PITTSBURGH,None — Alan Jennings is covering the trial. His updates, along with notes from Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE, will be highlighted in bold text below.
A man being tried on charges he murdered three city police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call was a "coward" who fired extra shots just to make sure the officers were dead, a prosecutor told the jury in opening statements Monday.
VIDEO: Officers, Neighbors Testify During First Day Trial PHOTOS: Sketches From Inside Courtroom, Evidence Photos AUDIO: 911 Call Made By Poplawski's Mother AUDIO: 'There's An Officer On The Ground': Neighbor Calls 911
Richard Poplawski, 24, is charged with killing officers Paul Sciullo II, Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly as they responded to a call about a domestic dispute at his mother's Stanton Heights home in April 2009.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli spoke for about 30 minutes to open what's expected to be a two-week trial before a sequestered jury. The jury, bused to Pittsburgh on Sunday, was selected earlier this month more than 150 miles away in Dauphin County to avoid any prejudice due to pretrial publicity surrounding Poplawski.
Poplawski's mother woke him early on the morning of April 4, 2009, upset because he had failed to let some puppies out of the house before they urinated. When the argument escalated, Margaret Poplawski called 911 and while she mentioned her son had weapons, told the dispatcher they were legal and not "in play" in the dispute, Tranquilli said.
Poplawski donned a ballistic vest and readied three weapons – a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with pellet- and rifled-slug shells, a .357 Magnum and an AK-47 assault rifle, Tranquilli said.
When Sciullo arrived at what police believed was a routine disturbance call, Poplawski killed him with the shotgun then engaged in a gun battle with Mayhle, who was "outgunned" with only his .40-caliber Glock pistol, Tranquilli said. The third officer killed, Kelly, had arrived home -- about two blocks from Poplawski's residence -- after an overnight shift, but went to back up the others when he heard radio calls about the shootings, Tranquilli said.
"He never even got out of his SUV. Richard Poplawski was waiting for him on the high ground," Tranquilli said, noting how Poplawski fired on the officers, and at least nine others who responded to the shooting, from his house near the end of a dead-end street.
Allegheny County chief medical examiner Dr. Karl Williams testified Monday night that Officer Kelly was shot three times in his SUV, before he even got out.
Kelly was shot a total of seven times. Dr. Williams said one shot was the "most lethal," hitting Kelly's kidney, liver, diaphram and right lung.
"This wound was almost inevitably fatal," Williams testified.
An EMS crew chief also testified Monday night, saying after arriving on the scene in Stanton Heights, he had to wait 43 minutes until Kelly's body could be brought to him.
The EMS chief said he "tried to get an IV started, but that was impossible." He said Kelly "bled to death."
Several neighbors took the stand on Monday. At least one of the neighbors told the jury that he saw Poplawski shoot one of the officers.
"I watched Poplawski shoot off Mayhle after he was down, pop, pop, pop, and saw officer Kelly bleed out on the street. It was like a shooting gallery," neighbor Alfred Lejpras said.
Another neighbor said she took photographs of the scene from the second story of her home. An audio recording of her 911 call was played for jurors. Click Here to listen to the call.
Pittsburgh police Officer Wade Sarver testified that he was one of the first to arrive at the scene and took cover behind a tree. Sarver told the judge that he fired his .40 caliber semi-automatic gun, and struck Poplawski as he fired shots at Kelly, who was already down.
"I believe I hit him [Poplawski] because the shooting stopped giving off and [we] had time to pull Kelly behind his SUV," Sarver said.
Officer Timothy McManaway also took the stand. He said that he tried saving Officer Kelly, who asked him to tell his wife and kids that he loved them.
"I said, "You're going to have to tell them yourself. You're going to have to get through this," McManaway said through tears on the witness stand. "I tried to get him to fight and be angry. I knew he lost a lot of blood and was going into shock."
Poplawski faces three umbrella counts of criminal homicide, and could face the death penalty if the jury decides any or all of the shootings rise to first-degree murder.
He's also charged with nine counts each of attempted murder and assault on law officers for allegedly shooting at other police, as well as lesser charges.
Public defender Lisa Middleman told the jury some witnesses and physical evidence will contradict the police version of events and even suggested without elaborating that prosecutors haven't accounted for the actions of Poplawski's mother. Margaret Poplawski has not been charged and prosecutors have not suggested she aided her son in any way.
Middleman told the jury Tranquilli was wrongly injecting emotion into the trial by repeatedly referring to the dead officers as "fallen heroes" and accusing Poplawski of cowardice after Tranquilli said, "Richard Poplawski decided to shoot each one of (the dead officers) where they lay, just to make sure" they were dead.
Tranquilli also warned the jury to disregard evidence that SWAT officers hit Sciullo with "friendly fire" when they fired back at Poplawski, because that happened "after he (Sciullo) was already dead."
"This case is not about you deciding if these men were fallen heroes. This case isn't about whether he (Poplawski) is a coward," Middleman said. "This case is about whether the prosecution has enough evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."
Tranquilli said Poplawski's statements to police and negotiators will reveal a racist bent.
Tranquilli said Poplawski used racial slurs when he spoke to police and acted "almost as if he was proud of what he had done. It was his one chance to make the history books," Tranquilli said. Officer Kelly was black.
Middleman warned the jury, which includes two black men, that the prosecution's burden of proof "is not any less because they want to throw racial epithets at you at the start of the case so you will despise the defendant."
UPDATE: 4:00 p.m. - 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."
UPDATE: 3:15 P.M. - 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."
UPDATE: 3:03 p.m. - Neighbor Michelle Ostrowski testified she took pictures from her second floor bedroom during the shooting. Her screaming and breathless horror recorded by 911 was played in court.
UPDATE: 2:57 p.m. - Pittsburgh police Officer Wade Sarver testified that he was one of the first to arrive at the scene and took cover behind a tree. Sarver told the judge that he fired his .40 caliber semi-automatic gun, and struck Poplawski as he fired shots at Kelly, who was already down.
"I believe I hit him [Poplawski] because the shooting stopped giving off and [we] had time to pull Kelly behind his SUV," Sarver said.
UPDATE: 12:20 p.m. - Judge Manning announced a lunch break. The case is set to resume at 1:25 p.m.
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.
The 911 audio recording was also played in court.
Margaret Poplawski: "Get up, and get out. I want him out."
Dispatcher: "OK. Does he have any weapons or anything?"
Margaret Poplawski: "Yes. They're all legal."
Dispatcher: "What does he, OK. He's not threatening you with anything?"
UPDATE: 11:50 a.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.
UPDATE: 11:35 a.m. - 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.
UPDATE: 10:30 a.m. - Prosecutor Mark Tranquilli called Poplawski a coward who gunned down three officers in cold blood. Officers were called to the Stanton Heights home after Poplawski's mother called to get him out of the house during an argument over puppies "tinkling" on the floor.
Poplawski heard his mother call 911. He proceeded to dress himself in a ballistic vest, loaded a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs and buckshot, loaded his .357 magnum revolver and put it in his leg holster. He loaded his AK-47 and waited for the officers to show up, Tranquilli said.
Officer Paul Sciullo was hit immediately with a shotgun blast, Tranquilli said. When Sciullo was down, Poplawski shot him again to make sure he was dead, the prosecutor said.
Officer Stephen Mayhle arrived and engaged Poplawski in a gun a battle that raged throughout the house, according to testimony. Poplawski's bulletproof vest stopped Mayhle's .40 caliber rounds.
Tranquilli told the jury they will play 911 tapes of Poplawski talking to negotiators where he jokes about what he did. Tranquilli told the jury the defense will try to tell them that Sciullo was hit with friendly fire, but the truth is it was after he was already dead.
Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.
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