Trial opens for alleged Pa. triple cop killer
Richard Poplawski is on trial for the shooting deaths of 3 Pittsburgh cops
PITTSBURGH — Richard Poplawski, 24, is on trial for the shooting deaths of 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. If the jury brought in from Dauphin County convicts Poplawski of at least one count of first-degree murder, it will decide whether he gets the death penalty.
Tribune-Review staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Bob Bauder are providing updates from the Allegheny County Courthouse throughout the trial.
Eric Kelly was thinking of his family as he lay wounded in front of the Poplawski house, a Pittsburgh police officer told the jury.
"Tell my wife and kids I love them," Kelly told Officer Timothy McManaway, a colleague from the Zone 5 police station in Highland Park. "I said, "You're going to have to tell them yourself. You're going to have to get through this."
From the house, McManaway said, someone was shooting rapid-fire with a rifle. At one point rounds "chewed up the front part of the vehicle."
McManaway knew Kelly was hurt bad. He said Kelly was sprawled across a curb, bleeding badly from a leg.
"I tried to get him to fight and be angry," McManaway said, crying on the witness stand. "I knew he lost a lot of blood and was going into shock."
McManaway was able to pull Kelly off the curb so he had some protection from the gunfire. He partially loosened Kelly's protective vest and found he had been hit multiple times in the chest. The bullets penetrated the vest and traveled through Kelly's body. McManaway could see points from the rounds protruding from the back of the vest.
He could see a woman, whom previous witnesses identified as Poplawaki's mother, Margaret, standing in the garage. McManaway said she was wearing a bathrobe and pacing in circles.
"I tried to coax her to come toward me," he said. "She shook her head no. Then she started smoking a cigarette."
The prosecution played for the jury Officer Mayhle`s call for help over the police radio in the seconds before he was killed.
In his frantic call, Mayhle can be heard yelling "Code 3, officer down!"
The recording was played as a part Officer Wade Sarver`s testimony. Wade testified that he and his partner had just finished roll call at Squirrel Hill`s Zone 4 station when they heard the frantic call for help. He explained that Code 3 means that "someone is dying and drop what you`re doing and help."
When Sarver arrived, he saw Officer Timothy McManaway run towards Officer Kelly`s white SUV to try and help. He said he heard automatic weapons firing from the house.
"I saw a muzzleflash and I aimed for that and fired my weapon," Sarver said. "I believe I hit (the shooter)."
Sarver said the shooting from the house stopped momentarily after he fired. He started to tear up on the witness stand after describing McManaway`s attempt to rescue Kelly.
"I saw McManaway trying to pull Kelly to cover. Kelly kept raising his arm to say, ‘Come help me,`" Sarver testified. "He did it three times and then he couldn`t do it any more."
Neighbor Michelle Ostrowski told the jury she called 911 as soon as she realized people were getting shot. Tranquilli played a recording of her frantic call for the jury.
"A cop just got shot," she screamed to the call-taker.
Several jurors visibly reacted to the call. Some closed their eyes. Others looked disgusted.
Ostrowski testified that she took several pictures of the incident as it unfolded and handed the camera over to police. Tranquilli said he plans to show the jury those pictures later.
Poplawski`s attorney, Lisa Middleman, asked if Margaret Poplawski ever helped any of the officers after they had been shot.
"I did not see that," Ostrowski said.
Alfred Lejpras testified he saw neighbor Richard Poplawski pumping rounds from a rifle into Officer Stephen Mayhle as the officer lay at the foot of Poplawski's porch steps in a pool of blood.
He could see the rounds impacting Mayhle's body.
"I heard, 'Pop. Pop. Pop,' he said. "I saw a man standing on the porch and Officer Mayhle was down there on the ground."
He said Poplawski, wearing a long T-shirt and what he believed to be sweatpants, turned and stepped over Paul Sciullo's body in the front doorway as he reentered his house.
Lejpras said he yelled for his wife.
"I said, 'Somebody out there is killing police officers. Get back in the bedroom,'" he said.
Lejpras went through the house and locked all the doors, hearing more gunshots from outside. He returned to his bedroom window facing the street and said he saw Officer Eric Kelly lying on the ground behind a white sport utility vehicle.
Kelly's daughter, Tameka, tearfully testified that her father picked her up minutes earlier from the Heartland Nursing Home where she had just finished an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. Eric Kelly, who typically picked her up from work and drove her home, had just finished working a night shift she said.
When they arrived at their house on Premier Street, about two blocks from the Poplawski home, they heard a series of gunshots, and her dad received a faint dispatch that she could not hear over his police radio.
"He just told me to get in the house," she sobbed. "He told me to lock the doors. He'd be back."
She last saw her father, who was off-duty and driving his personal vehicle, racing toward Fairfield Street.
Judge Manning announced a lunch break. The case is set to resume at 1:25 p.m.
Poplawski's neighbor, JoAnn Devinney, who lives across the street, told the jury that when she opened her front door the morning of April 4, 2009, she saw two dead police officers on her neighbor's property.
One lay in the doorway to the Poplawski house and the second at the bottom of the front porch steps, face up, she said.
"I heard noises hitting against my house. I thought it was garbage cans because it was windy that day. My husband said, ‘That sounds like gunfire.' We opened the door and I saw two policemen. One was lying in the door and another officer was at the foot of the steps," Devinney testified.
Devinney said she saw Richard Poplawski standing in his mother's garage wearing a long white T-shirt with a long gun on his right side. His mother was next to him, wearing a pink bathrobe. Devinney assumed the officers were dead because they weren't moving and she saw blood.
As Devinney testified, Tranquilli presented a picture of the downed officers to the jury. The picture shows Sciullo, through the door, and Mayhle at the bottom of the porch steps, in a pool of blood. Several family members of the victims looked away when Tranquilli displayed the picture on the large courtroom screen for the jury.
Sciullo's parents and the widows of Mayhle and Kelly are seated in the first row of the courtroom gallery.
Allegheny County 911 call-taker Shannon Basa-Sabol told the jury this morning that she took the initial call from Margaret Poplawski, Richard Poplawski's mother, which precipitated the incident.
Basa-Sabol said Margaret Poplawski called 911 to say she wanted her son out of the house because he came home drunk the night before. When Basa-Sabol asked if there were weapons in the home, Margaret Poplawski said there were but they were all legal and that her son was not threatening her with any of them.
"I told her we'd send an officer and I sent the call to dispatch," Basa-Sabol testified.
When Basa-Sabol relayed the call to the police dispatcher, she typed in "no weapons" because she said her training had taught her that since no weapons were involved in the incident and no one was being threatened it was not necessary.
In the days after the shootings, 911 officials apologized to police for not notifying responding officers about the guns.
Prosecutors released a recording of the 911 call made by Poplawski's mother, Margaret Poplawski, on the morning of the shootings.
Seating is limited in Judge Manning's courtroom and about 60 people, including police officers and court personnel, watched the trial's first minutes via closed-circuit television in a vacant courtroom.
The onlookers watched attentively as Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli laid out his case. Tranquilli told the jury he planned to call about 50 witnesses and present dozens of photographs of the crime scene.
"Fallen heroes and potentially fallen heroes. That's what this case is all about," he said.
Opening statements began with Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli telling the jury, and a packed courtroom, that Richard Poplawski intentionally killed three Pittsburgh police officers.
Assistant Public Defender Lisa Middleman will give her opening statement afterward.
The jury, selected in Dauphin County, has 18 members — 12 who will decide the case and six alternates. Initially Judge Manning ruled that only four alternates who would travel to Pittsburgh but changed his mind. County workers expanded his jury box last week to make room for the extra people.
Six deputy sheriffs led an expressionless Richard Poplawski into court shortly as news photographers and onlookers strained for a look at the accused. Defense attorney Lisa Middleman walked in front of the group.
Poplawski, in shackles with his hands cuffed in front, wore a blue shirt, gray pleated slacks and blue tie. He was clean shaven and his hair is cut short.
About 150 police officers from several departments lined Ross Street this morning outside of the Allegheny County Courthouse standing shoulder to shoulder in the moments before opening statements are scheduled to begin inside.
The line of officers included law enforcement from the city, state police, Ross, Moon and other departments.
Inside the building, security was tight and staff placed a metal detector outside the third-floor courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. A line of reporters and police officers formed early to get in the courtroom.
Republished with permission of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review