Poplawski's teen trouble deepens into alienation, anger

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/April 8, 2009

By 16, Richard "Pop" Poplawski had been asked to leave North Catholic High School and was taking his first steps into an adult vagabond's life — failing to remain employed in Western Pennsylvania and Florida, accused of savagely beating his girlfriend and becoming increasingly radicalized by white supremacist propaganda.

His downward spiral culminated Saturday when, police say, he bolted from an arsenal he kept in his mother's house at 1016 Fairfield St. in Stanton Heights, to fatally shoot three Pittsburgh police officers and wound another. A fifth officer broke his leg in a fall during the standoff that followed.

As a boy, Poplawski lived with his parents, Richard A. and Margaret, in a house on Coleridge Street in Stanton Heights.

As he grew up, relatives recalled young Richard Poplawski as moody, sometimes depressed and dogged by fears that he was being victimized by an unfair world he couldn't control. Only now, they say, are they beginning to understand the depths of his alienation and anger.

"There were two Richards, the one we thought we knew, and the one we learned about later," said Margaret's cousin, Jean Devine of Natrona Heights.

Pittsburgh police say that in 2003 Poplawski, then 16, filed a claim as a victim of harassment and threats by an unspecified Stanton Heights neighbor. No charges resulted. That same year, Pittsburgh police charged him with smoking in the annex building of North Catholic High School. According to Poplawski's family and friends, he dropped out of North Catholic but later earned a high school equivalency degree.

North Catholic officials declined to discuss Poplawski's behavioral problems there.

"He did attend North Catholic, and our administrators talked to his parents his junior year and suggested he leave the school. He did leave his junior year. We cannot comment on grades or on disciplinary actions," said North Catholic President Frank Orga.

On Dec. 13, 2004, Poplawski enlisted in the Marine Corps, but he was administratively discharged 23 days later, according to Department of Defense records. He later told pals and his girlfriend, Melissa Gladish of Verona, that he was kicked out after scuffling with a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C. Marine spokespeople in Quantico, Va., and Parris Island declined to comment.

In 2005, Gladish filed for a domestic abuse protection order against Poplawski. She said he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her. He was never charged, and Gladish said she avoided him for the next four years.

In 2006, Poplawski moved briefly to Palm Beach County, Fla., to work on a crew that cut and installed glass.

In Florida, he seemed to become increasingly radicalized by online discussions with white supremacists. Posting under the name "RichP" on Internet white-power sites such as "Stormfront" in 2006 and later as "Braced for Fate," Poplawski believed that Jews had taken over the federal government and that America was devolving into a "police state."

Records show Poplawski returned to Pittsburgh in 2007 but rarely held a job for long, friends and family said. He continued posting on white supremacist Internet sites, often displaying his chest tattoo of a German "iron eagle" popular with a Pennsylvania skinhead group he met online. He told "Stormfront" members on Oct. 28, 2007, that he liked living in the "gun-friendly" state of Pennsylvania and discussed buying assault rifles and handguns.

"Online, he comes across as a loner. He has a few close friends, maybe, but not much beyond that. He's a lurker online, but he's developing a more radical worldview," said Mark Pitcavage, an investigator for the Anti-Defamation League who produced a profile of Poplawski by tracking his avatars across Web sites.

"He's interested in conspiracies. He sees America on the verge of collapse, and he thinks the nation is in deep trouble. He's developing anti-government, anti-police ideas, and he's vowing to increase his activism while stockpiling ammunition and weapons."

John de Nugent, 54, of Sarver in Butler County, is organizing a white separatist movement in Western Pennsylvania and knows skinheads who attended the fourth annual "Uprise" concert. He doubts Poplawski mingled with them. De Nugent said he and other leaders in the white-power movement are distancing themselves from Poplawski, a man he calls a "loathsome, psychotic creep" because he allegedly killed three officers.

"The one thing we don't want is a war with police," said de Nugent, who ran a write-in campaign for president in 2008.

According to Poplawski's friends, the election of President Obama convinced him that the "Zionist" federal government would soon move to seize his growing arsenal of guns and ammo. But others insisted that Poplawski rarely spewed racist or anti-Semitic hate and considered the weapons cache to be a quirky hobby.

"For the last couple of years, pretty much he was chillin' with us," said Aaron Vire, 23, of Homewood. "He liked to watch the Pirates and the Penguins, but he also was always looking for a job."

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