, he has heard nearly two dozen cases where the death penalty was a possibility, including the 2001 trial of Richard S. Baumhammers, who was sentenced to death for murdering five people.

Remants of the Crime Scene

Remants of the Crime Scene

Poplawski’s trial was originally scheduled to start on October 12, 2010,[35] but was delayed until April 25, 2011, due to a defense request for additional time to address the death penalty aspect of the case.[36] The trial began on June 20, 2011. On June 28, 2011 Poplawski was sentenced to death after being found guilty by the jury a few days before.[37] On Saturday, June 25, 2011, the jury delivered a verdict of guilty on three counts of first-degree homicide and all other counts, after deliberating for approximately 4 hours.[38]

On June 28, 2011, Poplawski was sentenced to three counts of death by lethal injection.[39]

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One comment on “A Nightmare in Pittsburgh

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