A gunman wearing a bulletproof vest and “lying in wait” opened fire on officers responding to a domestic disturbance call Saturday, killing three of them and turning a quiet Pittsburgh street into a battlefield, police said.
Police Chief Nate Harper said the motive for the shooting isn’t clear, but friends said the gunman recently had been upset about losing his job and feared the Obama administration was poised to ban guns.
Richard Poplawski, 23, met officers at the doorway and shot two of them in the head immediately, Harper said. An officer who tried to help the two also was killed.
Poplawski, armed with an assault rifle and two other guns, then held police at bay for four hours as the fallen officers were left bleeding nearby, their colleagues unable to reach them, according to police and witnesses. More than 100 rounds were fired by the SWAT teams and Poplawski, Harper said.
The three slain officers were Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo III. Kelly had been on the force for 14 years, Mayhle and Sciullo for two years each. Another officer was shot in the hand and a fifth broke his leg on a fence.
Poplawski had gunshot wounds in his legs but was otherwise unharmed because he was wearing a bulletproof vest, Harper said. He was charged with three counts of homicide, aggravated assault and a weapons violation.
The shooting occurred just two weeks after four police officers were fatally shot in Oakland, Calif., in the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. The officers were the first Pittsburgh city officers to die in the line of duty in 18 years.
“This is a solemn day and it’s a very sad day in the city of Pittsburgh,” Harper said. “We’ve seen this kind of violence happen in California. We never would think this kind of violence would happen in the city of Pittsburgh.”
At 7 a.m., Sciullo and Mayhle responded to a 911 call from Poplawski’s mother, who remained holed up in the basement during the entire dispute and escaped unharmed, Harper said.
When they arrived at the home, Sciullo was immediately shot in the head. Mayhle, who was right behind him, was also shot in the head.
“It appears he was lying in wait for the officers,” Harper said.
Kelly, who was on his way home after completing his overnight shift when he heard the call for help, rushed to the scene and was killed trying to help Sciullo and Mayhle, Harper said. SWAT teams and other officers arrived and were immediately fired on as well.
Friend: Suspect feared ‘gun ban’
Don Sand, who lives across the street from Poplawski, said he was woken up by the sound of gunfire. Hunkering down behind a wall in his home, he saw the first two officers go down and then saw Kelly get shot.
“They couldn’t get the scene secure enough to get to them. They were just lying there bleeding,” Sand said. “By the time they secured the scene enough to get to them it was way too late.”
Poplawski feared “the Obama gun ban that’s on the way” and “didn’t like our rights being infringed upon,” said Edward Perkovic, his best friend.
Perkovic, 22, said he got a call at work from him in 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.”
Poplawski had once tried to join the Marines, but was kicked out of boot camp after throwing a food tray at a drill sergeant, Perkovic said.
Another longtime friend, Aaron Vire, said Poplawski feared that President Barack Obama was going to take away his rights, though he said he “wasn’t violently against Obama.”
Vire, 23, said Poplawski once had an Internet talk show but that it wasn’t successful. He said Poplawski owned an AK-47 rifle and several powerful handguns, including a .357 Magnum.
Obama has said he respects Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms, but that he favors “common sense” gun laws. Gun rights advocates interpret that as meaning he would approve of curbs on ownership of assault and concealed weapons.
Suspect reportedly was out of work
Poplawski had been laid off from his job at a glass factory earlier this year, said another friend, Joe DiMarco. DiMarco said he didn’t know the name of the company, but knew his friend had been upset about it.
The last Pittsburgh police officers killed in the line of duty were Officers Thomas L. Herron and Joseph J. Grill, according to a Web site that tracks police killings. They died after their patrol car collided with another vehicle while chasing a stolen car on March 6, 1991.
In 1995, an off-duty officer was shot with his own gun after he confronted a group of teenagers about graffiti. Tests later showed the officer had been drinking.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 133 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2008, a 27 percent decrease from year before and the lowest annual total since 1960.
Poplawski had often fought with neighbors and had even gotten into fist fights with a couple, Sand said.
“This is a relatively really quiet neighborhood except for him,” Sand said. “He was just one of those kids that we knew to stay clear from.”
Harper confirmed police had responded to calls from the Poplawski house several times but said the incidents were still being investigated.
Rob Gift, 45, who lives a block away, said the well-kept single-family houses with manicured lawns are home to many police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other city workers.
“It’s just a very quiet neighborhood,” Gift said.