Year later, slain Pa. officers' families, comrades struggle

Officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle, and Paul J. Sciullo II were ambushed and killed April 4, 2009

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

PITTSBURGH — After her children go to bed, Marena Kelly sometimes sits and stares at the computer screen, quietly crying.

Shandra Mayhle concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to make it through each day for her two young girls.

A plaque honoring the three officers is at the Zone 5 police station.
A plaque honoring the three officers is at the Zone 5 police station.

Sue Sciullo hears the voice of her son echoing through her mind and holds onto it, fearing the day she forgets what he sounded like will mean he's really gone.

A year after Pittsburgh's deadliest day for law enforcement, the families, friends and colleagues of the late Officers Eric G. Kelly, 41, Stephen J. Mayhle, 29, and Paul J. Sciullo II, 36, still struggle. For them, every day is April 4, 2009.

"This is a life-altering event, not only for the families of the slain officers, but for the people they worked with," said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of the Missouri-based Concerns of Police Survivors organization, which hosts seminars and workshops for relatives and co-workers of slain officers.

"As long as there is someone there who remembers the incident, the agency will never truly recover from this. They may continue to serve and protect, but they'll never forget. They join to serve and protect, not hurt and die," Sawyer said.

Police said Richard Poplawski, 22, of Stanton Heights came home from a night of drinking and argued with his mother. She was angry that Poplawski's dog urinated on the floor.

Margaret Poplawski called police. She opened the front door when Sciullo and Mayhle arrived, telling them to "come and take his ass," according to a criminal complaint filed in the case.

When the officers were about 10 feet inside, Poplawski opened fire. Both officers died instantly.

"What the hell have you done?" Margaret Poplawski said before fleeing to the basement.

Over the next four hours, her son exchanged fire with police. Kelly died trying to rescue Mayhle and Sciullo.

"Three people died because a dog (urinated) on a carpet. How do you make sense of that?" Sawyer said.

The effort to help officers cope began when "shots were still being fired" on Fairfield Street in Stanton Heights that beautiful spring morning, said Patricia Morgan, who heads the Police Officer Support Team.

The 24 team members -- all are officers except Morgan, a retired nursing supervisor -- immediately began talking to officers at the scene.

They spent the following days visiting every police station, on every shift, talking to officers about their grief, Morgan said. Many officers reported then -- and some still do -- that they weren't sleeping well, were having nightmares, hyper-vigilance, loss of appetite and depression, Morgan said.

"We tell them that these are all very normal symptoms of grieving," Morgan said. "They will get through this by closing ranks and having each others' backs."

Though it goes against their training and instinct, the officers must learn to express their feelings, not "stuff it down" as so many cops are used to, Sawyer said.

"How do you 'feel'? That's a four-letter word for a police officer," Sawyer said. "They're trained to stuff it and move on, stuff it and move on. But stuffing it leads to infidelity, risk-taking, alcohol abuse, prescription drug abuse -- even suicide. And it breaks up families."

The reminders of that day are everywhere.

At the Zone 5 station on Washington Boulevard where the three worked, a large black-and-gold "Fightin' 5th" banner adorns the front of the building. Three small stone monuments to the fallen officers greet visitors.

Stickers, wreaths, photos, a hand-painted mural and drawings memorializing the officers can be found throughout the station. The mailboxes and lockers of each slain officer remain untouched.

Lt. Kevin Kraus became acting commander in the zone in July when then-Cmdr. Larry Ross retired.

"There were obvious signs of grief with the officers in Zone 5 from losing a co-worker, shiftmate and friend," Kraus said. "It's been a very tough year for all of these officers. We've had to address some issues with grief, and these matters have to be handled with great sensitivity."

The officers continue to do their jobs, he said, in spite of "having seen the very real dangers first-hand."

"I don't think anyone puts it out of their mind," Kraus said. "Anytime a call comes out for a domestic -- especially a mother-son domestic -- every officer in this city thinks about the tragic events on April 4."

Officers didn't want to speak on the record. But in dozens of interviews, officers said they think about Kelly, Mayhle and Sciullo every time they pin on their badges. At the same time, they have to minimize what happened, in order to do their jobs.

Pittsburgh officers were reminded throughout the year about the dangers of their profession.

Six months after the Stanton Heights deaths, a gunman killed Penn Hills police Officer Michael Crawshaw just five miles away.

In December, Zone 5 Officer Caytlin Wood was carjacked at gunpoint while sitting in her personal vehicle.

In January, State Police Trooper Paul Richey was gunned down in Venango County.

In March, Pittsburgh police Officer Janine Triolo shot and killed a robbery suspect after he nearly beat her to death. She is recovering from a shattered eye socket, detached retina and other injuries.

"It is only by the grace of God that we have made it through another year," police Chief Nate Harper said.

Sciullo's father, Max Sciullo of Bloomfield, said officers regularly stop by to check on the families of their fallen comrades. He said he hopes the tragedy would compel the public to see officers in a different light.

"If you take them away, there is nothing to separate us from evil," he said. "That's all there is between us and anarchy -- that thin blue line. ... I just wish something good would come from this."

For months, the public response to the deaths was overwhelming. Thousands of people bought memorial T-shirts and stickers for their vehicles, donated to the Fallen Heroes Fund, organized hockey games, golf and ski outings in memory of the officers. Two days after the killings, a well-dressed man driving a BMW walked into the Hill District police station and handed officers an envelope containing ten $100 bills, saying it was an anonymous donation to the fund.

The fund brought in about $1.1 million, said Chuck Hanlon, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 police union.

"The outpouring of support from thousands and thousands of people was so overwhelming that it's something I carry with me, and I will take it to my grave," said FOP President Dan O'Hara.

But public support, just a year later, has waned, O'Hara said.

"These officers feel very judged right now, and very maligned," Morgan said.

The turn in tide stems from a January incident in Homewood. Three white plainclothes officers arrested an unarmed black teenager after a chase and fight.

Federal and city officials are investigating the incident, which drew widespread attention. The suspect, Jordan Miles, 18, an honors student at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts center, claims he was brutalized without cause.

The officers, assigned to a task force to rid high-crime communities of drugs and illegal guns, contend Miles began running when they confronted him.

The officers who watch over Zone 5 are among Pittsburgh's busiest. The zone encompasses all or part of 14 neighborhoods, from the working-class, predominantly Italian-American Bloomfield, past multimillion-dollar homes in Highland Park, to the deadliest blocks of blighted Homewood.

Officers feel as though the public is condemning them, and that they must add the fear of lawsuits and public criticism to their list of worries, O'Hara said.

In Stanton Heights, neighbors yearn for normalcy.

Boards cover the doors and windows of the Poplawskis' red brick, ranch-style home. Another board screwed into the front door carries the message: "No trespassing by order of Pittsburgh Police." A padlocked side door bears a notice indicating the utilities were shut off.

A hole remains in the front walkway where investigators cut away a piece of blood-soaked concrete for evidence. Bullet holes scar the facade.

City inspectors in April cited Margaret Poplawski with several building code violations. A judge later ordered that no one can live in the home until its owner acquires permits and makes repairs.

In September, JP Morgan Chase Bank filed court papers to foreclose on the property, claiming Margaret Poplawski defaulted on mortgage payments. The case is pending.

When asked about the shootings, most neighbors politely but firmly decline to talk about it.

Those who do speak wonder what will become of the house.

"You'd rather see someone in it than for it to remain empty," said Cara Moody, who lives on Oglethorpe Street, a block away. "But me, personally, I couldn't move in there."

A neighbor raking leaves in her yard last week cried at the mention of the shootings.

"I don't think it will ever be normal here again," she said, declining to give her name. "The police left, the media left, but we're here every day, and we have to see it every day."

She noted birds singing in a tree nearby: "It was a day like this. It was beautiful. ... I just hope the world has a yin and yang. Hopefully, something good comes from what was so tragic."

Copyright 2010 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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